I’m in the middle of Wuthering Heights as I write this, anxiously anticipating the greatest scene in all of English literature. You know the one. As I pass through what might be my fourth or fifth visit at the Heights, I wonder if it’s Emily or Charlotte I admire most. But then they’re both so wonderful. I can’t decide. My apologies to Anne whom I’ve yet to read. Thank god for these sisters though and their world to which I can escape the pre-apocalyptic nightmare of 2019.
Never one to shy from the cheerful thought of possible extinction, this year I slowly meandered through The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, whom my best friend tells me writes great articles at The New Yorker, though I never read them because I find New Yorker articles far too long for my Twitter-addicted eyeballs, except for the one about sound being “permanently” recorded with sand. On every page of The Sixth Extinction is some criminally ignored fact—or warning—about the threat to humanity’s future on this planet. At the outset of the book, we’re introduced to a spore that is rapidly killing off the world’s frogs. Can you imagine a world without frogs? Or even less of them? What is the night without a symphony of croaks? I want to ask that to everyone. The threats to civilization pile high. The end is coming. I want to run down the street screaming this at people. A desire so fiery I couldn’t even keep a lid on it for this Year In Reading list. Dark days ahead my friends.
The salve for this existential worry is sometimes writing, poetry, big-time novels like Prey by Michael Crichton, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, all of which I giddily consumed in bed in the dark on my kindle—my third such device after the first was broken on a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Mexico and the second was left in the backseat pocket on a flight from London to San Francisco.
But if I’m being totally honest, and if the editors of The Millions allow me, the greatest salve is The Relentless Picnic podcast. Obviously, a podcast won’t count as reading per se, but let me defend this. The three Picnickers are voracious and erudite readers, often sustaining two hours of discussion with recitations from philosophical treatises, strips of poems, incantations etched into the underbelly of pine bark. You’re their greatest friend, but also a humble receiver of what I imagine is like a more immediate version of an audiobook. Finally, and maybe most importantly for this venue, the Picnickers have led me to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Mark Leidner’s Under the Sea, two collections that not only display the writers’ brilliance but point at the possibilities of a new literature.
Another trio of books that has alternately cooled my jets and had me dreaming of the guillotine is The Xenofeminist Manifesto from Laboria Cuboniks, Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino, and Pink Privacy by Jessica Yatrofsky. Facebook’s recent invitation to have its technology and platform seized by the federal government fortifies XF’s central point that it is in our future’s interest to repurpose and redirect technological advancement. Across the board, companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Uber have shown they are incapable of working toward the good of human civilization. Like the Old Guard of Capital who have sold off the Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta, poisoned Flint’s water, bleached out the Great Barrier Reef, and committed countless other equally catastrophic environmental and human offenses, the new disruptors of economic development have proven too irresponsible to entrust with the tools of human thriving.
If we are to take back control of the future, Trevino’s Cruel Fiction is a poetry collection I hope every person has memorized—its lines splashed in red over a confederate monument or on the lips of a youth throwing a brick through Bank of America’s window. A song we might sing over communal dinners. Much of what Trevino writes appears self-evident to me, but then from that I assume maybe she’s speaking directly to me or at least people like me. In this Fake News-Trumpist Idiocracy, there aren’t people to “win over” after all. The site of rational political discourse is the fiction. Trevino writes not to worry about those who work against you. In an echo of an earlier manifesto from France, Trevino emphatically tells us it is through the fires of mass struggle that we will “see each other.”
When I think of the joy I might feel on the eve of revolution, I think of Jessica Yatrofsky’s Pink Privacy. Though less overtly political than Cruel Fiction and The Xenofeminist Manifesto, Pink Privacy sustains a personal-political project Yatrofsky has forged across a wide range of media from film and photography to neon installations and music. Pink Privacy disarmed me with its humor, often sexual and brutal, while proclaiming clearly the independence and vulnerability of its author. Like the dizzying dance at the crescendo of Midsommar, Pink Privacy elucidates as much as of the world as it inducts you into the as-of-yet-unrevealed experience of women in the 21st century. Also, as in the feel-good-hit of the summer, you’ll rejoice in watching Yatrofsky burn everything down.
I reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I’m no Woolf scholar, but this is her greatest book, right? No? I wept at her writing, thinking, Oh my god, this is what a novel could do, this is the power of writing… Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I went to a cafe for a cappuccino and a vegan lemon cake. The barista saw my book and told me she had been studying Woolf in school. Not wanting to seem like a weirdo I didn’t tell her the book was making me cry and instead mumbled something about how beautiful the prose was. I returned to my table outside with my cake and drink and, forgetting the barista, read as long as I could, until my cup was emptied.
I also reread The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which, though I still found it affecting, did not have quite the same impact as when I first read it 16 years ago while on a solo trip through New England. Back then I was a young and broken-hearted college senior and found myself renting a room at a Franciscan monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young Werther was my only literary friend at the moment—well, him and Bartleby. Now, Werther just seemed sad to me and not in a good way. He is like a younger brother who has taken life way too seriously. A majority of my enjoyment rereading Werther was simply the nostalgia it created for the person I used to be, the gratitude that I had made it out of New England with only a bloody nose but dispossessed of the broken heart.
I read Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, In the Distance by Hernán Diaz, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. Chen’s novel about time-travel and protecting those you love resonated strongly for me, but nothing prepared me for how deeply I would be affected by its ending. I want to say something like Chen’s writing is deceptively good but I don’t want that to sound like a backhanded compliment. What I mean is his characters and their story work their magic beyond the text while you’re just flying through the pages. By the end of the book, I was so enthralled to the story I couldn’t help but ugly cry. Only Les Miserables has elicited a similar response, so bravo, Mike Chen. Similarly, In the Distance performed some emotional miracle, almost without my notice. Diaz’s writing confounded me at times in the best possible ways. His language is lush and rhapsodic but balanced against the austerity of the American west of 1850. I look forward to returning to Diaz’s novel when my own writing is missing something.
