This was the year I lived in a log cabin in the redwoods and then — suddenly, crudely — I didn’t.
This year I moved back to San Francisco after moving away just a year earlier, just for a minute, a break, just for some air, and when I returned I found I didn’t love you anymore, SF.
This was the year I found wrinkles around my mouth and eyes, the year of three more tattoos because fuck it, I mean we’re all going to die/become climate chaos refugees anyway, I mean did you notice how crazy the weather was this year?
2015: It was the year of cooking more. Of jazz. It was the year of bupropion, the year of boot camps, the year I sold my first nonfiction book and didn’t finish my first novel. The year my friends all bought houses and I didn’t. A year of trying to be more like an adult, and a year of understanding how I never will be.
In the cabin, books felt realer. The woodstove replaced the TV. I started doing things like baking cookies and hanging bird feeders and sleeping all night. My partner and I stopped going out much, and when we did it was always to a dive bar and always for hamburgers. But we were lonely. We missed our friends. And so I read with friendship in mind, searching for female companionship in a way that I haven’t since junior high school. Most of the novels I read and loved this year were also books I was revisiting. I loved these books because they are at heart about women, about “little” lives, and about what it means to become oneself.
I re-read Colette’s Claudine at School; Colette was a self-mythologizer of Greek proportions, and all us lady writers today could learn a thing or two from her swagger.
I binge-read every E.M. Forster novel, and realized how key turns in each book hinge on women; characters who may be small in deed or acknowledgment but whose impact looms large. (In my head, I call them Forster’s Girls, as though they’re some sort of Pink Lady-like posse, which is probably a terrible thing to think?) Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View; idealist Helen Schlagel in Howards End; terrified, terrible Adele Quested in A Passage to India. These women fuck shit up, for good or bad, in part because they cannot help but yield to their true selves.
For the first time, I read Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill) and The Folded Clock (Heidi Julavits) and Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) — books with small interiors but tremendous landscapes, each about women struggling in some way with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, domestication.
On the wilder side of the spectrum, I read Get In Trouble over and over again and I still have no idea how the fuck Kelly Link does it.
I got to know some new heroes a bit better in sequels — Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl and Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle — and I felt grateful for women younger than I being stronger than I am. Then I invited over The Girls from Corona del Mar (Rufi Thorpe) and the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, girls who maybe aren’t heroes but maybe I like them better that way.
Finally, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I remembered how the best stories are edged with grief.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes in defense of sentimentality: “Nostalgia, which evokes sentimentality, belongs exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage.”
When I moved back to San Francisco this year, I did so for the fifth time in two decades. This time, though, there is a new sentimentality attached to my interactions with the city. It’s neither pure regret nor Vaseline-lensed nostalgia; more like a backwards-facing gaze, a constant awareness of what Ruefle might call the city’s “accumulation.” When I walk around this town, I can’t see it clearly, I’m so clouded with visions of lives I have lived here, things I did or didn’t do, and — most urgently — what isn’t here anymore. When I look at San Francisco now, my eye’s camera loops a constant montage of how it used to be. Jobs and apartments, lovers and friendships and grocery stores, the behavior of the clouds. How we used to be, it and me inside it. Every intersection stores a memory, and every time I cross one I have the surprising feeling that I don’t belong to this place anymore. It’s surprising mainly because I hadn’t realized I felt like I belonged.
Along with my nostalgia, I’ve been regressing into analog entertainments, to coloring books and piano lessons and young adult classics I haven’t enjoyed since girlhood. These diversions comfort me because they still feel like me. Undisrupted me. Who I was in all the thens and who I am now are not the same, as my city is not the same, but we are still ourselves.
I’m told this is a pretty typical sensation for a person to have in her 40th year of life. I’m told San Francisco is changing, has changed, will always be a city of change, so get over it. I’m in the midst of reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street and so I’m thinking about how yes, cities change. Culture proceeds. Sentiments accumulate. However, not all change is good change. That there are cycles of boom and bust on a particular parcel of land doesn’t render irrelevant the wrongs done in service of those cycles. The disappearance of my San Francisco is a big deal, to me.
