A Message from God in the Atomic Age by Irene Vilar (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

Image result for a message from god in the atomic ageI could have chosen this book for the title alone, but its acquisition was more about securing myself a more diverse range of voices than that currently available in my library. Which is an admission that I bought this book, quite recently, despite my book buying ban and my many efforts to find sufficiency in my unread books. For once, though, the purchase was not an impulse. I realised that if I was going to manage to continue to slow the pace of reading and work my way through my extensive TBR list I needed to maintain some pockets of diversity to which I could turn in moments of need. Or that’s how I’ve justified it to myself anyway. In this case I’m very pleased I allowed myself this little lapse because it is a wonderful read.

A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a memoir written by Irene Vilar, a Puerto Rican writer who also happens to be the granddaughter of the Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron, a national hero to many. Lebron is famous for having, with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, entered the US House of Representatives and opened fire from the gallery, an event in which five were wounded though none killed. Lebron was sentenced to 56 years in prison, of which she served a total of 25 before being pardoned by President Carter. Whilst the act was violent and intended to threaten, Lebron had no intention to kill. Her expectation was that she would, herself, be killed in the attack, becoming a martyr for the Puerto Rican nationalist cause. Her intention was explained in a note she had written herself and carried in her purse which read “My life I give for the freedom of my country”, her expectation was death and self-sacrifice for a free Puerto Rico. Vilar describes, quite beautifully, the scene as Lebron mounts the stairs of the Capitol expecting to meet her end:

“In the afternoon, Lolita is climbing the steps of the Capitol with her three companions. Holding on to her gold-crested purse, which must have showed up sharply against the starched skirt, she advances, step by step. In the purse she carries a gun and a letter that she herself wrote in English. It is a cry of conflicting voices, humble and arrogant, that she hears and answers. But before we may know anything more of those voices, we must wait. Right now she has everything to lose and nothing to regret. Now the only thing that exists is the steps, the scenes of her life that must be passing before her eyes, before and after, obsessive, like a film now that she can’t do anything else but go forward, climb those steps, one after another and another – how many more? Hundreds, a thousand, the whole colonial past of America was there, its cruelties, echoing at each step, unchanged, unforgotten: Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti…and, of course, Puerto Rico, one of Spain’s first New World colonies, one of America’s last.”

 

Lebron & her compatriots being arrested

 

But this is not just a story of the famous Lolita Lebron, rather it is the story of three generations of women, each of whom carried death in their souls. Vilar’s own story is the crux around which the rest of the story flows. When we join Vilar, she is being committed to a mental institution in Syracuse after having attempted suicide. Vilar had moved to the US to study, but isolation, poverty, and a sense of disconnection all led her to attempt to take her own life. Or perhaps that’s a simplistic way to look at it, because there is no leading here, no certain path, instead we follow Vilar’s attempts to unpick the threads of her life which led her to committal. This inevitably includes her own grandmother’s apparent death-wish, the steps that led her to abandon her small daughter and pursue the nationalistic path, sacrificing her life to the idea of freedom, as well as Vilar’s own mother, Gladys, the abandoned child of a famous, revolutionary mother, who herself took her life by suicide when Vilar was only eight years old. For her mother had jumped to her death from a moving car, a car in which Irene was riding in the back seat, knowing something was wrong and knowing there was nothing she could do about it. She watched her mother tumble to her death, and then carried the ghost of it, the ghosts of all the women that had entered her life, around with her in a life which grew increasingly transient.

What follows is both moving and beautiful, unsettling and compelling. Vilar extrapolates her mother’s story, the way in which her life was affected by the abandonment by Lebron, the difficult marriage, the ongoing battle with depression and self-destructive tendencies. These tendencies Vilar seems to have inherited, whether by blood or by exposure. Vilar’s own descriptions of her feelings, her experiences, the confusion and the disconnection that arose during the lead up to her suicide attempt and subsequent time in the institution are extraordinary, creating a genuine sense of something off, something irreconcilable, she feels herself a creature, a thing, a non-person. One can only wonder if this, too, is how her mother felt:

“As if born out of the hospital colors, that larval feeling began, a small, curled-up creature that the mirror was giving back to me. An anomalous creature, somebody who had been given pills to take. It was clear that I was that somebody and that something in my body had broken down. The orderlies straightened up the bent thing; it walked. I thought they were taking me to an operating room, to cure me, to remove death from inside me, to id me of the ghosts, the ones I imagined I’d eluded by coming to Syracuse. They were going to give me back the joy of living. But instead they led me into an elevator and brought me to a room where a bright white light shone over a woman who was also dressed in white, sitting at a desk with my belongings…”

And then there’s Lebron. After Gladys’s suicide Lebron is permitted back to Puerto Rico to attend the funeral. Here we see Lolita the hero, but also Lolita the grandmother and Lolita the absent mother, absent by choice rather than compulsion. There’s a sense that eight year old Vilar cannot reconcile the woman who is her grandmother with the legend who attracts both supporters and detractors. In her time in prison, Lebron had become increasingly religious. The compelling title ‘A Message from God in the Atomic Age’ is the title of a collection of poems written by Lebron whilst in prison after what she believed was a vision from God. Lebron increasingly withdrew, confusing her supporters with her religious fervour which didn’t fit with the left-wing idealism displayed by her act. Vilar herself is both confused and intrigued by her grandmother better able, perhaps, to separate the idol from the flawed yet idealistic woman who may, or may not, have been the source of Vilar’s mother’s suffering.

A Message from God in the Atomic Age is a stunning and absorbing book, beautifully written, meandering and yet at times shattering with painful clarity. The entanglement between these three women, the impact they had on each other’s lives, the consequences of the actions of one on the behaviour of another, is quite stunning at times. The depiction, when it comes, of Gladys’s death is painful and horrifying to read, and it is hard to imagine being an eight year old girl clinging desperately to a mother who wants nothing more than to end, for everything to end, to know that your love and need for them is simply not enough. Vilar is unsentimental about her own mental illness, she does not try to explain nor justify it, as she should not (I’m never quite sure why we imagine we can think ourselves out of mental illness, any more than we can think a broken leg better), neither does she blame or try to attribute blame. She sees her experience, the experience of her mother and her grandmother before her as a complex interweaving of events which entangle them and, to an extent, condemn them to suffer similar fates. I’m not sure by the end that she had either closure or clarity, but the journey, her attempts to untangle the mingled threads, is as beautiful as it is revealing and I, for one, feel enriched by having read it.