Kiesling’s The Golden State is a novel I’ve found impossible to escape. For me it was quite easy to slide into the familiarity of its Northern California setting. The ridiculousness of the State of Jefferson movement. The beauty of the wild and untouched vastness of California. There’s this joke about how tourists not from California think they can visit San Francisco and Los Angeles all in the same day. What? It’s only a drive down the coast right? No, it is not. (I also remember working at The Gap at Fisherman’s Wharf and selling sweaters and jeans to Swedish tourists clad in only t-shirts and shorts who believed the movies and thought California was always sunny and 75 degrees.) This state is HUGE and a lot exists here. Kiesling consolidates that vastness, the deserted menace of Northern-NorCal, into a lightning strike none-day road trip for Daphne and her small child, Honey. I think of all the books I’ve read this year, The Golden State has been the one I’ve recommended to friends the most. This is partially because over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Lydia and partially because I consider myself a “California Kid” and I love that there’s a contemporary novel out now I can point to and say Hey, look, yes, this is what it’s like here!
This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.
All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).
My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).
To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)
Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.
Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.
Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.
(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)
Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.
Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.
Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.
All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).
I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.
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On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.
My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?
In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.
I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.
The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.
As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.
There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.
I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.
I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.
So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.
Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.
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When I was in my early 20s — still youthful enough to consider myself an angry young man — I discovered the novels of Sinclair Lewis. My father had had an old slipcased edition of Main Street alongside titles like Omoo and Wuthering Heights — so I’d always thought of Lewis as too musty to bother with. Yet when I finally read one of his books — Babbitt was the first — I was shocked by how modern it felt. Despite the references to derbies and pipe tobacco, it was as indignant and cynical as I was. When you’re an angry young man, this qualifies as a good thing.
I soon read Lewis’s other classics — Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Main Street, and It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s skepticism, his disdain for hypocrisy, and his ringing pessimism felt in step with a hypocritical and pessimistic world: it was the early 2000s, and George W. Bush was dragging us into war.
Given the timing, It Can’t Happen Here’s dystopianism struck a chord with me. In the book, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency through a mix of populism and economic promises, then promptly turns the country into a fascist hellscape. Though the book was published in 1935, it felt as if it had been written just before I read it: the conflict in Iraq was at its height, and Bush had, like Windrip, gone from folksy numbskull to leering warmongerer. Bush was Buzz; Lewis had seen our future. I pressed the book upon friends, as if reading it would somehow change the country’s predicament.
Thanks to the United States’ latest predicament, It Can’t Happen Here has become a back-catalogue hit; Donald Trump’s election has made it Amazon’s top-selling American Classic, and 22nd-bestselling book overall. Americans seem to be reading it as something like non-fiction, more Michael Lewis than Sinclair Lewis. On its surface, this seems reasonable: like our new president, Windrip rails against the media and intellectual elites, and Windrip’s white supporters — who mass to hear him talk of restoring America’s greatness — lash out at minorities. Windrip even employs a Steve Bannon-like propagandist who sneers at supplying “ordinary folks” with “true facts.”
Once in power, Windrip jails dissenting congressmen, abolishes the states, and opens concentration camps, among other general horrors. And this is where It Can’t Happen Here lost me in 2004, and loses me today: it becomes so relentlessly, cartoonishly grim that its prescience is dimmed by its alarmism. Which begs the question: do we need It Can’t Happen Here for this? We seem to be depressing and alarming ourselves without any outside help; thanks to social media, we’ve become a nation of hissing cats, our backs perpetually arched.
There’s another Lewis novel that describes a Trump-like figure’s rise with none of It Can’t Happen Here’s Hunger Games hyperbole: the religion-deflating Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. While It Can’t Happen Here posits the aftermath of a false prophet’s ascent, Elmer Gantry is a complete portrait of such a man — and, in our present moment, strikes me as the far more useful book.
Elmer Gantry’s titular character is a boozing womanizer who, as a college student, learns “the intoxication of holding an audience with his closed hand” in his public speaking class. Yet he shunned the debate team because “he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration…out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.” Gantry chooses a life in religion more out of lassitude than belief — his mother, “owned by the church,” “had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher” — though he was “a little too much tempted by the gauds of This World.”
As he moves up the ministerial ladder — beginning in lowly Banjo Crossing and grinding towards the metropolis of Zenith — he preaches against personal ambition, though he “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” He rails against immorality, though he’s a Ku Klux Klan admirer and a sexual predator. He’s too hypocritical to consider his hypocrisy. None of this bothers his followers; all they want is a good, fiery show — never mind that he considers them “pop-eyed and admiring morons.”
“He had a number of phrases — all stolen — and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions,” Lewis writes. In different circumstances, Gantry wouldn’t hesitate to lead chants of “Lock her up” or “Build the wall” — regardless of whether he believed in the words or their consequence. Unsurprisingly, Gantry fixates on his audiences’ sizes, not any good that he might do: “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” he tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!” Indeed, he has the bigliest crowds around.
In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip emerges from the traditional architecture of American politics. He’s a despot but he’s also, first and foremost, a politician. Gantry, though, is more Trumpian, a fraudulent fish-out-of-water who makes it up as he goes. And, like Trump, he knows that truth is no match for style. Elmer Gantry ends with the preacher thundering to a crowd of 2,500, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” — though he has just emerged from a sex scandal involving his secretary. The lesson of Elmer Gantry — and, perhaps, of Donald Trump — isn’t that terrible people succeed. It’s that good people enable them by hearing what they want to hear.
If you want to read a nightmare about the havoc Donald Trump might wreak, then pick up It Can’t Happen Here. But if you want a guide to how we’ve come to find ourselves in such a bewildering, dangerous place —– and to how we might, in the future, avoid such empty hucksters — choose Elmer Gantry. It’s one of Sinclair Lewis’s best. And it’s the story of Donald Trump.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”
As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.
There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.
Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.
Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.
Which he did. Partly.
But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”
I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.
When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown…
It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.
