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Posts Tagged ‘bookishness’

I have just checked Madeleine L’Engle’s The Weather of the Heart out from the library.

I thought I had borrowed another of her poetry collections (Lines Scribbled on the Back of an Envelope) last fall; but it must have been this one, unless many of the poems are the same. Even if it is the same book, there are many poems I didn’t read last year, due to laziness and due dates, including her seven poems “To a Long Loved Love.”

Much of her writing is dear to me, although I cannot claim to know her as intimately as I know Tolkien or Flannery O’Connor. On my shelf there sit A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet–after which that series got a little too weird for me. But the first book of hers I bought and read, at the recommendation of a friend, was Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

Although her theology sometimes gets a little loopy, she is remarkably clear-sighted when it comes to an Incarnational view of art. She added an invaluable dimension to my relationship with writing, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say she was one of the people who convinced me to go to grad school.

To read her poetry is to come to know her, to see the world as she sees it–and I find she has a remarkable understanding of love.

To a Long Loved Love: 4

You are still new, my love. I do not know you,
Stranger beside me in the dark of bed,
Dreaming the dreams I cannot ever enter,
Eyes closed in that unknown, familiar head.
Who are you, who have thrust and entered
My very being, penetrated so that now
I can never again be wholly separate,
Bound by shared living to this unknown thou?
I do not know you, nor do you know me,
And yet we know each other in the way
Of our primordial forbears in the garden,
Adam knew Eve. As we do, so did they.
They, we, forever strangers: Austere but true.
And yet I would not change it. You are still new.

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What’s wonderful is when you discover an author whose work, once read, fills a gap in the world you’ve never realized was there before. And I love it even more when they are alive and writing. This is such a gift I feel the only way I can possibly repay it is by writing to the author and telling them so.

I am currently readingPeople I Wanted To Be, Gina Ochsner (pronounced OH-sner). This short story collection was published in 2005; her first, The Necessary Grace To Fall, won the Flannery O’Connor award and was published in 2002. Most recently she wrote a novel called The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, and I bought it, brand new–which is something.

I am still getting practice at writing book reviews (my first, for Susan Minot’s Monkeys, showed up in Hot Metal Bridge earlier this year); but I would like to tell you about her sometime soon, when I am not procrastinating preparing for class.

In the meantime, here is a quote of hers from an interview. It really pleases me to no end. Although I have a feeling I need to give myself at least an hour when I sit down to write; but every time I read something like this, that shows how different the process is for every writer, it brightens my heart and makes it a more welcome place for hope, that thing with feathers.

It IS true that I only write a few times a week and those times tend to be very short in duration—perhaps an hour or shorter. For awhile I worried that these short spurts spelled doom for me as a writer. Surely a writer must always be writing? But then I stumbled upon a brilliant interview in Associated Writers Chronicle with Jill McCorkle. She’s a wonderful short story writer and novelist and the interviewer asked her how many hours a day she wrote. She laughed, I think. The word hours must have struck her sideways. Because, as it turned out, she wrote in small spurts: forty minutes here, thirty minutes there, and in this way constructed magnificent novels. She mentioned that had she held out for long blocks of time she would have become embittered because the large blocks of time simply never arrive on schedule. That’s been true with me as well. But ten minutes? Those open up all the time while I’m waiting in line at the post office (what a great place to people-watch!). Likewise, in doing the mundane, daily tasks of washing dishes, stirring the laundry, fishing for the mate to a lonely sock, I am working out with my hands a snarl with a story. The hands complete what my mind cannot. And so, yes, I am breathing around the story and the characters who will not be pushed or bullied by my hands on the keyboard. It’s always better for me to clean the house first, anyway. If things go sour with a story, and things always do at some point, I console myself with the knowledge that at the very least I matched seven pairs of socks, and that is no small thing.

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I do not feel the peace I once did: not with God, nor the earth, or anyone on it. I have begun to prefer this state, to remember with fondness the other one as a period of peace I neither earned nor deserved. Now in the mornings while I watch purple finches driving larger titmice from the feeder, I say to Him: I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

True, and I don’t want You to lift it from me either. And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.

Why? Do you love them less?

I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my son’s pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion.

So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.

I love her more than I love truth.

Then you love her in weakness, He says.

As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.

–Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story”

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Well, I am back, sort of. At any rate I have survived the end of the semester, with all its grading and being graded, and I am happy to say I am now living in a clean apartment.

In a week I’m heading to California for the rest of May, but in the meantime I am compiling summer’s lists. There is a list for writing, a list for teaching (I am preparing to teach a creative writing summer course June-August), and a list for reading.

The last could go on inexhaustibly, if my memory were better. It keeps getting longer as I remember things that should go on it, or discover other things.

At first I thought of this list as divided between Things I Want To Read, and Things I Should Read. But the reality is that I want to read most of the books on it, or they wouldn’t be there to begin with. So the categories end up looking more like this.

1. Things I Want To Read For Pure Enjoyment

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
The Sea Wolf (Jack London)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)
Broken Vessels (Andre Dubus)
The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

2. Fiction I Want To Read To Benefit My Own Writing (but intend on enjoying thoroughly)

The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson … I should have read this ages ago)

3. Nonfiction That Has To Do With Writing and Literary Matters

Mystery and Manners (Flannery O’Connor)
Art and Scholasticism (Jacques Maritain)
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)
The StAR Review
AWP Chronicle (I never read this during the semester)

4. Spiritual Reading

Introduction to the Devout Life (Francis de Sales)
The Intellectual Life (Sertillanges)
Truth and Tolerance (Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger)
Waiting for God (Simone Weil)

That is, at least, a beginning.

