Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Left Unread

  Last month, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. We all hide that list of things we haven't gotten to; books everyone's read we haven't, cities yet to be seen, deeds to be done, movies. Etc
   Classics. Rows of them. Upon rows. Stacks. Barns filled to the swallow scoured rafters.
   Some years ago, I helped an old teacher take down his library. A terrible thing to even say, he had to cull his books. We had boxes of them in the hallway, heading down the stairs, cases he was going to give away. He said, "Well I know I'm never going to get to …."
  Fill in the blank. The title. The name. The place.
  It took me awhile to realize he was talking about dying. His backlog was longer than his lifeline. I'd never heard someone say it out loud. Or give it a page count.
  I still think I'm going to read all the books on my shelves. I still think I'm going to get to Nepal to hike up thru the foothills to the tea plantations. To Vietnam to see where the American Dream got dropped out of the sky. Get back to Russia and compare it now to what my teenage mind made of that mythic land. And Algeria to see the Atlas Mountains. And Israel. And Greece. And Northern Japan and Newfoundland and Wales, and, and, and.. and of course someday I won't. I'll miss one of those…won't do one of the other deeds chartered in the itinerary of my mind, the story of the progress already half-written.
  And that's okay.
  No. It's not okay. It's awful. But that's what makes life precious. As the slave tells the roman general entering the victorious city….."All glory is fleeting." All glory, all thrills, all the youth you had, all the time, ( I sound like Roger Waters), all the chances, all the songs, the poetry, the music, the stories…you had your chance to let them possess you, to have them make you their host and then they passed on. And you pass away.
  So, I didn't get to Jane Austen until I was almost 50. She's been around two centuries. She'll keep. No worries. It's all good. (Two sentences hopefully no one will say two centuries from now.) For her.
  But ..what if…."If I read it 20 years ago…..if I'd picked it up when I was 14…..would I be someone else?"
  Sounds a little dramatic but honestly, like the love you're shown when you were two years old or four, you don't remember it much, but it's kept you from killing someone or blithely leaving a hit and run. It keeps you from revenge porning your old flame or leaving anonymous, seething postings on somebody's website. It makes you hold the elevator door for the couple that wouldn't even see you if you just let it close. Love stops you. And love gets in there by being told. It's the oldest story there is. Your parents and your family tell you parables to keep you from becoming a sociopath and right at the same time, you learn to read. And those books you first read, that read you into being when you're trudging through the rich black bog of adolescence, they fucking mark you.
  So when I pick up Pride and Prejudice now or a modern classic from 1965, or say an Updike story I skipped, that was published when I was 8, a hardback that's been sitting on the shelves in the house of every girlfriend I've had since the Reagan years, every party I went to, every holiday excursion to somebody's place lent by the friend of a friend, the rental home on an Island or some coastal cottage with the family's library left behind, or in the pile of novels backstage of this or that production….this book's been there, within arm's reach for most of my life but only now, now I pick it up. Would I had read it at 14. Would I have patterned my life differently?
   I miss it. I miss the years we didn't have together. 3 decades have gone by in which I could have heard and known Miss Elizabeth's sharp voice. Had her determination and pride as a model. Held an image of her in my mind, of her home in a country I wouldn't see till I was almost 30. Those phantom portraits the desirous brain makes out of a story that even film can't entirely erase.
  I read To Kill a Mockingbird last year for the first time. I wish I'd known those children when they were younger…..when I was a child…when I could have felt more closely the fear of that run they make across the final chapter's field. Had in my not yet 15 year old mind the sensations of a Southern summer's night walking with a father I admired. Instead at 45, fatherless both literally and in truth, I read the story of a young girl and imagine myself not too far from Atticus' age, wondering what did he think of his punchy daughter?
   It was interesting to be kinned with him but I wish I'd graduated into it. I wish I'd moved thru the cycle;  the virgin read when you're a boy and sense on your skin what Scout sees and hears. The odd run thru in college during a summer break when your friends make fun of you for reading such a "classic" and you wonder should I be liking this old saw as much as I do, this "kids' story"? Then reading passages again with the children of your friends who married young. Listening to the unnerving duplicates of your binge year buddies or of your sophomore lover sound out the familiar paragraphs, and thinking you're about to provide "wisdom" when suddenly your vision of the novel changes in their voices. And then you're middle aged and you think Christ how can I read a book four times and still be floored by it? And it floors you. And there are sentences you can't believe you ever read before.
   And if so….why do we keep reading other books? Don't we owe it to the ones that knocked us on our 15 year old asses, don't we owe them more time, more of our life as fuel for their passions? Because they do, don't they…need us? We're the gasoline. We throw ourselves on the printed word, we breath onto the type, into it and boom, they live again….Liza, and Boo and Nic and Billy Parham and Vronsky and the Judds. Poured into the pages we give them life. Literally. And after we're gone, someone else will do the same. Tipping the heart's attentions into a story that will outlive its beating.
  We feed them and for awhile they feed us. We both occupy and are colonized by books. I can't imagine ever completely freeing myself from their benevolent tyranny. I've seen old men and women living without books or music even, and frankly if I ever got to that stage- if I could no longer feel enriched, quickened by their presence in my life- I hope I'd have the self-respect to end it. If life became waking, feeding, watching and counting, I do hope I'd snuff it out.
  I think we all live in the prison of ourselves. The limitations of the self we construct. And some of us are worse jailers than others. We strip and burn that self down as the decades go by. The lucky few get refined, they distill it, I suppose. The rest get left with what they pretended wasn't there all along. It's like what you read about in gulag stories, or war time memoirs…..they had nothing left but what was in their heads. And the people who had poems memorized, had chapters down, or verses from the bible, who could sing songs by heart, or recall whole plays in miniature, those people were treasured. They still lived with hope. They were hope. It's voice lived in them.
  When I'm down to a grey creaking nothing in a 'home' or curled by a fire in the resentful living room of my grandkids, I hope to God I have the sense not to have left my last days to the whims of that season's tv or to some jingle I can't get out of my head. Or how much I was able to save from my IRA. I hope I can still call up Henry's prayer for his troops, or Richard's epiphany in jail, or the first paragraph in The Crossing, or anything by Yeats or Auden or Wilde. Please. Let me remember.