For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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Netflix’s Happy Valley is known for being mumbly — many North American viewers watch with the subtitles on. The Yorkshire-speak is unabashed, as is the crying: longtime cop Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) solves crime while suffering metastatic personal tragedies. As she notes in the opening episode, “I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with my sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson. So.” The grandson is her dead daughter Becky’s child, conceived in a rape. Season One (2014) has Catherine on a kidnap case, not knowing at first that one of the criminals involved is Becky’s rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). In Season Two (2016), Royce is in prison, using a besotted woman to get at Catherine while she investigates a series of sexual murders.
Visually, the scenes are clear-edged; the landscape green, the huge sky often piled with clouds. References to the grey-brick towns and villages of northern England’s Calder Valley abound (the police call it “Happy Valley” in honour of its addict population, perhaps echoing the sex-drugs-and-murder colonial compound of that name in Kenya). The opening episode includes a scene at the Heptonstall churchyard where Becky is buried, along with Sylvia Plath — the characters remark on the visitors who leave pens on the latter’s grave. This is no throwaway reference; Happy Valley is full of painful relationships, and Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes likely takes the literary cake in that department.
Nor is it the only literary source material for the show. For one, Happy Valley has a curiously Victorian quality that goes beyond its soot-stained setting. Class and women’s roles, those 19th-century preoccupations, loom large. Sarah Lancashire lends a certain atmosphere, known for corseted appearances in BBC period dramas like Oliver Twist and Sons and Lovers. And Yorkshire has 19th-century badlands pedigree; Charles Dickens made it the home of the dreadful Dotheboys Hall school in Nicholas Nickleby, for instance. But the show also echoes the works of the county’s native daughters, the Brontës. Haworth, their hometown, is mentioned more than once. Catherine has a Jane Eyre-like stoicism, and Tommy Lee Royce’s schemes to gain power over his son and those he sees as having harmed him aren’t far from Heathcliff’s machinations. However, it’s the least-known Brontë’s vision that is clearest here.
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the six siblings — five girls and a boy — born at Haworth parsonage 18 months before her mother died. The two eldest girls died in childhood, and Anne grew up closest to Emily, with whom she created the imaginary world of Gondal. Throughout their curtailed lives (both died in early adulthood of consumption), they wrote stories and occasional journal notes about themselves and their imagined characters. When Anne left home to work as a governess, she continued writing, and later published poems and two novels as Acton Bell. Her sisters’ respective Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre became sensations, and though The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) sold well and quickly gained notoriety, Anne’s reputation was submerged after her death, especially once Charlotte wrote dismissively of her work. But with her 200th birthday coming up in 2020, she’s now seen as a proto-feminist who looked unflinchingly at life’s worst problems; her work is deceptively powerful.
Anne didn’t leave many private writings, and she’s difficult to know. Her published poems are often religious and nature-inspired, but one can see they’re reinforced with steel. Away from home, caring for difficult children under indifferent employers, she wrote of loneliness and low spirits; most of her poetry is a summons to courage, with God as the adrenaline shot. Some of her poems, though, pulse with huge personal feeling that has nowhere to go; “Self-Communion” (1847-8), for instance, talks of others “whose love may freely gush and flow,” and “whose dreams of bliss were not in vain.” In the end, the passion is subsumed again. Biographers have speculated about whether Anne loved a young curate, William Weightman, but there isn’t much evidence to go on, and her work keeps her deepest self-communing private.
In Happy Valley, Catherine does the same, submerging her pain beneath a preternaturally calm surface much of the time. For her, there’s little sense of a god or any other consolation for suffering, but there’s the moral imperative, similar to Anne’s, that life must plod on, that this is the way things are. So many people depend on Catherine that she can’t collapse, however close to a breakdown she gets. Her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) is a difficult, fragile sibling, depending on Catherine to run much of her life. When Catherine leaves her at a party to pursue the criminal Royce, her absence precipitates Clare’s furious relapse into drinking. That night, she weaves off towards the pub, while Catherine, cracking at last, screams that the door will be locked when she tries to come home, and that she should “remember there’s a fellow out there murdering and mutilating vulnerable women wandering about at night on their own.” But within minutes, Catherine is out looking for her again, watching as she throws up in the square, putting her to bed with a loving note, and returning to harness at the police station in the morning. The sibling relationship here is complex and realistic, showing how family can lock people in.
Anne Brontë was also tied to her family. She seems to have accepted her role as her father’s “dear little Anne,” mild and placating, while privately showing more strength than her siblings. Given their propensity to run from adult life and return home, Anne was the only one to really support herself financially. Her withdrawal into herself is understandable: she lost her beloved Emily five months before her own death, and she also dealt with an addict sibling. Her brother Branwell fell apart after an affair with the mother of the boy he was tutoring at Thorp Green, the grand house near York where Anne was governess. Horrified, she witnessed Branwell slowly kill himself with alcohol and opium, burdening her with what Charlotte called “the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused.” Some of Branwell’s final writings are pitiable notes to a friend begging for “fivepence worth of gin,” a hard contrast to his earlier plans to be a great author or painter. Anne’s determination to live her own life, and write her clear-eyed work as she saw fit, seems to have come out of his fate. In her semi-autobiographical first novel Agnes Grey (1847), she wrote: “The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you can imagine, or than anyone can who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking.” Catherine and Anne are the sisters who know their strength, and accept the roles their family members give them.
Tough women proliferate in Anne’s books. The title character in Agnes Grey is a governess in charge of uncontrollable brats, noting rather drily, “[I]s not active employment…the surest antidote for despair?” She carries on stoically until a parson, Edward Weston, declares his love for her and she can marry and give up work. Though it’s a Cinderella variant, scholars have noted that Agnes undergoes no real change, unusual for a 19th-century bildungsroman. Agnes simply goes on, unchanging, because she must. Like Catherine, her static quality defines her and makes her strong.
Even tougher, and more shocking in the book’s time, is Helen Graham of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who flees her abusive alcoholic husband with her young son and tries to begin a new life. Helen’s diary makes up part of the novel, and is full of desperate scenes; the husband gets their boy hooked on drinking, for one. The abuse wasn’t what stunned the Victorian audience; it was instead Helen’s refusal to submit to her husband, illegally running away with their child. But even now, the abuse and high drama aren’t really the point of the book. It’s the character’s endurance that holds readers. As Helen puts it, “What the world stigmatizes as romantic, is often more nearly allied to the truth than is commonly supposed.” The romantic, that is to say highly dramatic, plot is the servant of Anne Brontë’s need to push forward her truth.
