Showing posts tagged reading

“Mostly I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.”

Anna Quindlen, from “At the Beach,” in Living Out Loud

Rebecca Solnit: “A sentence is a road and reading is traveling”

This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path in the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features in a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide—a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling…. Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.

— from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

“In her childhood she learned to leave behind pain by reading books. Sometimes they took the books away—too many words, too much pleasure. She turned to poetry. Words to learn by heart—to say over and over again in the dark.”

bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

Reciting softly to herself

“Not everyone goes to poetry readings to find love. She did. Growing up, poetry had been the sanctuary, that space in words where longing could be spoken. Nobody in her world understood. Poems came in another language. Nobody could find or hurt you there. She spent many a night sitting in a freezing kitchen before a plate of cold food held together by congealed fat reciting softly to herself sweet words—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, William Wordworth. Poems were the way to leave pain behind—to forget. They were a kind of suicide, a death. Her real self could drown in them. They were water to her thirst, cooling the burning sensation, soothing the red welts on her skin left by lashes from fresh young branches still green. Poetry made childhood bearable.”

bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

(Painting by Derrick Woodford. Thank you, Mr. Woodford and antiquehelper.)

“The living room is dark and low-ceilinged, with bookshelves all along the wall opposite the windows. These books have not made George noble or better or more truly wise. It is just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood.”

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

Munro on my mind

On a train to Toronto, a young passenger named Rose allows a stranger’s hand to stimulate her. The man has politely asked permission to sit beside her. He says he is a United Church minister. After small talk, she turns back to the window; he reads a newspaper. Then she feels something moving up her leg: “The hand began, over the next several miles, the most delicate, the most timid, pressures and investigations.” At first, her mind resists: “She could still believe that she would stop this in a minute. Nothing was going to happen, nothing more. Her legs were never going to open.” Ah—“But they were. They were.”

No, I’m not quoting E. L. James. And this is not Fifty Shades of Miley Cyrus. This exquisitely unsettling moment comes from the short story “Wild Swans” by Alice Munro. I stumbled upon this wild ride this afternoon while rereading parts of Selected Stories, a 686-page compilation that gathers 28 of the author’s finest. I knew Ms. Munro could do heartbreaking subtlety. But I had no idea she could write about orgasm with vivid (and naughty) imagery that puts D. H. Lawrence to shame. In her twinkly eyes and grandmotherly smile, there’s passion to behold. And transgressions to “waken a sly luxuriance.” As Rose muses at the end of “Wild Swans” (and you’re gonna love this, Miley): “To dare it; to get away with it, to enter on preposterous adventures in your own, but newly named, skin.”

I first blogged about Alice Munro on November 14, 2012, with a brief note: “I should read more of her.” On February 7, 2013, I was strolling in the vortex of nowhere when I found a used copy of Selected Stories and vacillated whether or not to buy it. Don’t I already have tons of books I haven’t finished or started? Shouldn’t I let this one go, let it find its way into the hands of those disciplined or committed enough to read what they hoard? Well, duh! This is Alice Freakin’ Munro. Dude, it’s a no-brainer. This is where, for once, that cliché makes perfect sense: Follow your heart. Grab the book. Buy it. Read it. Breathe it.

Weather update: still dreary out here. Cloudy with a chance of nonsense. These October rains won’t seem to let up. Now there’s this drizzle that can’t make up its mind. Shall I escalate into a downpour? Or shall I stay tentative, linger till the sun reemerges from its own vortex? Who cares? How can I stay grumpy when Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Michael Ondaatje, and so many others are paying tribute to “a master of the contemporary short story.” Suddenly, life is good again; the world makes sense. Drizzle all you want; I’ve got Munro on my mind.

In her introduction to Selected Stories, Ms. Munro says she used to get so frustrated while drafting her endings that “often I would decide to give up on [the story].” Ironically, when she’s about to abandon the story, that’s when it begins to take shape or find its way to a satisfying conclusion:

I can’t ever be sure this [turnaround] will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.

A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Thank you, Ms. Munro. I, too, had been skeptical about those turnarounds, fresh starts, and preposterous adventures. I felt I was getting too old for those things. My eyes were not going to open again to such possibilities. Ah—but they were. They were.