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Dreams of Trespass (Tales of a Harem Girlhood) by Fatima Mernissi

I feel a bit weighed down by North American writers at the moment. The last 3 books I’ve read have been by North American writers and having done a little audit of my TBRs there’s a glut of North American writers in there thanks, I think, to my penchant for reading more diversely meaning that the North Americans often get left for later. Not that I’m complaining exactly (I guess I’m complaining a little bit) because all the books I have to read look to be excellent books by excellent writers irrespective of their origins, but it’s a little troubling how many of them there are. Well I’m going to have to read them all soon, but for the moment I thought I’d try something completely different and finally get around to this lovely little book that’s been sitting on my shelf since last year when I sent out a plea for works of non-fiction written by women of colour and someone lovely recommended this: Dreams of Trespass – Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi. Mernissi was born in 1940 in Morocco, during the time of the French occupation, and she lived in a harem in the city of Fez. This is the story of her childhood there, up to an age of around ten years old when she stopped being a child and started to become a woman. Harems are more complicated matters than those of us of Western extraction might imagine; when I think of a harem I think of a collection of women married to, or enslaved to, a single master or husband, kept in isolation in sexual servitude. My husband, too, asked in a very coy way what ‘that book is about exactly’, no doubt thinking a similar thing – a book about lots of female sex toys and sexual exploits. But, of course, it is not that straightforward. That, Mernissi tells us, is a version of a Turkish harem, the kind that has entranced and excited Western minds since the Ottoman empire, but it is one version of a harem only, and Mernissi’s own investigations as a child uncovered a complex web of ideas and forms that made up a Moroccan harem. It could not be reduced to just one thing.

“CousinImage result for dreams of trespass Samir, who sometimes accompanied Uncle and Father on their trips, said that to create a frontier, all you need is soldiers to force others to believe in it. In the landscape itself, nothing changes. The frontier is in the mind of the powerful. I could not go and see this for myself because Uncle and Father said that a girl does not travel. Travel is dangerous and women can’t defend themselves. Autn Habiba, who had been cast off and sent away suddenly for no reason by a husband she loved dearly, said that Allah had sent the Northern armies to Morocco to punish the men for violating the hudud protecting women. When you hurt a woman you are violating Allah’s sacred frontier. It is unlawful to hurt the weak. She cried for years.”

In Mernissi’s case the harem is a home with an extended family, all living together, in which the women live in seclusion. This means they are unable to leave the house at their choice, though they can leave in certain circumstances if accompanied by a man. Those circumstances, however, are extremely limited – perhaps to visit a family member, or the mosque, or the weekly visit to the local baths. This is one version of a harem, though even for Mernissi it is not her only experience. For if she visits her grandmother Yasmina who lives in a harem at a farm in the countryside, what she finds there is that the women are permitted to leave, yet only within certain limits. The women are free to keep a garden, to climb trees and ride horses. In Yasmina’s harem, however, there are multiple co-wives whereas in her home harem the men have only one wife. It is a situation which both fascinates and absorbs her childhood self, possibly her adult self too, the question of how these boundaries form, how they keep women in and why. As she says: “looking for the frontier has become my life’s occupation. Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organising my powerlessness.”

Young Mernissi tries to uncover what it is that makes the harem. Why are men free to come and go whilst women are kept hidden in seclusion? Her mother in particular suffers from such a confined and suffocating existence and insists that her daughter will have a freer and more fulfilling life. She explores the concepts of boundaries, of the mechanisms that keep some people in and allow others seemingly limitless freedom. Her birth comes at a time when things in the Arab world are changing. Feminists in Egypt are throwing off the veil and harems are being declared illegal across the Arab nations. In Morocco there are signs that the environment is changing. Women are wearing Western clothes and walking more freely around the French parts of the city. Yet in Mernissi’s house, the women remain confined and torn between those who value the tradition and seclusion and those that desire the right to be free, to come and go as they choose and do more than simply cooking and washing and cleaning and imagining a more exciting and fulfilling life. Mernissi asks the women around her about the harem, about what it means and how it exists and why women are not free. Her grandmother Yasmina offers one answer here:

 “The world, Yasmina said, was not concerned about being fair to women. Rules were made in such a manner as to deprive them in some way or another. For example, she said, both men and women worked from dawn until very late at night. But men made money and women did not. That was one of the invisible rules. And when a woman worked hard, and was not making money, she was stuck in a harem, even though she could not see its walls. “Maybe the rules are ruthless because they are not made by women,” was Yasmina’s final comment. “But why aren’t they made by women?” I asked. “The moment women get smart and start asking that very question,” she replied, “instead of dutifully cooking and washing dishes all the time, they will find a way to change the rules and turn the whole planet upside down.””

Though Mernissi is focused on the frontiers and boundaries that the women desire to, and sometimes do, trespass, she also offers us a rich vision of harem life. The women, whilst curtailed in their movements, have discovered many ways to make life interesting and fulfilling and to bring richness to their experiences and dreams. Their situation may seem hopeless, but they do not lose hope. They put on plays, they tell stories, they share with each other the stories of women from fiction, from history and from the present whose lives and exploits show that women can be brave and powerful, ingenious and innovative. It’s most certainly the case that the Arabian princesses have more teeth and a richer life experience than those most popular from Western tradition. There are no Sleeping Beauties or Rapunzels, waiting passively for their princes to make their lives complete and meaningful. Instead there is Scheherazade, the strategist and imaginative genius who saves herself and hundreds of other women from being deflowered and beheaded in the same night. There   is Princess Budur who, after her husband mysteriously disappears, takes on his identity to fool his men and protect herself from being sexually assaulted. Her act is so convincing that she even ends up marrying another princess to maintain the ruse. In real life there is Asmahan, a woman who became a singer and actress, who lived for herself and for her sensual pleasure. So many women, in fact, and so many stories that I felt I needed to acquaint myself with them in more detail. One can never have too many heroes.