Happy Valley also has its luridness, but this is similarly kept in its place relative to Catherine’s strong character. Tommy Lee Royce has raped not only Becky, but also Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), the kidnap victim in Season One. Catherine has to tell Ann’s father about the assault: “She couldn’t face telling you herself,” she says, “so she asked me to…You do need to know.” It’s a distressing scene, brilliantly played by Lancashire, but again, the show takes care to point out that rape doesn’t define Ann’s character. Catherine goes on to say, “She’s tough. She’s clever. She’s dealing with it.” Like Anne Bronte, Ann is a strong young woman who loses her mother and insists on making her own way in life. In Season Two, Ann has joined the police force, working with Catherine, making headway on cases; the assault is behind her, just one part of her story. Critics have recently commented on male TV writers’ casual use of rape as female characters’ only motivation to get angry and act — Game of Thrones has received plenty of flack for this — but Happy Valley’s writer, Sally Wainwright, deals with it quite differently. She told The Guardian, “Women are more heroic. The banality of the day-to-day; the reality of it; coping with problems on a daily basis.” The rape, abuse, and addiction fit into everyday life. They’re not the centre of things, and the protagonists push on with work and family like Sisyphus moving uphill.
Even the horrors of kidnap, assault, and murder take a backseat to Catherine’s characterization. In one of the show’s best moments, a drunken Ann, who has just shagged a stranger outside a bar, looks at Catherine and says, “So much goodness. So much bigness…It’s like you embody what God is.” This appellation feels exactly right — as do Catherine’s other colleagues’ secret nicknames for her: “Brunhilde” and “Miss Trunchbull,” after Roald Dahl’s headmistress in Matilda. The Victorian Angel in the House hasn’t died; she has mutated from the quiet, calm keeper of domestic bliss into someone huge and ferocious, working at all costs to keep others safe, even the least sympathetic characters. This theme is rooted in Anne Brontë’s work — Helen, for instance, cares for her abusive husband when he lies dying and begging for her to save his soul. Happy Valley’s Catherine takes this trope further, saving Royce’s life, consoling his manipulated prison girlfriend, and raising her grandson in spite of her clear ambivalence towards him as Royce’s child.
The visibly tired Catherine cries often, and gets through the pain of every Christmas with false “big smiles.” Anne Brontë’s protagonists are also emotionally driven; Helen says, “[S]miles and tears are so alike with me, they are neither of them confined to any particular feelings: I often cry when I am happy, and smile when I am sad.” For both Happy Valley and Anne Brontë, the nature of feeling isn’t important. It’s the engine for correcting injustice, keeping women in perpetual forward motion.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum lies in the remote Yorkshire village of Haworth, perched above vast, unpopulated moors. Arriving on a drizzly evening in late November, having changed trains several times and debarked in Keighley (pronounced KEITH-ley), I jounced over the narrow country streets in a bus, bleary with jet lag, until a grandmotherly woman nudged me to get off. The bus left me at the bottom of a high street so steep that its original pavers had installed the bricks short-end-up to give horses more traction. I lugged my suitcase up between the iron-grey stone and lath cottages lining the street. The Black Bull tavern appeared on my left, and an old-fashioned pharmacy with chickens scratching around its front door on my right. Once installed in my room at Weaver’s, a bed and breakfast over a low-ceilinged, hearth-warmed pub, I looked out the window. There before me was the parsonage, facing the famous graveyard and Rev. Brontë’s church. My breath caught in my chest. I was about 100 feet from the place where Charlotte Brontë — born 200 years ago today — lived, worked, and died.
Isolated in bucolic Haworth, the Brontës did not have society connections. Patrick Brontë moved the family to the remote Yorkshire village in 1820 when he became resident parish priest. Within five years, his wife, Maria, and his two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, were dead. In the parsonage, his four youngest children grew up with books and created their own magazines and illustrated sagas. By adulthood, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had written seven novels and several volumes of poetry. Their brother Branwell painted and earned money by tutoring the children of local gentry.
The young artists had to forge their own connections. When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to poet laureate Robert Southey for feedback on her writing; Southey admitted she had ability but chided her: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Years later, after a half dozen rejections of her first manuscript The Professor, Charlotte penned Jane Eyre: An Autobiography “edited by Currer Bell” over the summer of 1847. When it came out that October, it was an overnight sensation, immediately drawing the admiration of William Makepeace Thackeray and the bombast of anti-feminists. Even before the pseudonym was unveiled, London literati were beside themselves over the question of authorship. In the Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Rigby rankled that the book could not have been written by a woman because Jane defies the essence of femininity and Christian piety; “and if by no woman, [the book] is certainly by no artist,” she added.
Between the novel’s publication and her death eight years later, Charlotte, surviving the loss of all three siblings in the space of eight months during 1848 to 1849, became a one-woman publicity agency. She visited London, met the already famous political economist Harriet Martineau, and entertained rising novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a prime figure in a new subgenre of fiction, the Condition of England novel (to which Shirley also belongs). Gaskell would soon become Brontë’s posthumous biographer. When Life of Charlotte Brontë hit bookstores in 1857, devotees arrived in Haworth, peeping into the windows as Rev. Patrick Brontë ate his meals alone. So began a fiercely devoted fan culture that has only gained momentum over the past century and a half — with pilgrimages like mine and with a steady stream of literary tributes such as this year’s The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, an example of biofiction distinctive to Brontëana.
I spent my first evening in Haworth walking around the parsonage’s lovely garden-bordered front yard, gazing at the strange churchyard with its gravestones laid flat, and admiring the cornflower blue clock-face. Behind it, the Yorkshire hills, green even in late November, sloped away and rose again in the distance, giving the impression that I was alone on a pinnacle in the middle of nowhere, England. The chilly air was still except for a rooster crowing. There was no sign or sound of life from this century. I scanned the upper windows of the parsonage, wondering which was Charlotte’s room.