4. Those Who Leave
Like everyone else, I mainlined Elena Ferrante this year, reading all four books in her epic and important Neapolitan series. After I finished The Story of the Lost Child, I was at a loss. What could I possibly read next, what act could follow Ferrante’s? I loved her so much, so unironically. I wanted to stay close to her characters, Elena and Lina. I had an inspiration: I would re-read Little Women, the novel that, in My Brilliant Friend, inspires the girls to become readers and writers, to push beyond the usual boundaries of their neighborhood and their gender.
Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869; it follows the four daughters of the March family, each of whom embodies a neat archetype. The Marches are poor, or at least Gentlewomen In Classic Literature Poor — the girls all have jobs as teenagers, but the family still has a maid. And they are literate and progressive and loving; they do all right for themselves.
I read Little Women obsessively as a girl. I even had the book-on-tape (an actual cassette). This time around, it was a bit harder for me to roll with all the moralism. Each escapade of each sister always ends in a tidy lesson, usually summarized by their wise, perfect Marmee and immediately grokked by all the girls. Despite such antiquated conventions, Alcott’s writing shines through. Little Women is a YA page-turner, each short chapter leading addictively to the next, tears and all. Ferrante and Alcott have that in common, as well as the driving principle behind their work: I can sense in both these authors’ bracing rhapsodies an assertion of value, a celebration of the delicate plainness of la vie quotidien.
I was a Jo, I was always a Jo. Most American girls were, I think (and “most” includes Louisa May Alcott herself). Jo March is rebellious and defiant of gender norms, passionate and tortured in her writing; she is smarter and more useful than the people she loves, but still devoted to them. Mostly, she incapable of being anyone but herself.
But upon this re-read, the first in probably 25 years, it’s Amy March who is a revelation to me. Amy is the baby, the blonde, the sibling antagonist to Jo’s heroine. Amy is not as good and pure as pitiful, one-note Beth, nor as docile as Meg. She wants to be an artist, a genius artist, although she would also settle for having enough money to devote herself to just working really hard at her art, genius or no. When I was a girl, Amy struck me as a snob, shallow and insipid. Her destruction of Jo’s book manuscript (spoilers!) seemed unforgiveable — oddly, far more so than a similar act in Ferrante’s epic.
Now, however, Amy’s character has stretched and grown with age. There is something about a woman who, deep inside the drab gray of Civil War-era New England, desires elegance and then goes out and acquires it. Not the false elegance of fancy clothes and leisurely French carriage rides (although Amy gets those, too) but the elegance of good character. Throughout the book, Amy is trying to be — to become — a better person. She fails a lot and gets lucky a lot, but at least she tries. At the end, Amy gets the boy — the boy who as a girl I furiously wanted for Jo. But Amy gets the boy only because she demands the boy be worthy of her, something none of her sisters ever bothered to do.
Unlike her sisters, Amy has experience with and exists within the larger world as well as within her family. As she wishes and wills and learns and, yes, works herself into intelligence and grace, Amy stands increasingly apart from her family. She is the only character in Little Women who actually evolves.
I wonder if Elena Greco, Ferrante’s main character/cipher, imagined herself to be Jo. She’s not; she’s Amy, the one at a slight remove from all the rest, the one who leaves the swaddle of family and habit for the bigger life she knows exists out there. Elena struggles to choose art over home. Like Amy, she is always strong-willed but never too brutally so (well, mostly never). If Elena is Ferrante’s Amy, then Lina must be her Jo. Like Jo, Lina stays even when she could go. She is hot-headed enough to destroy her own chances for transformation; as Jo did, Lina chooses her community over her own brilliance, her art. And, like Jo, she is impeccably, immovably, tragically herself. Elena wears masks, she code switches, she travels between two worlds and learns to speak fluently the languages of her different existences. But Lina, although she may be at times swayed by men or money or work or tragedy, is incapable of camouflage. She does not become; she is.