In Mernissi’s case her heroes were the women of her family. She describes them and their joys and trials with such fondness, such love and such joy that they became very real (and most wonderful) to me. At times I could almost forget that they spent their lives in enforced isolation, without the freedom to go shopping, or learn about the world, to even pick a flower from the pavement outside their door. Mernissi’s description of them all is vivid, soulful and humane. She truly expresses hanan, something she describes as a free-flowing, easy going, unconditional available tenderness. This abundance of tenderness makes this a truly pleasurable read, it is rich and vivid, the women, so curtailed in their own lives, are offered another existence through these pages. Each woman has an extraordinary story. Despite their proscribed life they break rules, expand their limits, they suffer sadness and joy and they make each other’s lives both bearable, and in some cases, unbearable. They find opportunity to expand their horizons through embroidery and storytelling, they imagine a world which is much better and bigger and more amazing than anything that exists in real life and they believe that hope is possible when everything they experience tells them otherwise. They may have lived secluded lives, but they remain inspirational. It is evident what an influence they had on young Fatima and how important their stories – both the ones they told and the ones they lived – became.

Dreams of Trespass is a wonderful book. It is soulful and tender and beautifully written. I found myself inspired, appalled and amazed by the lives these women led. I’ve learned so much about Moroccan life, about the nature of limits and frontiers – how much is imposed and how much we carry within us – and the ways in which we can comply with the rules, bend them and break them. I am so glad that Mernissi shared the story of her family life. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to live your life behind walls, having committed no crime nor any transgression barring being born with a particular bodily configuration. But Mernissi allows the women of her childhood to escape, to fly, to expand beyond their imposed boundaries. They may not have been allowed the opportunity in real life, but for the last week or so those women have been with me, here, hundreds of miles away in the chilly North; they’ve followed me on the train, they’ve given me solace in my workplace and they’ve shared the warmth of my living room, my cosy chairs and my bitter, unpleasant tea. I only wish they could have done it for real.

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A new blog

When I started out trying to read fewer books what I was really trying to do was to give myself some space in which to figure out what I really want to do with my life. Hey, I’m 42 and the time is right for that mid-life crisis in which you realise everything you’ve ever done is meaningless and that time is running out and you’ve never achieved anything or done anything decent. Well, it’s not quite that bad, but the important point is that I’ve realised I’ve got into some fairly rigid habits and it’s time to start breaking them and testing them so that I can get a better understanding of what really adds value to my life and what things I do out of habit or politeness and the things I don’t do out of fear or lack of time. So I plan to test some of the things I do out of routine, and also try a few new things and see if all of this activity can help me figure out how to live a more meaningful life. I plan to write about my activities over on a new blog which I’ve called The Life Experiment , I want to share my experiences and learnings and, perhaps, inspire others to try experimenting outside their comfort zones too. If they want to, of course. I’ve found that writing about reading fewer books has helped me make and keep that commitment and I want to commit to living a more experimental life, so I’m hoping maybe some of those people, however many or few, that choose to read it can help to keep me on track. I’d love it if you’d join me, but if not I understand that too. As I found in my first experiment, the world is awash with content right now and perhaps the best thing we can do is limit our access so that we can shut out some of the noise and give ourselves time to breathe and think.

 

 

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Selected Stories by Alice Munro

I don’t like short story collections. I tell myself this all the time. I have a bunch of short story collections in my library and every time I think about picking one up my mind goes ‘ugh’ and I think about all the disjointedness and the effort in moving from one story to another without continuation or common theme and I think ‘no way’ and the short story collection goes back on the shelf unread. This is how I’ve ended up with a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories that’s been unread for several years, and my instinct after Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick was to give myself something a little easier, a little less of a challenge to read, but I’m all about challenging my instincts these days and it felt like confronting my dislike of short stories was the way to go. So after considering and rejecting a number of other possibilities I harnessed my most determined version of myself, picked up my copy of Alice Munro and started reading.

And relax!

Because reading Alice Munro is like finding yourself in the most perfect, most lovely little glade with a pool of water fed by softly flowing waterfalls, warmed by a perfectly angled and channelled sunlight, rimmed by weeping willows and sweet-scented climbing flowers; where the grass is just perfectly warm and perfectly soft and the only sound is birdsong and the gentle rush of water, and somehow you’re entirely alone, unhurried, with nowhere to go. You slip off your clothes and climb into the water, knowing no one will come, no one will disturb you, you are gently held by the water and the warmth and the sounds that fill you with a languid peace that feels like it could last forever. It’s not entirely without danger, nor sexless, nor without violence or betrayal, but it is all delivered in such a soothing, certain and assured voice that you feel cradled by it, enrapt in the surety of a safe pair of hands.

It’s true, Alice Munro is really that good. I was surprised how quickly this became apparent to me. The first story, Walker Brothers Cowboy is an evocation of a childhood spent in a small town and the love of a small girl for her father who is both a mystery and a wonder to her. The setting is unprepossessing and nothing extraordinary happens in the story: her mother has a headache, the girl and her brother go out with their father who sells medicines and tonics for Walker Brothers. There’s a sense the family are down on their luck, but this is not important what is important is that they’re out on the road. Her father visits and old friend. There is dancing. Then they go home, and yet in the course of this something of her father, of his humanity and potential, is revealed to her. It is a moment of transcendence captured so beautifully it takes your breath away.

The next story is called Dance of the Happy Shades, a story which I believe is quite famous and one I’d heard of though never read before. This is the story of Miss Marsalles, the piano teacher. A spinster who lives with her sister, who is also down on her luck having had to move into smaller accommodation. Miss Marsalles holds a recital every year, a chance for her piano pupils to show what they have learned, and though the location has changed the features have not and we follow one of her students and her mother as they attend the latest party, in a house and circumstances too small to be tenable. Here Munro describes both the parties and Miss Marsalles:

“There is a feeling that can hardly be put into words about Miss Marsalles’ parties; things are getting out of hand, anything may happen. There is even a moment, driving into such a party, when the question occurs: will anyone else be there? For one of the most disconcerting things about the last two or three parties has been the widening gap in the ranks o the regulars, the old pupils whose children seem to be the only new pupils Miss Marsalles ever has. Every June reveals some new and surely significant droppings-out. Mary Lambert’s girl no Image result for selected stories alice munrolonger takes; neither does Joan Crimble’s. What does this mean? think my mother and Marg French, women who have moved to the suburbs and are plagued by a feeling that they have fallen behind, that their instincts for doing the right thing have become confused. Piano lessons are not so important now as they once were everybody knows that. Dancing is believed to be more favourable to the development of the whole child – and the children, at least the girls, don’t seem to mind it as much. But how are you to explain that to Miss Marsalles who says, “All children need music. All children love music in their hearts”? It is one of Miss Marsalles’ indestructible beliefs that she can see into children’s hearts, and she finds there a treasury of good intentions and a natural love of all good things. The deceits which her spinster sentimentality has practiced on her original good judgement are legendary and colossal; she has this way of speaking of children’s hearts as if they were something holy; it is hard for a parent to know what to say.”