The next day, Ann Dinsdale, collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, gave me a private tour. The four main rooms downstairs are preserved and have been recreated to appear as they were when Charlotte and her father occupied the house after Emily and Anne’s deaths. The parlor on the left sported red curtains and the round table at which the sisters wrote. Across the hall was Rev. Brontë’s study, and the kitchen where Emily and Anne would write diary papers every few years and where Emily would teach herself German while she waited for bread to rise. Behind the parlor was a converted pantry that Charlotte had renovated for her husband, her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. On the landing upstairs, the iconic portrait of the Brontë sisters by Branwell was displayed — a copy, Ms. Dinsdale told me. Behind the pigment that Branwell used to paint himself out of the group portrait, his face just faintly appeared. Upstairs were rooms occupied by Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister, who came to raise the girls when Mrs. Brontë died.
In a narrow room between Aunt Branwell’s chamber and Rev. Brontë’s bedroom, young Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell fashioned themselves into authors and cultural critics. There they invented tales about imaginary kingdoms, Gondal and Angria, and produced minute, hand-sewn and -lettered booklets that parodied London magazines, complete with advertisements. Their juvenilia is full of military sagas, political drama, and romance — the result of their father’s unusual library containing volumes of racy poetry by Lord Byron, history books full of battles, and earnest political treatises. Rev. Brontë’s library was unusually cosmopolitan for a clergyman or indeed most literate households in the early-19th century. (Books were expensive and often limited to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible). This library, along with Patrick’s encouragement of his children’s art, music, and writing, may be the single greatest reason that the Brontë sisters became poets and novelists — along with the storytelling of their beloved servant Tabitha Aykroyd. According to Dinsdale, Tabitha would relate the village gossip and tell sordid tales that were not necessarily edited for children’s ears. Other than a brief stint at a school for clergymen’s daughters, they were educated at home in a provincial village of miners and wool workers.
But in order to become juvenile authors and the young women who crafted tales of insubordinate heroines and reckless heroes, they had to survive. On a shelf in a downstairs back room, Ms. Dindale pointed out a pair of cloth mules with platform soles; these were for protecting dainty shoes and low hemlines from the muck of the village streets. She didn’t elaborate, but offered a copy of a public health study conducted a few years before Charlotte died.
In 1850, the average life expectancy in Haworth was 25.8 years. Because it was a town “periodically visited by typhus fever,” in that year, Haworth commissioned a report by Benjamin H. Babbage. Babbage was an inspector in the new field of public health, which had gotten underway in London as a consequence of new scientific attention to urban slums and what middle-class Victorians perceived as the moral and physical degradation of the poor. Rev. Brontë assisted with Babbage’s investigation. The inspector found open sewage and water supply contamination plaguing Haworth. Between 1840 and 1847, the year Jane Eyre was published, 42 percent of children died before the age of six.
The mortality rate and life expectancy can be explained by Babbage’s findings, which he declared rivaled the poorest and sickliest neighborhoods of London. One detail from his report speaks volumes about the need for platform shoes. He describes a public privy perched over the highest part of the main street:
The cesspit of this privy lies below it, and opens by a small door into the main street; occasionally this door is burst open by the superincumbent weight of night soil and ashes, and they overflow into the public street, and at all times a disgusting effluvium escapes through this door into the street. Within two yards of this cesspit door there is a tap for a supply of water to the neighboring houses.
More privies like these were ranged along the main street. Additionally, behind many houses were midden steads — 73 in all — containing household garbage, human waste, and pig manure in piles that seeped through walls and even covered the low roofs of houses built into the slopes. Looking at the platform shoes, my mind formed an image of Charlotte, whose small frame had materialized for me in the petite summer dress on display upstairs, walking over streams of sewage. I also realized that my impression of having been teleported to Charlotte’s time on the still night before, with misty fresh air and a cock crowing somewhere, was delusional. To live in Haworth during her time would have made anyone from the 21st century chronically nauseated.
Rev. Brontë visited the multitudes of sick parishioners during outbreaks of typhus and officiated at countless funerals. He had been interested in medicine before entering divinity school and remained an amateur scholar of medicine and a keen observer of his family’s health for the rest of their lives. After his wife and older daughters died, he kept his remaining children at home, but his vigilance could not save them; all four died of tuberculosis, another scourge of the era.
Branwell died first, at age 31, after a long battle with morphine and alcohol, becoming so inebriated that Rev. Brontë kept him in his own bed at night for fear that Branwell would set the house on fire. Anne would write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a cautionary tale about a husband’s alcoholism; there are also traces of Branwell in Heathcliff and Rochester. Emily died next, age 29, at home, without medical attention in accordance with her preference. Anne died next; she was sent to recuperate, on her father’s scanty salary, to oceanside Scarborough, but died there; she is the only sibling buried away from the chapel in Haworth. All four of the younger Brontë children lived past the average age of 25.8 years, though not by much.
Looking into the parlor as Ms. Dinsdale pointed out the round table where the sisters wrote, we then turned to a black horsehair sofa upon which Emily had expired. Tuberculosis is a lung disease that causes wasting; before antibiotics, “consumptives” essentially drowned in sputum and blood. I stared in awe and grief at Emily’s severe-looking sofa, just feet away from the vital table around which the sisters had paced as they read their days’ work to one other.
When Charlotte was his last remaining child, Rev. Brontë renovated the parsonage roof, thinking that the dampness in its lathes could be the source of his children’s fatal illnesses. He also monitored Charlotte very closely. Already showing symptoms of decline, she was attended by a local surgeon who diagnosed inflammation of the liver. Charlotte complained in a letter to her best friend, “part of this sickness is owing to his medicine.” She was correct; Dr. William Ruddock gave her mercury pills, still the mainstay of allopathic medication. “Salivating” and “purging” a patient were believed to carry illness out of the body by increasing the release of fluids produced naturally during sickness.