When you leave and then come back, you get new eyes. In San Francisco this time, I’ve uncovered a type of grief that I do not perhaps yet fully understand. A place becomes a home without you realizing it; when it stops being so, it’s sometimes equally difficult to know. Over the course of decades, people become themselves, without note. It’s only when we look back that we see the shape we’ve taken, see its shadows and imprints. In returning to the stories that have shaped us, we see too how we have been mis-formed, which parts of us have been cast in coppery truths and which have failed to adhere.
And so to the tidy moral: My reading list this year was about growing up, I guess; about how, be we little or epic, we become.
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Clare Beams reflects on her impressions of Little Women as a child and an adult at Ploughshares. A piece of her essay: “Of course, none of the real Alcott sisters could have fit into the spaces Little Women carved out for them. No real person could…. Real-life girls are messes of contradiction.” You could also read Deena Drewis’s essay on the perception of women’s writing and gender bias in publishing.
Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the ’80s. To say we love it is an understatement.
In the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area — it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it.
Three months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics — Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful.
Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less?
But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity — what is File No. 113? – and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too.
I was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old.
One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version.
My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment — a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed.
This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better — what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment?
But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?)
Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it?
Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria.
My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery — none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were — some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it.
In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show — it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list.
Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments.
But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point.
Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.
One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.
Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.
Gather round the fire with these December tales:
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.
The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).
Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.
Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.
December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
“Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,” beckoned Emily Dickinson. “I have so much to tell.” She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color “that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels.” But she also knew the dangers of the life that March’s thaw awakens: when the “snows come hurrying in from the hills” they can flood the banks of that “Brook in your heart” that “nobody knows.”
We don’t know quite what to do with March. We’re excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month’s two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare’s storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month’s mascots: a “surly” lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a “lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire.”
Oddly, the best-known novels with “March” in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar’s death, refers to a town, not a time. (It’s really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the March girls’ absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman’s sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month:
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)
There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
In the early morning of March 20, a “puny, seven months’ child” named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë’s tightly wound drama turns inward once again.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into “a world not at all excited about his arrival,” thereby beginning — with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Dickens’s favorite of his novels, and his most personal.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes’s career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, “the woman.”
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45)
With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson’s epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Binx Bolling’s story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose “peculiar reality” contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he’s burdened with.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
Margaret Ann Simon’s twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same.
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976)
The novel’s final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded “ethnic dancer” Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt’s brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom’s favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007)
“The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975.” Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they’d live to see.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)
The Kingsolver family chose to begin their “food sabbatical” — a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it — in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them.
Image via iowa_spirit_walker/Flickr
As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced?
Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy.
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.
The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”
Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.
The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”
I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?
There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”
This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”
The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.
But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.
Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).
So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?
As an English professor and unabashed therapy-junkie, I recently made it my business to read every YA novel I could find in which an adolescent protagonist visits a psychotherapist. It surprises me that teens in contemporary Young Adult fictions are still submitting to the rigors of talk therapy. This seems to be passé. According to a myriad of recent articles and books, more Americans — adolescents included — are tossing back pills for depression than trudging to therapists’ offices. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Marcia Angell explores the “shift from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness. Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.
The fictional teens who frequent therapists’ offices range from full-blown “tragics” to Holden Caulfield-esque depressives — tragics being “people who get help because they’ve had something really bad happen to them, like getting cancer, or being abused,” according to Ruby Oliver, the therapized protagonist of E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List (2005). Anna, of E.R. Frank’s Wrecked (2007), is definitely a tragic: she killed her brother’s girlfriend in a car crash. The accident wasn’t Anna’s fault, but still. Chloe Doe, the eponymous heroine of Suzanne Phillips’ 2007 novel, also has woes. After her stepfather sexually abuses and murders her sister, Chloe runs away from home and takes up prostitution. And then there is Valerie, of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009), whose boyfriend Nick Levil (get it? he’s evil!) grabs a rifle and shoots a few classmates before offing himself. Why didn’t Val see it coming? Luckily for her, Dr. Hieler (a healer!) well, heals her.