The sandwiches are curling, the flies are landing on them, few parents turn up but still the recital goes ahead. Miss Marsalles seems to be waiting for someone and eventually a group of children turn up, children who must be Downs Syndrome or something similar, and their presence makes the usually attendees uncomfortable, until one girl plays a song – Dance of the Happy Shades – and the music is a revelation.

There are many wonderful stories in this collection. I particularly enjoyed a set which followed a girl, Rose, and her stepmother Flo who enjoy, if enjoy is the right word, a complex and unusual relationship. There are three of these stories, beginning when Rose is a teenager and ending with her as an older woman, and they present such a complexity of relationship such as is unusual to see in stories written about women. In fact all of the female characters in Munro’s stories are realised with vivid intensity whether they are young girls or old women, married or spinsters, parents or alone. The women work, they find their way, they are lazy and bold, indifferent and manipulative. They are not one thing or another but a wonderful kaleidoscope of features and thoughts and attributes. A later story, called Carried Away, follows a librarian by the name of Louisa, who falls in love in the most peculiar way during the war, a love which becomes, inadvertently, unrequited though it was initiated by the man without her influencing it in any way. Munro develops a tenuous and delicate complexity of feeling which takes a different turn during a storm, which Munro describes wonderfully here:

“Turning out the lights shouldn’t have made it so dark. They were in the middle of summer. But it seemed that heavy rain clouds had moved in. When Arthur had last paid attention to the street, he had seen plenty of daylight left: country people shopping, boys squirting each other at the drinking fountain, and young girls walking up and down in their soft, cheap, flowery summer dresses, letting the young men watch them from wherever the young men congregated – the Post Office steps, the from of the feed store. And now that he looked again he saw the street in an uproar from the loud wind that already carried a few drops of rain. The girls were shrieking and laughing and holding their purses over their heads as they ran to shelter, store clerks were rolling up awnings and hauling in the baskets of fruit, the racks of summer shoes, the garden implements that had been displayed on the sidewalks. The doors of the Town Hall banged as the farm women ran inside, grabbing on to packages and children, to cram themselves into the Ladies’ Rest Room. Somebody tried the Library door. The Librarian looked over at it but did not move. And soon the rain was sweeping like curtains across the street, and the wind battered the Town Hall roof, and tore at the treetops. That roaring and danger lasted a few minutes, while the power of the wind went by. Then the sound left was the sound of the rain, which was now falling vertically and so heavily they might have been under a waterfall.”

We follow Louisa through her disappointment in love to old age, when she’s troubled by a jumpy pulse and a heart condition which confuses her into thinking her original love grew old with her. It is a sweet and tremulous story, full of tension and unfulfilled emotion.

Nothing much happens in any of Munro’s stories, they’re not in any way driven by action or plot. What they do, though, is show a kind of world that is all but forgotten in this information driven, virtual age. The towns she writes about are revealed on the page almost as though you can see them being drawn in front of your eyes. Her descriptions are evocative and precise. A nurse is described as being “a stout woman with corsets as stiff as barrel hoops, marcelled hair the colour of brass candlesticks, a mouth shaped by lipstick beyond its stingy outlines”; young Rose discovering her “a nature was growing like a prickly pineapple, but slowly and secretly, hard pride and scepticism overlapping to make something surprising even to herself.” With very little effort she throws a light on both the external and internal, the seeming effortlessness is both surprising and rewarding and there are moment which are so beautifully written I had to go back and read them over again. There’s something so universal about Munro’s writings, the ordinariness of the world that she conveys drawing out the ‘everywoman’ in us, the small-time revelations that we’ve all experienced in some form in our day to day lives. She coaxes them into the light.

Of course it’s not really true to say I don’t like short stories. I just think I don’t. When I think about it seriously for more than a minute or so I can reel off all the short story collections I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed or found stirring or brilliant – Tove Jansson (of course), Italo Calvino, Cees Nooteboom, Lorrie Moore, Akutagawa, Raymond Carver, Angela Carter. There are far too many to ignore. And after all the difficulty of Moby Dick this book was a fresh breeze on a warm summer’s day, all pleasure and no discomfort and, hopefully, the reminder I needed that I don’t really hate short stories after all.

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My challenge towards the end of the year is to read some of those books I bought with lofty ideals in mind only to place them on my shelf like so much high-brow decoration. When I first conceived of this approach, Moby Dick was the first book I thought of. I bought Moby Dick years ago; I’d like to say I bought Moby Dick because it’s a master work of American literature and I was desperate to read the story of Ahab and his doomed hunt for the infamous white whale, but the fact is that I watched Star Trek First Contact many times and was highly influenced by Patrick Stewart’s masterful quoting of the book. For those (possibly many) among you who have never seen First Contact, the story goes something like this: the Borg attack Earth (the Borg are a race of cybernetic beings comprised of people forced into the collective by means of cybernetic alteration, operating as a hive-mind in which the assimilated are effectively mindless drones). The Enterprise attack the Borg, destroying their cube-shaped ship. The Borg eject an inner ship which is lovely and spherical and which travels through time to alter Earth’s history by preventing the invention of warp drive. The Enterprise follows. The Enterprise is overrun by Borg. Resistance is futile! Captain Picard was once assimilated by the Borg (Locutus of Borg). Captain Picard goes a bit crazy trying to kill all the Borg including his assimilated crew members (Ensign Lynch!). When trying to protect the developing warp ship an Earth woman is injured and brought to the Enterprise. She is called Lily (and she is awesome). When Captain Picard decides that rather than having all their biological and technological distinctiveness added to the Borg’s own his crew should fight to the death or the assimilation, whichever comes first, in a scene which is singularly captivating (for a Star Trek movie) Lily confronts Picard demanding they evacuate and Picard should ‘blow up the damn ship!’. Picard refuses, gets angry and breaks his Enterprise model collection: This far, no further!” he spits. Here Lily retorts: “Captain Ahab gotta go hunt his whale,” in response to which Picard reflects and replies, in his gorgeous well-trained Shakespearean actor’s voice, “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it,” and the whole scene is utterly compelling and memorable and reflective of Star Trek’s many dalliances with Moby Dick and I bought the book shortly afterwards absolutely sure that unlike Lily, who admits post fight “actually I never read it,” that I would certainly read it, then I never did.