This late continuation of humoral theory was competing with newer ideas, such as those of her father’s home medical manual Graham’s Domestic Medicine. Thomas J. Graham put more stock in regulating the bowels, and Rev. Brontë, keeping up with developments in medicine, did too. In the margins, he carefully documented his own observations and evidence from other authors about the healthy frequency of solid and liquid elimination. In her last novel, Villette, Charlotte made her heroine’s first, failed love interest a cardboard character named John Graham Bretton. Struggling to write the book between 1851 and 1852, Charlotte was reeling from her siblings’ deaths and an episode of what seems to be a lifelong propensity to major depression, plus the debilitating mercury treatments. The whole tale of Lucy Snowe is an illness and grief narrative, wrought in stunning intertextual allusions and even richer wordplay than Jane Eyre. Not surprisingly, Dr. John cannot cure Lucy’s hypochondria (used in its literal sense, “poor health,” in this era) because he believes her nightmares and anxiety are caused by constipation. In frustration, Lucy declares, “Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” and finds a new love interest.
Despite her father’s solicitousness, Charlotte succumbed to her illness in 1855. Rev. Brontë died in 1861, aged 84, somehow eluding the tuberculosis that had claimed his entire family and the typhus that killed his parishioners. His belongings, including his children’s manuscripts, scattered (they brought especially high prices in the U.S.) but thanks to the Brontë Society some decades later, they began to make their way back to Haworth.
Cousins of family servant Martha Brown opened the first museum. In rooms above a Haworth bank, they displayed items that had been donated, loaned, or purchased by the new Society. In 1928, the parsonage went up for sale and Sir James Roberts, a local textile tycoon who had known the family, purchased and donated it to the Society. That August, thousands of people in cloche hats and fedoras crammed the narrow village streets to witness the opening.
Since then, the Society, the mission of which is to “promote the Brontës’ literary legacy within contemporary society” and to purchase and collect Brontëana, has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, making the remote parsonage second only to William Shakespeare’s museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. This cultivation of the legacy is rooted in arts and programming, but it is also anchored in 150 years of recalling back to the parsonage every artifact of the Brontës’ short lives so that fans and scholars can imagine the sisters’ lives in Haworth.
On my own pilgrimage, I was unexpectedly and utterly enthralled by the physical traces of Charlotte and her siblings — a curl of Charlotte’s hair, blond and auburn, tucked into a tiny, black-edged mourning envelope looked as if it had been cut that morning; her diminutive dress and shoes; the large metal collar of Emily’s beloved dog Keeper, who attended her funeral in the church; paint boxes and sewing kits; and even their father’s carefully annotated home medical manual all struck me with their intimacy.
Quietly reveling among these homely objects, the wild gothic expressions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seemed to me extraordinary to have emanated from the unconnected daughters of a clergyman in a remote village above the sheep-dotted Yorkshire hills. Yet these moors, repurposed into the home of Cathy and Heathcliff and the refuge of Jane Eyre escaping Rochester’s tyranny, were the healthiest alternative to Haworth itself in the insalubrious days before indoor plumbing and germ theory. The fresh, sweet scent of heather would have smelled heavenly in that malodorous age.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!
“This is a huge generalization, but [American novels] have tended not to have all the elements that make it good for television, whether it’s too interior or there’s not enough action. The Brits tended to write more colorful stories rather than the darkness and struggle. Dickens and Trollope certainly knew how to write sequels, books that would make good ongoing series again and again. And the greatest love stories are in the Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know what our equivalent is.” In a piece for The Atlantic Spencer Kornhaber wonders, “Is American Literature Too Dark for TV?“
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:
Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.
While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.
Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.
But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.
But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
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
There is perhaps no more fitting summer job for a writer than processing books in the basement of a university library. To get up before the real heat of the day begins and descend into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit basement archives is a particular kind of atmospheric trick, but emerging after a full day’s work into the thick evening is even better, since it mimics the way writers feel when they get up from a long grapple with a manuscript; your eyes are bleary, your head is half-dazed, and the hot summer night feels overly sharp, hyper-real, cluttered with shouts and sirens.
(I highly recommend an archiving job as a remedy for the effects of writer’s block, since it’s easy enough to pretend that a pile of close reading is a substitute for your own literary production. Your verbal overload is no less intense for being totally vicarious.)
All of this describes the job I worked last summer, in the rare books section of a local university library. I was assigned to a basement room nicknamed “the cage,” because most of the shelving was set off behind a wall of wire mesh, accessible only by a carefully guarded key. I did my work at a small desk in the corner, and when I wanted to enter the cage I had to ask for this key, and return it to its appointed hook straightaway when I was done.
The project that I was hired to work on is somewhat difficult to describe. Sometime in the early aughts, a famous bookstore in New York—I can’t tell you which one, on conditions of job-related secrecy—closed its doors forever, at which point several wealthy patrons banded together to buy its entire inventory (distressed periodicals and all) and hand said inventory over to a local university library. This inventory consisted of thousands upon thousands of volumes: some rare, some middling, some eminently forgettable. They had early editions of Finnegans Wake, nestled next to paperback Modern Library editions of the collected works of Thackeray, propped up against a stack of 25 cent magazines for teen movie lovers of the 1950s.
I am not a rare books specialist; I am not capable of making fine distinctions. I do not know a first edition unless it is clearly marked in the front of the book, preferably in large type, all capitals. Thus my job consisted only of logging the books, regardless of content or merit, into the computer system: name, title, ISBN, and relative condition.
There have been moments of excitement. I have shelved books from the personal libraries of Anaïs Nin and Joseph Mitchell. I have learned terms which include, but are by no means limited to: bastard title page, bumped corners, colophon, ex libris, flyleaf, foxing, worn boards, and gutter tear. I have held William Gaddis first editions and signed versions of nearly every title in Joyce Carol Oates’s massive oeuvre.
But the actual function of my day was repetitive, nearly robotic.
Name, Title, ISBN
worn board edges
gutter tear in front flyleaf, board corners slightly bumped,
dj (short for “dust jacket”) worn
owner’s signature on front flyleaf “(illegible), Chicago, 1923”
inscription on front flyeaf: “To Brenda, for the memories, Cape Cod, 1932”
A New Yorker cartoon, featuring a man pushing a massive cube up a featureless hill, was taped to the wall above my supervisor’s desk. The caption: Extreme Sisyphus.