I like the un-tragic protagonists; they melt down less flamboyantly than the tragics, but they’re funnier and more soulful. Alice, of Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think (2003), suffers from the “emotional and intellectual handicaps” of home schooling. She sees a counselor she dubs “Death Lord Bob,” so named for his “small goatee” and penchant for black clothes. Alice suspects Death Lord is “riddled with issues,” and, in an effort to boost his self-esteem, becomes a model patient, overcoming her fear of public school. James Sveck of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) is my favorite character (in the one truly exceptional novel I read). A New Yorker, a stickler about language, and a gay high school student with a crush on John (his hip black gay Ivy-League-educated boss), James creates a fake profile on Gent4Gent.com, ensnaring John and ensuring a disastrous end to their friendship.
The therapists in these novels are a motley crew. They come in all colors, ethnicities, and nationalities. Crunchy, Birkenstock-sporting Dr. Z is Black (The Boyfriend List), Dr. Rowena Adler is German (Someday This Pain); Dr. Minerva is Greek (Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2006); and Dr. Greenburg is Jewish (Robin Palmer’s Cindy Ella, 2008). Some are motherly: the therapist in Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2000) smells like lavender sachets, while Frances, the freckled therapist in Wrecked, is warm (symbolized by the fact that she wears yellow in the heart of winter). Smart therapists like Dr. Adler and Chloe Doe’s Dr. Dearborn give as good as they get, meeting their teenaged patients’ verbal sallies with equally adept parries. Loser therapist Marla Dawson in Chris Crutcher’s Deadline (2007) gives up on her dying patient, protagonist Ben, lamenting that she’s “out of [her] depth” — and diabolical Dr. Malcolm Roland steals protagonist Hilly’s diary in the hope of passing it off as his own work in Kathe Koja’s Going Under (2006). Mia, in Meg Cabot’s princess series, sees a cowboy therapist named Dr. Knutz. He “certainly lived up to his name,” she tells us, surprised that he is not like the Jewish Jungian psychologists, the Drs. Moscovitz, parents of her best friend Lilly.
Despite all the silliness and melodrama inherent in the YA genre, many of the therapists in these books are depicted as helpful guides to their young patients. In The Boyfriend List, Dr. Z’s suggestion that Ruby make a list of all the boys in her life structures Ruby’s first-person narrative, fracturing chronology, engendering copious footnotes, and spawning new lists such as Ruby’s list of lies. My personal favorite is Ruby’s apology list to Noel, a boy she has treated badly. Composed of six delightful similes — Ruby is sorry “[l]ike a cat who rolled in jam” — the list allows her to make reparation while saving face through humor. As the novel closes, Ruby is able to use the list form Dr. Z has given her to live more creatively. The list, Ruby finally acknowledges, makes her feel “rather well adjusted.” Dr. Z teaches Ruby the value of playfulness, demonstrating that if you rearrange familiar elements, you will gain a new perspective.
While many of these protagonists are initially resistant to therapy, they usually get over it quickly. When we first meet Chloe Doe at the Madeline Parker Institute for Girls, she is giving her therapist, Dr. Dearborn, some serious attitude in the form of her bare breasts. Soon enough, though, she pulls down her shirt and commits to the hard work of self-discovery. Like Dr. Z, Dr. Dearborn reinterprets the world for Chloe. He sees life as a battle: “‘There’s the walk into battle. The battle itself. And the walk away… Sometimes it’s over small stuff. Sometimes it’s life and death,’” he tells her. Accordingly, Chloe envisions therapy as a high stakes struggle and begins to take it seriously, even though she feels like she’s “sitting in a tub of broken glass.” Ultimately, Chloe triumphs over her resistance: “I’m standing at the top of Everest, and I’m light-headed,” she thinks after an especially grueling session. No surprise, then, when Chloe, who overuses figurative language, comes up with the appropriately metaphorical last name of Aimes for herself at the end of the novel. This assures us — however obviously — that she is going to have a future.