Yet this doth no more be true! Avast! Here be the livid tale of monomaniac Ahab and his hunt for that malicious white whale!

I approached Moby Dick with some trepidation, having heard so many conflicting things about it. I have heard it is considered a master work of American literature, but I have also heard tell of its strange digressions into whale-lore and its myriad of spurious information about whaling and whales in general. To my surprise, then, the opening segment of the book is both interesting and compelling, quite an easy read in fact, serving as an introduction to our narrator “Call me Ishmael” and his friendship with the ‘savage’ Queequeg, and how this led them to the Pequod and the strange and disturbing voyage in hunt of the mystical white whale. Ishmael is a naïve and green sort of whaler. He has been to sea before, albeit not on a whaling ship. Queequeg, on the other hand, is an experienced harpooner. Having been thrust together in unusual circumstances at an inn, Ishmael is rather wary of the ‘savage’ Queequeg being fearful of his unusual (to Western minds) ways, but when the cannibalistic Queequeg doesn’t eat him or stab him in his sleep he’s won over and the two become firm friends:

“No more Image result for moby dick book covermy splintered head and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”

Having become friends the two commit to a life of whaling together, and Queequeg foolishly entrusts Ishmael to choose the craft on their behalf. Ishmael signs up for the Pequod having not even met the captain and on decidedly rubbishy terms. Having done so, Queequeg is soon signed up too, and despite some bizarre warnings from a strange and oddly unexplained bystander called Elijah (whose ramblings I never understood and neither, it seems, does Ishmael) the two embark on their voyage. Henceforth matters take a stranger turn. The Captain, whose character has such influence over the lives and wellbeing of his crew, is mysteriously absent and in fact does not appear until around page 100 at which point he inspires his crew to swear an oath to aid him in his hunt for the vicious white whale who tore his leg from him on his last voyage, an act for which Ahab has sworn certain revenge. In examining Ahab’s monomaniacal nature (and that word ‘monomaniac’ appears often), Melville opines thus:

“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Double-triple take, as these are the very lines the temporarily, and rather out of character, monomaniacal Captain Picard speaks but with different words entirely! After a little internet research I find, in fact, that the illustrious and most confident Picard has misquoted and, thus, forever in my eyes stained his otherwise unimpeachable character. I can only infer that his mind was temporarily addled by anti-Borgish rage. Or he read the Klingon translation. Otherwise I can’t account for it.

What follows is a most unusual work of fiction. Those portents of excessive whale-lore and random snippets of information were not entirely inaccurate (read: completely accurate). Over the next several hundred pages the book swings between the story of the voyage of the Pequod and a ‘how to’ guide on whaling. In fact, it’s about 90% how to guide and about 10% story. Thus we learn all about harpoons and the trying room, how to capture whales, what the difference is between Sperm Whales and Right Whales; why whales are fish (this whole chapter was quite funny); the unbearable whiteness of being (not so funny); how to harvest oil from whales; how whales behave; how big whales are; why contemporary whales are no smaller than ancient whales; awesome whalers (Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah and Vishnoo…the latter of which is considered a whaler because legend tells he turned into a whale. Hmm); pitchpoling; the whales’ spout; the whales’ tail; the whales’ enormous battering ram of a head, lots and lots of mentions of sperm. You get the picture, it’s a lot of information about whales. In fact I think it is fair to say that at its heart, Moby Dick is a non-fiction book about whaling with a short story about a man’s maniacal hunt for a whale that, perhaps quite righteously, defended itself from being murdered by a ship-full of men intent on stripping its body of its valuable (to humans, though arguably more so to the whale) oil kind of stretched around it. And in case that’s not a strange enough pairing, there’s a little bit of theatre thrown in as well as Melville tries his hand at a bit of playwrighting now and then. It’s a bit of a strange blend.

As sparse as the story elements are, Moby Dick himself is an even sparser participant in the book, appearing only as myth and legend until the last 30 or so pages, but instead we experience lots of other whales meeting a violent and gory end either as an interlude to the whale-lore calculated to maintain interest, or as a way of introducing more whale-lore. Like here, which led to lots of follow up discussion about the nature of a whale’s eyes and visual acuity:

“As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horrible pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-making of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”

Thus Moby Dick evolves from a textbook about whales with a bit of fictional story-telling and the odd smattering of play-scripting thrown in to a polemic aiming to ennoble the whalers who risk life and limb to keep those gay bridals and churches lit long into the evening. To modern sensibilities this might be a little difficult to swallow for whilst Melville assures his deep certainty that the whales could not be driven to extinction by whaling, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we know better and the ‘noble’ art of whaling is a difficult art to sell. Yet Melville does make an important point which is this: our comforts are bought at a terrible price and perhaps it is important, at least, to understand what that price is. This he lays out in forensic, some might say excessive, detail.