Common themes in books, 19th to early-20th century:
Detailed author portraits on the title page, covered in thin, almost tissue-like paper (to prevent blotting?)
Inexplicably small, but also thick, multi-volume editions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, of which multiple volumes are missing
Inscriptions from fathers and uncles in said novels, in loopy, almost illegible cursive, along the lines of: may this add to your education
When one thinks of libraries in literature, the most famous reference point has to be Borges’s The Library of Babel, in which the Argentine writer (in a joking mood) conceived of an infinite library, composed of a series of hexagonal rooms, and posited (half-ironically) that the library was a stand-in for the perfect divine creation: “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”
Often, during my summer in the archives, I would reflect on the fact that all my work was only the reconstruction or (to be more accurate) weird vivisection of an already existing bookstore. The books I catalogued came to me in numbered trays, with each section number corresponding to a section of the now-departed bookstore, and on days when my mind really wandered—which was a higher percentage than I would have admitted to my immediate superiors—I considered the possibility of reconstructing the bookstore in my head, using the section numbers and the books I’d processed, recreating a sort of bookstore-of-the-mind.
Usually, however, I was interrupted from my reverie by one or another common typo:
Worn bards, utter tear.
And, even if I managed to keep my mental concentration long enough to maintain one section of this library-of-the-mind, the idea of trying to juggle multiple sections ended up being too much, and I was forced to give up the whole project, having only completed one of Borges’s hexagons.
Which reminds me of another quote from The Library of Babel:
“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”
By the time I arrived at my archiving job, the project had already been going for nearly seven years, and over half of the books had been catalogued. Of course, each volume would still need to be judged and sorted by minds more discerning than mine, which meant that, like many projects conceived at the university level, it might last for much longer than the scope of ordinary human patience.
There is something strange about doing a job that you will never see finished, like Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
“Five hundred meters could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.”
Common themes in books, early- to mid-20th century:
Books of obscure poetry inscribed by nuns
Books published under the auspices and regulations of the U.S. Military
Mass-market book plates with bucolic scenes: cows, dogs, and/or roosters
As a fiction writer, I am perhaps unusually interested in what makes a book last. Much of this I ascribe to pure ego. During my stint in the university library, I happened to come across the great English critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which is a very odd and very vain book; it begins as an investigation of this very question, “why does a book last” (Is it prose style? Content? Political conviction?) only to devolve into a self-pitying investigation of why Cyril Connolly himself couldn’t write such a lasting book.
I assume that most readers of books do not engage in this sort of absurd behavior. Fiction writers have such high regard for themselves that they can’t see why they shouldn’t be immortal. Keeping their work in print is the next best thing available.
(An addendum: during my work in the archives I logged several thousand copies of Horizon, the British literary magazine which Connolly edited. Of the many names inside its covers, I recognized two.)
Still, if one puts pure vanity aside for a moment, the process by which a book survives more than a century is a fascinating thing. When I held a copy of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, or an early American edition of Wuthering Heights, I’d sometimes reflect on the many deaths the book had to avoid on its way to me. It had to be bought, first of all, and not left to linger on a bookstore shelf, and later pulped—or, as is sometimes the case, burned. Then someone had to keep it after the first read, keep the bindings dry, move it from house to house, and later, after that person died, the book had to be inherited, or else sold, instead of thrown away; at the very least it had to be packed in such a way that the book block didn’t warp and the pages didn’t go moldy: all the little deaths to which a hardbound book is vulnerable.
There is a certain kind of immortality to a passed-down book—the sense of having outlived many human lives.
So what makes a book last—not just in the minds of critics and readers, but also as a physical object? What’s essential here is a combination of initial popularity, physical hardiness, and a sterling reputation. There were more copies of The Moonstone in circulation than a host of other Victorian mysteries, so it had a good start, and the hardback edition I handled one summer morning seemed to have lasted pretty well, but nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore (my apologies, Moonstone aficionados, bless your cosseted Victorian hearts), and so I have my doubts about what will happen when the library higher-ups finally handle the archive’s copy.
The local university library can’t possibly hold all of the books I archived, much less the whole of the departed bookstore; many of the books will be sold at sidewalk sales, to readers much less scrupulous about their storage.
Some, I’m sure, will simply be pulped—or burned.
Common themes in books, mid- to late- 20th century:
Signed copies of books which immediately go out of print, their authors forgotten
Male poets with sideburns who write poems about driving
Poets of any gender with sad, searching eyes who write about cancer
Long biographical notes which expose their authors’ desperate search for respect
There’s no keeping ego out of the conversation entirely, though. What fiction writer could work for a whole summer handling old novels without wondering about the fate of any book he or she might manage to publish in their lifetime? Based on even the slightest research, the percentages are bad. Is the work you’re producing destined to be recycled—or, now that everyone’s crowing about e-books, erased from the world’s collective hard-drive?
(As if it wasn’t worrying enough to get published in the first place.)
Or, if you’re the type to raise your concerns to the highest power, you can occupy yourself with a larger existential question: why, once you’ve witnessed a pile of words beyond human comprehension—when you’ve personally catalogued more books in a single day than it would be possible for you to read in an entire year—would you ever go on writing novels in the first place?
Forget about the death of the novel, for a moment—that old saw—and consider, instead, its terrifying, zombie-like nature. Old novels never die; they walk among us, tattered and moldy, neither living nor totally destroyed, giving off an offensive fungal stink that can best be described as a cross between rancid dust and damp feet.
Worse still, these zombie books have a way of infecting the living volumes which sit next to them; for every book is only a year’s neglect away from turning undead itself, a victim of time and circumstance, one more body for the undead legions.
From The Library of Babel: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.”
Common trends in books, early-21st century:
Total lack of clarity
Despite all overarching existential concerns, I usually left my job at the archive feeling exhilarated. Part of this was just a matter of getting off work; like I said before, the job itself was rote and methodical, an amazing combination of repetitive stress and screen fatigue. Just being able to walk free in the summer evening was a glorious feeling.