James Sveck is also argumentative and hostile to Dr. Adler at the start: “I felt like we were in some contest to see who could unnerve the other first,” he admits. When their verbal pyrotechnics inevitably transform into repartee, however, James is able to use therapy to encounter his despair. In the centerpiece scene, James describes to Dr. Adler Thomas Cole’s series of four allegorical paintings, The Voyage of Life. The paintings, representing the four stages of a man’s life — “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age” — were once meaningful to James: when he was thirteen he bought reproductions of them, which he taped to his wall until a schoolmate told him they were “stupid and faggy.” Upon encountering the paintings again on a recent trip to The National Gallery, James realizes that he wants to be the central figure floating toward death in the last painting, Old Age. “I wanted to skip the Manhood boat,” he tells Dr. Adler. “I wanted to die.” James’ use of Cole’s allegory to distance himself from his suicidal thoughts assures us that he will survive his depression and return to the business of living, as indeed he does.
Overall, YA novels involving teen protagonists and their therapists suggest that adolescents are vulnerable and in need of adult intervention. These new teen protagonists are mostly unlike their immediate predecessors from the mid-Twentieth Century, the Holden Caulfields and Harriet the Spys, who saw through the hypocritical fabric of adult society and landed in therapy only as an afterthought to a gripping emotional quest. In Cut, for instance, Callie waits outside her therapist’s locked door like a sad dog, yearning to tell her “everything.” Similarly, Anna, of Wrecked, phones Frances from school for emergency therapy after having a panic attack. These dependent teens are more in the tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women than Holden and Harriet. Like the March sisters, who sob out their sins to Marmee, the adolescents in these contemporary fictions are represented as being quasi reprobates in need of spiritual, moral, and emotional guidance from the adults in their lives. As such, they follow in a literary historical tradition that didactically represents children and adolescents as dependent on adult wisdom — as opposed to the parallel tradition that portrays adolescents as purveyors of enlightenment to the adult world (think of Anne of Green Gables, who softens and transforms all the adults with whom she comes in contact).
The form of these YA fictions also nods to Louisa May. Just as Alcott offered her readers a novel about young adults structured around the guiding principles of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography The Pilgrim’s Progress, these YA novels present their adolescent readers with a new kind of conversion narrative in which the adoption of a psychotherapeutic frame of interpretation is saving. If you only yield to therapy, the tacit argument goes, you will be saved — or, if not saved, at least able to live with your problems. Emerging from the hospital after five days of in-patient therapy, Craig Gilner of It’s Kind of a Funny Story experiences the cathartic shift in his brain for which he has been longing, along with a sense that he “can handle it.”
If it is indeed true that we are experiencing a movement away “from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness, then are these YA fictions charming anachronisms? It could be that these novels fascinate me because they are written by authors who are all around my age, born in the 60s and 70s, when psychotherapy was reckoned as an exciting possibility for transformation. My generation is still stubbornly committed to the idea that knowing oneself is a worthwhile pursuit — and these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.
Editor’s note: This is essay is excerpted from Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, published by Da Capo Press. About a month after I finished the piece, my middle daughter, nineteen, read Sula for a college class and called me while I was on a book tour in Memphis for my latest novel; while I stood beside the blues bars on Beale Street, she told me that the rich language and metaphor in the novel changed the way she looked at the world.
The Virginia Quarterly Review recently devoted a special issue to the price of e-readers and technology – the endless frantic mining for the raw materials that will power up Ipads and Kindles. I don’t live on a street where anyone has e-readers, and I’d been thinking old school for a different reason: How could I give away or bequeath an e-reader?
Looking around at my hundred-year-old house, a former farmhouse on a dead end street of tiny bungalows and stucco cottages in inland southern California, and having attended seven funerals in the past two years, I’ve already thought about my most prized possessions: What would I want my children to have?
I have so little. There’s the handwoven piece of material shaped like a folder, with thread ties, enclosing green felt pages which hold needles. My great-grandmother made it, in Switzerland, in the early part of the century. My girls have seen me use it countless times, to mend their clothes.