Moby Dick is a strange, strange book. It is long, dense and often difficult to follow. There are large sections of what is pure non-fiction, an instruction manual on whales and the art of whaling wrapped around a short gothic horror story of a man bent on destruction and revenge without a care of who gets caught up in his monomaniacal plan. Ishmael, our promising narrator, appears to be a man without character and who barely acts in the story at all. He is the storyteller, but his role as a participant on the ship is as invisible as a whale’s spout in a thick sea-mist, in fact he is barely there at all. He is, rather, the convenient mouthpiece of Melville, a mechanism through which he can impart his knowledge of whaling. Despite the initial promise in exploring the friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg on land, that all but disappears once they set to sea. Ahab himself barely appears, and when he does his actions are often incomprehensible or presented through strange little expositionary chapters in which Ahab appears to speak to camera, if such a thing existed in Melville’s era. Moby Dick is even more elusive, or perhaps that is the point, perhaps to allow him greater scope to exist in the story would be to throw Ahab’s crazed obsession with revenge into an even more negative light. Of the side characters, the ship’s mate Starbuck is one of the few who have any substance, whilst the other mates – Stubb and Flask – appear to be comic interludes except their drivelling monologues were lost on this modern, non-seafaring reader. In fact whenever Stubb had a chapter devoted to him I was highly tempted to skip it though I didn’t (but much was largely lost on me anyway).

Despite these many criticisms, Moby Dick is also a weirdly compelling book. It doesn’t fit together very well, it is bombastic and sometimes full of drivel, sadly lacking in character or character interaction (barring Ahab and Starbuck who pass some interesting turns). The final confrontation with Moby Dick beggars belief – think Jaws but a whale – whilst ending unexpectedly abruptly. Yet there is still something highly interesting about it. It is as though Melville had this marvellous idea to write a book about whaling but, realising it wouldn’t sell, thinly veiled it in a fictional narrative following a bunch of mismatched characters embarking on a doomed adventure. It didn’t feel to me like he exactly pulled it off, but what he tried to do was quite innovative and there was enough story, running through what would otherwise be a textbook, or a tract of whaling philosophy, to keep the interest flowing. Running in at 478 pages long this would be an easy book to give up on and set aside, but despite my many reservations, and the occasions when I found myself laughing aloud at Melville’s misguided (to modern eyes) opinions, or being appalled by the slightly more frequent casual racism, I never quite felt like giving up on it. It is personable, honest and true in a way I cannot quite describe nor give explanation to. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, nor that I considered myself sold on the idea of it being the ‘great work’ of American fiction it is often lauded to be, but it is innovative and different and it represents a kind of way of being which is (perhaps happily) largely lost to us now and it represents faithfully an age and a type of living which would otherwise be no more than a nasty idea without Melville’s well-intentioned ministrations on its behalf. And through this twisty-turny story Melville reveals something important: the idea that whilst we may seek to destroy what we perceive as monsters outside ourselves (Moby Dick), the true monster is our own rage and pride and need for revenge, for it is Ahab that is the true monster of this story. Ahab and his limitless rage and madness and his willingness to destroy everything that stands between him and the satisfaction of his vengeful dream. It is a message that is as true now as it ever has been; we may not be able to stop the Moby Dicks and the Ahabs that surround us, but we can prevent ourselves becoming an Ahab in our own part and this, I think, is what makes Moby Dick a book that transcends its time and context, and is why it is a book that remains relevant and important to this day. Or maybe people are just more interested in whale-lore than I realised. Or easily influenced by sci-fi movies. Who knows?

And on the Star Trek front I can happily report that whilst Captain Picard failed to accurately represent Moby Dick the villainous Khan did not, for a mere spitting distance (ha ha) from the end I read this: “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  which I recognised from that memorable and yet slightly silly end battle in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, spat from the twisted lips of Ricardo Montalban on a bad hair day, and I felt like, perhaps, Star Trek had brought me honestly to Moby Dick afterall; and having reaped that meagre reward I could, in good conscience, finally let it go.

Posted in Books I Ought to Read, Classics | 9 Comments

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Image result for leaves of grass barnes and nobleAs I mentioned in my meditation on my library blog I want to approach my reading towards the end of the year more deliberately, challenging myself to read even more deeply and to confront those books I have been avoiding reading. After finishing H(A)PPY for a second time I spent a little time meditating over the books on my shelves, picking out a few which have been wallowing there for some time waiting for that ‘someday’ to arrive when I would be in the right frame of mind to read them. Eventually I settled on Walt Whitman. I’m not exactly sure why Walt Whitman, other than I’ve had a copy of Leaves of Grass for about 5 years now, and I’ve read so many great things about Whitman, how he has influenced so many other writers, that it seems a bit criminal that I’ve not managed to ever read this important work. My copy of Leaves of Grass, too, is huge. It contains both the original 1855 version and the ‘death bed’ version; Whitman continued to edit Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime – he was, I think, the model that Ridley Scott moulded himself on – and the collection expanded from a manageable 140ish pages long to around 600 pages. Whitman was not, it seems, decisive, or perhaps he just enjoyed tinkering and the original material gave him a lot to tinker with. So besides being poetry, which can be difficult to read continuously, it is also a chunky book  – 785 pages in total – and it would require both patience and concentration to read it. Plus I didn’t want to just get through it I wanted to absorb and appreciate it, which I knew would take a bit of time. I couldn’t allow myself to feel pressured or rushed in my reading. Armed with these lofty ideals, I embarked, with some nervousness, on this focused, slow reading attempt.