Stray sentences

“… I was not despondent. I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin. Sitting at the desk, I made a cup of coffee or of thin red soup last an hour, clasping my hands around the cup while there was still any warmth to be got from it. I read, but without purpose or involvement. I read stray sentences from the books that I had always meant to read. Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state. I was alert and dreamy, closed off from all particular people but conscious all the time of the city itself—which seemed a strange place.”

Alice Munro, from “The Albanian Virgin,” in Selected Stories (Penguin Books, 1998)

(Photograph by dabacahin.)

Laura Miller on Alice Munro: “The breath of life”

… The short story form (in prospect, at least) has never appealed to me, and after a dire childhood encounter with “Little Women” — foisted on me by female relatives — I developed a lifelong resistance to fiction in which, as my teenage self once put it, “people just sit around thinking about how they feel about their relatives.”

But, if we’re lucky, we grow up and learn to reconsider our prejudices. One day, a little over a decade ago, I picked up a copy of “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” figuring I ought to at least try to expand my readerly horizons. I read it. I got it. And here is the review if you’d like a deeper explanation of what I had to say about it back then.

While I might still prefer fat novels set on a broader stage and teeming with ideas and adventures, in Munro’s stories I found the breath of life, but more than that: the feeling of having lived through her characters rather than just being entertained or enlightened by them. Her work transmitted to me the resonance of age — what’s commonly referred to as its wisdom — without requiring that I actually be old to apprehend it. The writers capable of doing this are vanishingly rare; one of them is Chekhov, and the rest you can probably count on one hand.

[ … ]

… I will tell you this, as a fellow skeptic: If, when you read about Munro, your first thought is “Yeah, right: That’s definitely not for me,” please do think again. If you are only ever going to give this genre of fiction one try, she’s the author to pick: I recommend both “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” and “Friend of My Youth” (which I have since read — Thanks, Mary, and sorry I was such an ass about it). If those books do not move you, then you can return to your well-worn readerly groove in perfect confidence that your tastes are really as limited as you assumed. And the loss will be nobody’s but your own.

— from “How Alice Munro Won Me Over” (Salon)

“she will not be alone.She will have a book to openand open and open.Her life starts here.” — Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things” (in Fuel)
(Photograph: Malala Yousafzai at Queen Elizabeth Hospital/AP. Thank you, Time.)

she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.

Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things” (in Fuel)

(Photograph: Malala Yousafzai at Queen Elizabeth Hospital/AP. Thank you, Time.)

In her first home each book had a light around it.
The voices of distant countries
floated in through open windows,

entering her soup and her mirror.
They slept with her in the same thick bed.

Someday she would go there.
Her voice, among all those voices.
In Iraq a book never had one owner—it had ten.
Lucky books, to be held often
and gently, by so many hands.

Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Ducks,” in Fuel: Poems

The Bridge

Poetry is a river
And solitude a bridge.

Through writing
            We cross it,
Through reading

We return.

Kaissar Afif (translated by Mansour Ajami), in The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

“The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.”
— Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness (translated by Donald Keene)
(Photo: Thank you, guttersnipedas.)


“The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.”

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness (translated by Donald Keene)

(Photo: Thank you, guttersnipedas.)

Kenkō (Essay 43): “I wonder who he was”

Towards the end of spring, on a lovely, mild day, I strolled by a stately-looking mansion set on a large property with ancient trees. A cherry tree was shedding blossoms in the garden. It was impossible to pass without stopping, and I went in. The shutters on the south side were all lowered and the place looked deserted, but I could see then, through an opening in the bamboo blinds over double doors that faced east and had been left attractively ajar, a handsome young man of about twenty, at his ease but maintaining an elegant composure. He was reading a book he held open before him on a desk. I wonder who he was. I should like to visit him and ask.

— from Essays in Idleness (translated by Donald Keene)

Christopher McCandless reading Tolstoy

On July 2, McCandless finished reading Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness,” having marked several passages that moved him:

He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others. …

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps—what more can the heart of a man desire?

— from Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

The solitary act

“The last weeks of [Chris McCandless’] life appear to have been spent reading Tolstoy, and it is an incidental point of interest in [Sean] Penn’s film that reading is important: the solitary act of just sitting there with a book, for hour after hour. How is the act of reading changed by being absolutely cut off from all human society? After a month, a year, a decade on your own in nature, would the words simply look like meaningless horizontal squiggles, as blank as the ridges in tree-bark?”

Peter Bradshaw, from his film review of Into the Wild (The Guardian)

(Photo: Thank you, lancastria.)