My brother has been dead eight years now – he bequeathed me, unknowingly, his Mexican fighting chicken, named Coco, who is ten years old and still lays eggs. Also his sheepskin-lined Levi jacket, with a spatter of ragged holes from where someone threw battery acid at him, which I wear when it’s very cold or I miss him.
A cast iron frying pan given to me by my mother-in-law, who had been told that a blonde girl might not be able to cook properly for her son, but who believed in me enough to give me the pan, show me how to season it, and then teach me how to fry chicken.
And my books.
Because I still live in the same city where I was born, and no one in my family has ever loved books, the walls of my house are lined with them, including all the volumes of my childhood.
My three girls have read most of them: the ragged, much-handled copy of Little Women, illustrated with bonneted sisters; the ancient copy of Heidi which meant so much to me as I imagined my mother living that life, in the Swiss Alps (she spoke very little about her childhood except to say that when she was ten, her mother’s body lay on the dining room table until the funeral in the tiny mountain town. (They refused to touch Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives, circa 1969, which used to scare the crap out of me and which I still love for the gory illustrations.)
I waited years to hand it to her, a great reader like me, waiting for the right moment to put it on her dresser or in her palm and have her say reverently, “This is the book you read every year, the one we always tease you about.” But not until she was twenty, a junior in college, did I succeed in having her actually pick it up. And of course, she said with utter incredulity after she’d finished it, and handed it back unceremoniously, “Yeah, the mother lights her son on fire. And the women all end up alone. Thanks, Mom.”
Was I fourteen? I had just met my future husband, in junior high. It was summer. I went to the Riverside Public Library as often as I could because it was quiet and safe. The paperback on the revolving wire rack, with a pencil-marked A on the inside first page. A for Adult? It was for sale. 75 cents.
I picked it up because the young woman on the cover looked so much like my high school friends. Brown skin, a cloud of black hair, a dark-blue floral print dress that looks ’70s Qiana-fabric slinky, and a birthmark over one eye. Above her the words say—
SHE IS DIFFERENT,
SHE IS MAGICAL, SHE IS
Until then, every adult novel I read had come checked out from this library or the bookmobile that came to the grocery store parking lot in my neighborhood. I thought it was a book for a girl. I didn’t know Sula would drown a child, watch her mother burn without running to help, steal her best friend’s husband, defy her town, and die alone at thirty.
This slim novel—149 pages, the paperback published in 1975—became a dark and luminous icon for me. It was like a premonition. It made me into a writer, it colored how I became a mother, and images and words from it unfurl themselves in my mind—like dye dropped into water—nearly every day, as I stand at the sink, as I drive a car, as I look at my children. Its cheap pages darkened to marigold, Sula remains on a shelf near my desk, except for the days that I read it again, annually. I have read the book at least once a year for the last thirty-five years. I married at twenty-two, and every year my husband would see the paperback, the girl’s implacable gaze on him, her hand under her chin, and he would say, “You reading that book again?” I would say, “You watching Shaft again?” We had memorized large portions of the dialogue of each.
The first time I kissed him was on the asphalt basketball court down the street from my house. At fourteen, I had understood little of the scene where Sula is making love with Ajax, but I never forgot what she saw:
…the golden eyes and the velvet helmet of hair…If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear. It will flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf.
Even then, on the school playground, I studied his face, trying to define it in word-images. His skin was the color of palm-bark, brown with red underneath; his black eyebrows were narrow crow feathers; on his cheek a complicated scar like Chinese script from where someone had hit him with jagged rock.
Months earlier, I’d been walking down a street with my best friend. She blithely agreed to hitch a ride in an ancient Buick like a dirty white boat. I followed her into the backseat, and a few blocks later, the young men inside turned menacing.