The poems in Leaves of Grass are considerably more famous than my blog, but there’s a lot more to Leaves of Grass than Song of Myself, and I Sing the Body Electric, or, not to forget, the wonderful O Captain! My Captain! which many people probably haven’t read but know all about from that gorgeous movie Dead Poets Society. Whitman wrote, or sang, of the ordinary daily lives of 19th Century America. He sang songs not just of himself but of the workers, the sailors, politics – notably Abraham Lincoln who he wrote about extensively – slaves, prostitutes; he wrote about love, about the glory of life, about death, about war; he wrote of dawn, of small birds and the wonders of nature; he was, I think, the embodiment of the meditative principle – he attended to everything, to the smallest and meanest of things and he sought and saw the beauty in them. Yet his poems are not calm, they are not measured. They are explosive, passionate, joyful; Whitman celebrates everything. His poems are full of bravado, bragging, self-celebration and yet humility. Whitman had a firm grip on what mattered – love, relationships, kindness, acceptance, respect – and what didn’t. He was a fierce proponent of equality, his poems advocate the equality of the slave and the President, of women and men, of lovers of women and lovers of men. Love, in fact, permeates everything Whitman writes. In this way it made me think that despite their distance in age and geography, somehow Whitman was the natural, divine perhaps, successor to John Donne, just John Donne taken even further. Just as Donne’s poems dripped with passion, with sex, with the desires of the human body, Whitman’s are flooded with them. This was particularly so in the original 1855 edition which is untempered, rougher and, I think, somewhat lovelier for it. By the time Whitman has expanded and refined his poetry for the death-bed edition, it is evident that he had learned to be more discerning, more deliberate, and some of the rawness is lost as a result. The poems are better, but some of the innocence is lost.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my intense reading experience didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped. For a start it is hard reading poetry continuously. I have read epic poetry before, but such poetry has always been in the form of a story; something like Beowulf or The Odyssey where the poetic form allows the story to flow. That’s not the case with Whitman. He is, first and foremost, a poet not a storyteller. He transmits ideas, philosophical concepts, often in heavy metaphors. All of this is difficult to process, it takes time and mental acuity and it is not easy to absorb. I found I couldn’t concentrate on the words if there was any background chatter. Usually I’m pretty good at phasing that out when I’m reading, but for these poems I found they just wouldn’t register if I could hear words anywhere else. Despite these difficulties I managed to get about 400 pages in before I admitted defeat. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the poetry, rather the attempt to read it all in one go was a mistake. It isn’t how poetry, or Whitman’s poetry at least, is best approached. I wasn’t doing the great man justice. I was reading his words but not reading his words, there was a kind of mental numbness that developed and however hard I tried to focus after around 25 minutes I simply couldn’t take any more in. I decided that rather than continuing to slavishly work my way through the book – because it had become work at that point – I would select a few more poems and read them carefully.

Usually I would be disappointed with myself for what I would see as a ‘failure’ in my mission to complete a specific challenge, but perhaps my reading of the Tao has paid off because this time I didn’t. I think I’ve found that more surprising than anything. I felt like I had absorbed the essence of Whitman; I had felt his passion, his soulfulness, his humanity, his irrepressible love. There were moments in poems that had moved me to tears, there were moments that made me laugh, there were moments that made me stop and think. I had realised that to properly appreciate Whitman I had to take him slowly and I could not wolf him down like a McDonalds meal. He deserved much more attention than that. I loved his celebratory tone, the way he celebrated himself in that famous opening to Song of Myself, but not just himself but everyone around him. He saw the world as a wondrous, juicy, delicious feast and he wanted to absorb it with all his senses. He wanted to be drunk on it, overwhelmed by it, and he was. He desired to be no one’s President, he desired neither power nor prestige, just love and love and love in all its abundance, as he describes so beautifully here in this poem When I Heard at the Close of the Day:

“WHEN I HEARD AT THE CLOSE OF THE DAY

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been

receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy

night for me that follow’d,

And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d,

still I was not happy.

But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health,

refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,

When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in

the morning light,

When I wander’d alone over the breach and undressing bathed,

laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,

And when I thought how my drea friend my lover was on his way

coming, O then I was happy,

O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food

nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,

And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening

came my friend,

And that night while all was still I Heard the waters roll slowly

continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me

whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover

in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined

toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was

happy.”

And I’ve learned from Whitman, I’ve learned some important lessons. As I read the 1855 version of Song of Myself, which is huge (over 100 pages long) and magnificent and gorgeously celebratory, I found myself wondering what a ‘song of myself’ would sound like and I realised it would probably be rather self-critical, maybe a bit mopey and grumbly, and I realised, too, that this isn’t the kind of song I wanted to represent my life. Whitman made me think about how it is so easy to find fault and so hard to find joy and beauty, and yet Whitman makes it seem effortless. And perhaps if I change my perspective a little, I can make it effortless too. I resolved to change my song to one which is more bombastic, more humane and more loving. What would your song sound like?

One other thing I realised as I was struggling with Whitman’s words is that poetry, some poetry certainly, needs to be read aloud. It is intended to be heard. I think this is certainly true of Whitman. I managed to track down a selection of readings from Leaves of Grass via Spotify, a lovely rendition read by Ed Begley (of Twelve Angry Men fame, amongst other things). Hearing Whitman brings an extra dimension to the experience, and Begley’s voice is perfect for it, exceeded only, perhaps, by the man himself. Because there are recordings of Whitman reading his own poems. Here you can listen to Whitman reading his quite rarely melancholy, yet lovely poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Why not take a listen for yourself?

I might not have quite achieved what I set out to achieve here, but I’ve learned a lot from the experience. For one this was my first foray into audio books and whilst I’m not a complete convert I can see a space in which audio books augment the reading experience. And I’ve learned from Whitman to be more than just forgiving, to be celebratory, to see the wonder that exists all around us even in ordinary things. I’ve learned the power of attention, attention focused not on pulling something apart but in bigging it up. And I’ve realised that when approaching a work of master poetry, it’s probably a good idea to break it up. If you were thinking of reading Whitman I would recommend reading the 1855 edition and death bed edition separately, though I do think there is merit in reading both editions. Whilst there is overlap, they both have their unique charms. Most importantly, I’ve a much better appreciation of Whitman as a poet and the reasons why his poetry has been so influential to so many people. There’s a wonderful earthiness to his writing, it is physical and sensual, he is rooted in his body and the bodies of others. His humane approach is a lesson to us all, to set aside our endless need to differentiate ourselves and accept that we are different and yet the same. We are connected, we are all as good as each other and if we can approach the world with eyes of wonder and love we can transform our experience from one of disgust and dismissal to one of acceptance and community.