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I wrote 1876 words today.

I am pretty impressed with myself. This may be an insignificant word count for some, but for me, in a month that is not November, it is something I can feel good about.

Somewhere around word number 1723, however, it occurred to me that I am trying to jam two stories into the space of one. I will think about this, but I will not let it stop me.

(I am afraid that it will stop me of its own accord, but if that happens, it happens. I will not panic about deadlines and the fact that my students turn in 19 essays to me on Monday. Nope.)

~~~

Today I also finished The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. It deserves some ruminating over. Having taught an essay of his for two semesters, I can definitely recognize his philosophy in his writing; but I don’t entirely know what to make of the ending.

The main character is really wacky–bouts of amnesia, uncertainty of his own identity, a nervous twitch in his knee, hearing “ravenous particles” in the air–and you are put so much in his head amid all that wackiness that it strikes you as weird that people treat him as normal. I enjoyed this, because I am writing about wacky characters right now. (In fact, I’m concerned that my current main character isn’t quite wacky enough, or that his wackiness needs to be more obvious. Something else to think about.)

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“A young man am I, twenty-nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient.”

I really want to see this.

I have been teaching a chapter from Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle to my college freshmen for two semesters now, and it wasn’t until around October that I realized he was a novelist. My cousin, who is finishing her associate’s degree at Franciscan University, was reading one of his books for class.

Since then I’ve been learning more and more about him without seeking anything out. Flannery O’Connor talks about The Moviegoer in her letters, and even wrote to him (although I don’t believe they had a regular correspondence). Maud Newton, from whose blog I snagged this video, has posted about him a couple times. The more I hear, the more interested I become, and The Moviegoer is currently pretty high on my to-read list.

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A few weeks ago Maud Newton and Sven Birkerts were scheduled to speak at Pitt about The Future of the Book. Then snow happened and things got postponed.

However, this did not stop us students in Cathy Day’s workshop from reading selections of Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies and watching the panel that Maud moderated about “Literature in a Digital Age.”

I am of two minds about this whole digitization of the book thing. Part of me reacts with a visceral sort of disgust. Or I guess several parts of me. One part is just traditional about things–and this inevitably affects other parts of me. Such as the part of me that already spends too many hours looking at computers both out of necessity and addiction to social networking sites, and needs a break from screens. And of course, there’s the part of me that simply loves books: in my hands, in bookstores, on bookshelves. I love the thing-ness of them. I love owning them. Every time another row fills up on a bookshelf, it gives me pleasure. I even love books about books, like Inkheart and The Book Thief.

At the same time I don’t think all books are created equal. It is the content that determines the value. They are not some mystical entity to be worshiped. That part of me doesn’t freak out about books becoming digital. A more reasonable part that says “wait and see,” that tells me not to get riled up. Not only wait and see if digitization is for better or for worse, but if it really will become the way people read fiction. One of my favorite authors once said that as soon as he heard that an innovation was “here to stay,” he knew it wouldn’t be around that long. I don’t know if that’s the case for ebooks, but the principle makes sense to me. Both those who defend and demonize ebooks start sounding too much like prophets.

Either way, I don’t believe that the nature of narrative, of story, changes according to the medium. Perhaps the delivery is affected, similarly to the changes that occur between printed and oral storytelling; but it remains the same art. And when I think of books, I guess that’s what I think of—the ones that hold stories, as opposed to the ones that store information.

In his Elegies Birkerts argues that the way we receive information changes our experience, and I do agree with this. I’ve always had very little patience when reading fiction on a screen. I start skimming, I get bored, I can’t sink in and take pleasure in it. Maybe this is just me, but there is a different feel to it. But I don’t think that fiction itself changes much when translated into a digital form. Last week I went to the panel Joel Lovell organized, and the future of reading was discussed, along with all the different possibilities that digitization opened up. One of the opinions given was that while nonfiction (magazines, newspapers, and other forms) would change, fiction (especially the novel) would not.

In the panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Dwight Garner stated that even if fancy extras are added to fiction in digitized form, real readers will push past all the extras, will ignore them and actually read. This makes sense to me. It reminds me of the interviews with the author you sometimes find in the backs of books, especially young adult fiction; they are not the story, not what stays with us. They are not the experience.

I can see literary journals going digital, short stories being published online. And I can see the market for ebooks growing. But I honestly don’t think that the novel in book form will become outdated. Digital reading is about convenience. We want convenience when finding information, reading the news. And it’s convenient to be able to take several books on a single device when you vacation or commute or whatever.

But people read fiction to relax, to receive pleasure, to experience something. It isn’t about convenience. And I think that, aside from the novelty (which provides a different sort of pleasure), reading novels on a Kindle or and iPad won’t fit that need—at least not for many people; not the way books do. We are not just walking brains. We have eyes that need to rest from screens; we have fingers that touch things. We’re material creatures, and things in their thingness matter, because they speak to our materiality.

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