At fourteen, I had understood exactly what happened when Sula and her best friend Nel are confronted by four Irish boys on the way home from school, boys who have been hunting them as sport, and Sula pulls out her grandmother’s paring knife—
Sula squatted down in the dirt road and put everything down on the ground; her lunchpail, her reader, her mittens, her slate. Holding the knife in her right hand, she pulled the slate toward her and pressed her left forefinger down hard on its edge. Her aim was determined but inaccurate. She slashed off only the tip of her own finger. The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood that ran into the corners of the slate.
Sula raised her eyes to them. Her voice was quiet. “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?”
The first time I’d read it the metaphor and simile went into my brain like the vapor of the PCP-soaked Kool cigarettes my compatriots were smoking that summer. I studied my fingertips. Button mushroom. Cherry blood.
In the Buick, I told the men an elaborate story about my stepfather who was a sheriff’s deputy. I described his shotgun, fearlessly looking into their weed-reddened eyes, and said, “Do whatever you’re going to do, but when you drop us off, he’ll find you and kill you.”
My stepfather owned three Laundromats. We cleaned them on the weekend. He had no gun.
They left us on another corner, and my friend said, “You just lied and lied.”
Thirty years later. My friend Nicole and I sit at my kitchen table, and while she heats a straightening comb on the burner to tame my middle daughter’s hair before a dance, I am reminded of when Sula returns to town after being gone for ten years, visiting Nel’s kitchen—
Nel lowered her head onto crossed arms while tears of laughter dripped into the warm diapers…Her rapid soprano and Sula’s dark sleepy chuckle made a duet that frightened the cat and made the children run in from the back yard, puzzled at first by the wild free sounds, then delighted to see their mother stumbling merrily toward the bathroom, holding on to her stomach, fairly singing through the laughter: “Aw. Aw. Lord. Sula. Stop.”
I am the one burying my face while Nicole says, “I looked at this brotha’s picture, the one, you understand, he thought best to put up on the dating site, and I see these rings around his face, and I look again, and he’s got his damn driver license photo on there. That’s the best he can do and he thinks I’m about to give him a call. Cause he’s a catch. With his lazy broke ass.”
My girls hover in the doorway and narrow their eyes, a little afraid to come in.
The business of loving and buying and reading books is not a zero-sum game. In my daily life, I know no one with an e-reader. It’s not that kind of neighborhood. And you can’t give away a book on that “platform.” Thousands of people might only read on their iPads or Kindles in the future; they may never buy another printed-on-paper novel. Thousands more will never have books; they will tell their stories by firelight and kerosene lamp in a circle of people as they always have (or in our family’s case, standing around the oil-drum cooker in my father-in-law’s driveway, the barbecue smoke drifting over all the cousins as they talk about a shooting that happened in 1921 or a shooting that happened last weekend, as they talk about how much a nephew loves the wrong woman and she’s certain to ruin his life). And thousands more of us will only read books we can hold in our hands and pass on.
Nel and Sula. “We were two throats and one eye and we had no price.”
The book was on the couch again, while I wrote this. My youngest daughter, fourteen, said, “What’s Sula about anyway?”
She has seen it on every table, bed, and couch in the house, her entire life. The solemn, hooded eyes of the young woman study her. Does she recognize the guarded, evaluating stare as the one she’s seen countless times in the gaze of her aunts, my friends, and me? At a school function surrounded by white parents, at sports events where people study us, at the store where the security guard frowns slightly?
She picked it up and looked at the back cover.
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]
I avoided reading Kim for a long time because I’ve always thought of it as some creaking colonial bore, popular with dads (or my dad, rather. Who is not, for the record, a creaking colonial bore). Kipling, I have observed, is catnip to gentlemen over a certain age; how far they are over that age determines how much they own up to his allure. Kipling is also high on what I will call the Post-Colonial Burn Index (higher than Conrad, lower than Haggard). These are the authors who look particularly dingy in the bright(ish) light of progress. While authors high on this index retain value within Academia and among the Olds, their stock with the Youngs and the read-for-fun set is at an ebb. I guess it’s like that for most hundred year-old books, regardless of reputation. Either way, I approached Kim expecting little.