I am glad to have met minds with you, Walt Whitman because every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Posted in poetry | 2 Comments

Meditating on my library

A while ago we converted what was a mostly disused dining room into a library. It was my husband’s idea. We took down our dining table and removed the clunky sideboard; my husband fitted some boxy shelving units from Ikea and almost filled the entire span of one wall, leaving room for expansion. We acquired some secondhand chairs and a sofa which we bought with vouchers we were given for Christmas – we bought the sofa, also from Ikea, on New Year’s Day and if you are ever tempted to visit Ikea at a time when it is quiet, unhurried and relaxed then I can recommend New Year’s Day as the day to go. We drove home slowly via the A roads; the sofa didn’t quite fit into the car, we couldn’t close the boot, so my husband tied it all down and we took a leisurely drive back home; with the boot open it was bracing but surprisingly pleasant. One of the other advantages of New Year’s Day, there’s often very little to do. I filled up the shelves with the books that I had, and at that point there were about 2 shelves un-utilised, but they soon filled up. Books have come, books have gone, but my library is as full as ever. I’ve organised and reorganised it, separating out my non-fiction from my fiction, separating out books that I’ve read from books that I haven’t. I’ve spent almost as much time rearranging my shelves as I have done reading the books on them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my library recently. My library is my favourite room in the house, perhaps not surprisingly. It is a quiet room, it looks out over my (messy) back garden and if the windows are open there is birdsong and lawnmower sounds, maybe the occasional car passing. It is tranquil. There is no TV, TV is forbidden as are (generally) computers and phones. It is a room for reflection, for quiet conversations with, perhaps, a little music in the background. It is a contemplative space. But the books, the books are something else. There was once a time, perhaps not even that long ago (I can’t really remember), when every book I owned was a book I had read; books that I had read and re-read and treasured and kept because I loved them. I can’t recall when it was that I started buying books to be read, books which would find a slot in my shelves and remain there to some long-distant date in the future when I would actually give them the attention I must have thought they deserved. Every book I have bought I have bought for a reason, because I believed I would want to read it. Because at the time I wanted to read it. Yet I set it aside, along with so many others, and once set aside the chances of those books being read became slimmer and slimmer. Because I have been so entranced by the new, the next thing, the future read. I am always looking ahead, rarely focusing on the present.

When I embarked on my slower reading experiment, I really wanted to change my relationship with my books. I wanted to stop always looking to the next one and start focusing on the one in front of me. I have been, I think, quite successful in this enterprise, but I haven’t yet managed to quash my desire, entirely, for the new. I am still borrowing books from the library. I have a wishlist with 14 books on it (after a recent cull, it was much longer) and a library list with 37 books on it. When I am going to read all of these, I cannot say. The situation is better than it has been – in the past I might simply have bought all of those books and added them to my library – but it is still not where I want to be. Every book I own, I have bought for a reason. I wanted to read those books too. Why is it that once I have them securely on my shelves, I don’t actually seem too keen to actually read them?

Doubtless there are reasons, I’m sure a psychologist or an insightful reader could come up with a few, but I’m less concerned about reasons and more concerned about how to change the way I deal with these books. Because I’ve come to realise that whatever the reason, the key to changing my habits lies with myself. I think I need to spend some time trying to reignite whatever it was about that book that made me want to acquire it in the first place. If I can reinvigorate the way I feel about the book then perhaps I can finally get around to reading the book. Which is why I bought it in the first place. And if, perhaps, I can remind myself why I bought all those wonderful books on my shelves, I won’t need, or, perhaps it is truer to say, want to seek books elsewhere. Because I already have everything that I need right here. Sure there are other books I would like to read, but not before I read these books that I wanted to read already. I was vaguely thinking about this when I read this article at zenhabits around which my thoughts began to coalesce.

I have taken the books that I own for granted. I’ve realised that when I inhabit my library I barely pay any attention to the books at all; I enjoy sitting on the sofa, I listen to the birdsong out of the window, I notice the beautiful quality of light at different times of day, I adore the writing desk that we picked up secondhand and which I use for writing and working, I enjoy the feel of the sheepskin rug on my bare feet. But the books: I don’t pay any attention to them. It is as though I have created a work of art, a jumble of colours and textures, and like a work of art I cannot touch it, let alone interact with it. I see the books, but I don’t see the books. When I look for books, I always seem to be looking elsewhere: the library, other people’s blogs, online newspapers or articles. I rarely look in the place where the books most accessible to me, which most reflect my interests and desires, actually reside. I don’t pay them attention. That needs to change.

I have begun meditating on my library. I don’t mean just thinking about it, I mean sitting in front of it and actively looking at what’s there, spending time appreciating it. It’s hard right now, because what I see is shameful, it’s embarrassing, it is a testament to all the ways in which I have been thoughtless and habitual, in which I have acted impulsively and not deliberately. But even so, I spend a little time every day sitting and looking at my shelves and reminding myself what a thing of beauty they are. And not just a thing of beauty, but a living, breathing thing, the combined intelligence of a multitude of great minds that I have the privilege to connect to. Every time I think I want to read a book I do not own, I will go and sit in front of my shelves and remind myself of the value of the things I already own, the things I have been failing to appreciate or see the joy in. In fact I have felt oppressed by them at times, particularly those books which I have bought in a lofty, aspirational frame of mind – the War & Peaces, the Moby Dicks, the Second Sexes, the Shanamehs. Those books that sit on my shelves as a testament to who I wanted to be, the reader I wanted to be, and not necessarily the one sitting mindfully in front of them now.

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I am so privileged. I am so privileged to have such an abundance of wonderful stories, wonderful thoughts, available to me. I am grateful to be able to devote an entire room to the written word. It is gorgeous, isn’t it? I think it is. I am ashamed that I have allowed such extraordinary things to go unvalued for so long. But I am also learning to let that shame go, to let go the weight of the TBR pile and allow myself instead to begin to appreciate it as something into which I can delve and discover, again, those books that so stirred my imagination before. And in the next few months when I finish one book I will go and sit in front on my shelves again, and not just sit in front of them but examine them. I will pick books off the shelf, I will handle them, I will think about them, I will weigh any resistance against the motivation that spurred me to buy the book in the first place. Those that I resist the most are most likely to end up being read. Those that have spent the longest times sitting on my shelves are more likely to be chosen. Those chunky books that I have avoided because they will take so much time and focus to read, those will be read too. It will take me a while, I have a lot of unread books on my shelves and I don’t want to give up on the re-reading either, but I think if I can retain this frame of mind I can do it. When I’ve read a book I will decide whether to keep it – after a realistic assessment of whether I’ll re-read it – or whether to let it go. I expect my library will grow a little more space on the shelves. But over time I will work my way back to those days when my library was full of treasured friends, not neglected prisoners, captive of my flighty and unconsidered actions.

Posted in personal reflection | 7 Comments