  1. "We both occupy and are colonized by books. I can't imagine ever completely freeing myself from their benevolent tyranny."—I believe that Jane would say that that is a truth universally acknowledged, or it should be. I cannot make any sense of the world without narrative. Did it come from losing or finding myself in all of those books that served as a template for the person I was to become? I have questioned the fact that I re-read my favourite books constantly rather than opening up new worlds by diving into the unknown. Reading this gave me the answer to that question that I have longed for. And the idea of being my own jailer pierced that fragment of my soul that knows I have secreted myself in that carefully constructed prison. I will have no grandchildren and can only hope that the words and characters who have accompanied me through life are with me at the end. A stirring, provoking and in some ways, for me at least, confronting piece of writing.

  2. The way you have such a love for books shocks me that you only read To Kill a Mockingbird last year. I thought that would have been a book that you read over and over again. In my opinion it's the best book ever written. Besides reading it in English class in high school, I've read it at least four times. Kids these days don't appreciate a good book, including my own kids. Call me crazy, but something so personal about the pages in a good book. Well lets hope that never changes.

  3. Okay, so I found your blog while looking for season info on Ghost Whisperer. My guilty pleasure with that first cup of coffee after the kids are on the bus. I've worked backwards to your first post where you say you are putting this out there for critique good or bad (does anyone really mean that?) Well I am not a writer but I read more than is good for anyone. You obviously are well read (Jane not withstanding) and your words do flow gracefully and paint a picture. But I have to say in the passage where you refer to a girlfriends letters as 'being somewhere you could lay hands on them with out to much explanation' that image was so easily identified with. That is good writing, finding a human truth such as vulnerabilty and loss and putting it in a way that makes someone say "yes,yes.exactly" That's the passage you read again,w hen you share something with an author that you want to say you've said something I was afraid to say to myself.Great writing takes great bravery you give away pieces of yourself, lay yourself bare. I personally couldn't do it but I admire those who can. You, I think could do that if you choose to. And as for missing out on books," when the student is ready the" book "appears". Okay what is it about the internet that makes everyone think their two cents is of value. That's enough coffee for today!

  4. Books give us dreams, glimpses of the past or parallel dimensions, opening our minds to innumerous "what if" 's.
    I don't think I could live without having at least one book to read - like you, I have many I don't know if I'll ever get to reading or not. But it comforts me to know they are there, within my reach, ready to make my imagination fly above and beyond the day-in, day-out we live in.
    A.S. Byatt, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Steinbeck, Tolkien, Marquez, Mailer. We're all Yahoos, but some of us open their minds to words of love, enlightenment, learning, and why not? simple fun.
    That's the power of the Word, and you've got it.

  5. Dave,

    I don't know if you read comments on old blog posts or if you get notifications, but I have a question for you. Can I use this post in my English 1102 class? Being an instructor of English, this is the message I want my students to hear every semester. Really hear and understand. The students keep a reflection journal with entries for each piece that they read. Sometimes they can surprise you. I can send you their reactions if you'd like. They already read The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly in my class, which has the same message within it. So many tell me how much they loved the book at the end of the semester and some even say that they will keep it. This baffles me. I kept all of my books from school. They are currently sitting on my shelves like trophies.

    "Poured into the pages we give them life. Literally. And after we're gone, someone else will do the same. Tipping the heart's attentions into a story that will outlive its beating."

    So true.

    Thank you,

  6. It's funny, weird funny, that I felt almost outdated commenting on another post from 2013, but I comforted myself by saying, even if no one ever reads my comment it's not just okay, but it's something better, sort of a secret, for me. I don't believe that words go out of style, sure there are phrases that seem to "go out of style" (which I think that quote might be "out of touch") but no matter what I will always think things are "rad" or be "down" with going to a drive-in movie theater. But truly I believe words are timeless. A kind word or mindful insight can inspire through all times and generations, a good book, is a good book and if the back drop of any story is hundreds of years ago or set hundreds of years in the future all themes have relevance; love, hate, revenge, greed, fear and whatever else all humans can relate to. For me it's always cheeky mystery. I always have and always will love Agatha Christie, I thought I had read every work ten times over, then at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store I found Agatha Christies' "The Mysterious Mr. Quinn" a volume of short stories all relating to a Mr. Harley Quinn, yeah I know, but it was truly amazing. I sat up like a teenager reading well into the night because I could not get enough. I should have started with I recently read the new Agatha Christie, "The Monogram Murders" (obviously not new, because she is dead, but her estate left the rights to her assistant who was allowed to write it). I really liked it and it made me completely memleket for her older works and since I usually share books I love in order to bribe others into talking with me about the books, I was all out and went to my favorite thrift stores to find some .10 cent gems and that is when I found it. I couldn't believe that she could surprise me all over again, I read it twice. I sometimes joke that with all the horrors I have witnessed senility is a welcome end of life, that not having memories will be my comfort in old age, of course there are things that will escape me that will make me sad, but since I won't remember what they are I somehow feel better. But I won't be sad if I forget all the collected works of Agatha Christie, I'll just read them again. I do hope I remember that I love her.