I came away from Kim surprised on two fronts. First, I was surprised to find that I was actually reading, for the second time this month, a John le Carre novel. It was all there; the story of an orphaned sahib, long on brains and short on pedigree, fostered from a tender age by the everloving arms of the Service, all in the name of thwarting the Russians. The Russians, it seems, are a perennial problem. In fact, Kim gave me a greater appreciation for John le Carre, who cleverly channels and complicates Kipling throughout his own work. Among other things, he charges right into the impossibility, which Kipling prods at without really engaging, of being wholly part of two worlds.
Then, I was surprised that I enjoyed reading the novel. It laid on the White Man’s Burden less thick than I expected. Of course it’s there; it’s the crux of the story. But I thought the novel was going to be a mouth-breathing white man in a topee. Instead, like Kim himself, it’s a lissome kid in salwar kameez. It lulls you into thinking you are simply reading a charming buddy road novel, or turning the pages of a sepia-toned viewbook. You’re skipping school, mixing it up, hustling, but with heart.
Of course, it happens not to be that simple. Kipling clearly had a deep, abiding affection for and interest in the landscape, people, customs, and cultural complexities of his erstwhile homeland, and it is felt profoundly throughout this novel. Still, comfortably coexisting with this sentiment was the firm conviction that England was the legitimate shepherd of the Subcontinental flock. George Orwell, who went back and forth in his estimation of Kipling (he called him a “jingo imperialist…morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting,” but he granted him a place in the literary-historical pantheon) knew this apparent paradox well. In Burmese Days,
Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word ‘nigger’, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted.
‘Is it quite playing the game,’ he said stiffly, ‘to call these people niggers–a term they very naturally resent–when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct–‘
Kipling, although probably not much like the ineffectual Magregor, shares his barbed affection for the colonized. His character Kim, the “friend of all the world,” is a Mary Sue. He’s good at everything–languages, friendship, cursing, disguises (skirts, even). He can mix with sahibs, Pathans, Bengalis, Tibetan lamas, and everyone else. Basically, he is the most awesome guy ever. And, like, not only can he do all the things that various brown people can do, but he’s secretly white! It does not get more awesome than that.
The best use of Kim’s genius for cross-cultural passing, Kipling tells us with no trace of irony, is a role as a spy in the Great Game, toward the continued Dominion of the British Empire (and, naturally, the subjugation of her subjects). The novel reflects the most insidious kind of prejudice–the kind woven into a love song. Consider the print and hot air devoted quite sincerely to the beauty, the superior heart, the emotional intelligence of women–written and spoken, to a word, by people who thought women were too stupid to vote. That’s kind of the situation here.
Sorting through my impressions when I finished the novel, I find there is something weird about the whole thing. For one, the story is so wistful and idealized that it reads more like a fairy tale than the jewel in the crown of a Nobel laureate. I feel Kipling in that I fantasize about being a Kim, being able to fit in and speak without an accent. I’m a foreign service brat, from a contingent whose central paradox is that they feel homesick for places they don’t understand and languages they can’t speak.
The desire with which Kipling wants to be Kim seems palpable to me, and ludicrous, considering Kim’s impossible awesomeness. He’s the Whole Boy: Indian Edition. In fact, Kim is so awesome that I spent the last quarter of the book convinced that he was about to die, like whatsername in Little Women.
But he doesn’t die. In fact, I’m not quite sure what he does, despite reading an essay literally entitled “What Happens at the End of Kim?” Kim’s buddy, the holy man, attains nirvana, but turns back, like one does, to take his apprentice along. Kim is already bound to a life of international intrigue, though, so I’m pretty sure he can’t come. It’s sort of win-win either way for him, I thought, although I’m not sure about the lama. Maybe there’s something here I’m not grasping.
Ultimately, I suppose the book is a jewel. For all that it is founded on the paradox of prejudice and a shaky plot, the story sparkles. It’s just that it sparkles from a tarnished crown in a pawnshop window, a relic from a discredited raj.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)