But, during the best —when I could leaf through a whole stack of 19th-century French poetry in translation, or the collected prose of William Carlos Williams, or all the books Joseph Mitchell owned concerning Gypsies—I experienced a more than bodily thrill at having run my eyes over so many odd and obscure titles, so many volumes that had survived years and chance to arrive in my hands—a feeling that was only increased by the possibility of the books’ destruction, despite my careful cataloguing. I was there to log books, not to save them.
It was a feeling I can only compare to the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a man whose work consists of pulping books into a paper compactor, which he describes as “holy work,” and whose responses to the avalanche of words echo my own:
…inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself… When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through the air, gliding on air, living off air, because in the end everything is air…
At times it felt as if I was swimming in sentences, with the sense of Heraclitus, dipping into the river over and over and coming up with new books, new iterations of language, as if by taking the job I’d turned on a continuous flow of literature. Here, individual work seemed frankly meaningless, reminding me that intertextuality is not some new thing—for language is always in conversation with itself.
Thus I spent my summer vacation: building a library of the mind.
Image Credit: Wikimedia/Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France
“Then, about an hour into the newest version, it struck me: it’s Twilight!…That’s how I would have pitched the film, and the fact that I was thinking of it while watching Heathcliff and Catherine break each other’s hearts was an indication of Arnold’s failure to capture a fraction of Brontë’s genius.” The impossibility of filming Wuthering Heights.
Judging by the dresses on display at the Bronte Museum, Charlotte Bronte was less than five feet tall but, like her famous heroine Jane Eyre, she was the opposite of meek. When she was ten years old her brother, Branwell, appeared at her bedroom door with a box of toy soldiers he’d just been given by their father. Charlotte immediately seized a soldier and named him the Duke of Wellington. Her sisters, Emily and Anne, followed suit, naming their soldiers Gravey and the Waiting Boy. Together the four siblings appointed themselves the Genii and dispatched the soldiers to the Glass Town confederacy in Africa. Later Emily and Anne developed the country of Gondal while Charlotte and Branwell created Angria. All four wrote about these imaginary kingdoms. Their passionate juvenilia, much of it according to the Bronte Museum Guide repetitive and poorly spelled, paved the way for the novels we cherish.
But none of their work would have seen the light of day had it not been for Charlotte. At the age of twenty she wrote to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems and professing not merely a desire to write but “to be for ever known.” Southey wrote back, praising her poems and offering his much quoted advice: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Charlotte replied submissively and, in her fashion, heeded his words. Three years later, when she sent some fiction to Hartley Coleridge, (son of the more famous Samuel) she did so under the name of one of her Angria characters: Charles Townsend.
Coleridge’s discouragement did not deter Charlotte any more than Southey’s. She kept writing poems and stories but without, as far as we know, seeking publication. Then, in 1842, she went with Emily to study French and German in Brussels; the sisters planned to open their own school. Charlotte spent much of the next two years, with and without Emily, at the Pensionnat Heger and developed intense feeling for their married teacher, Constantin Heger. By the time she finally left Brussels, she had much of what she needed, in terms of both skill and subject matter, to create her mature work.
Back at the parsonage, Charlotte came upon a volume of Emily’s verses and, struck by their vigor and originality, decided that the sisters should use some of the money they’d inherited from their aunt to publish a collection. She approached the London publisher Aylott and Jones with poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The sisters chose the somewhat ambiguous pseudonyms, Charlotte later recalled, because of “a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine.” For a cost of fifty pounds an initial print run of 1,000 copies of Poems was published in 1846. (To put this in perspective, Charlotte had Jane as a governess earn thirty pounds a year.) Despite some good reviews, Poems sold two copies.
Undeterred, hoping to be more commercial, the sisters turned to fiction. By the summer of 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey had been accepted but Charlotte’s The Professor had still to find a home. While the manuscript was doing the rounds, she had begun a new novel and when, in August of that year, Smith, Elder and Co. sent an encouraging rejection, Charlotte was able to respond as follows.
I now send you per rail a MS. Entitled ‘Jane Eyre,’ a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left. If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS., you would find the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps. It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Bronte, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present. To save trouble, I enclose an envelope.
Jane Eyre was published on October 19th of that year and has remained in print ever since.
The details of rejection, of worrying about postage and communication, will surely be familiar to many contemporary writers. What is completely unfamiliar is the speed of publication. Of course publishers can still produce books with alacrity, as we see every year when topical books appear with lightning speed, but for most authors the wait between submission and publication is closer to two years than two months. My own novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, appeared eighteen months after I sent it to my agent.
According to an article in the New York Times the single biggest reason for this tortoise-like pace is marketing. Smith, Elder and Co. was not trying to create a buzz about Jane Eyre; their job was simply to print, distribute, and hope for the best. And in Charlotte’s case the best happened. Jane Eyre was published to huge acclaim and some shouts of moral outrage which probably only increased sales. But nowadays the sheer number of books forces bookshops, reviewers, and readers to make difficult choices; publishers try to influence those choices by creating a buzz and that takes time. (And of course publishers, too, are making choices: which books will they single out for extra attention.) For the writer these delays have the incidental side effect that most new projects are begun not with total concentration but amid distractions, few or many, internal or external, on behalf of the previous work.
Whatever the buzz, very few writers achieve Charlotte’s success. And very few suffer the subsequent loss of three family members. Branwell died in September 1848, and was soon followed by first Emily, then Anne.
Last December at the Bronte Museum, I stood in the doorway of the modest dining room and pictured Charlotte, aged twenty, circling the table with her sisters, talking about the stories and poems that made their lives vivid, and then, aged thirty-three, walking around that table alone. But happily Charlotte’s life changed again. She found companionship with her father’s curate. She and Arthur Nichols were married in June 1854. In her last letter, written shortly before she died nine months later, Charlotte might have been copying her famous description of Jane and Rochester’s blissful marriage. “No kinder, better husband than mine, it seems to me, there can be in the world. I do not want now for kind companionship in health and the tenderest nursing in sickness.” How wonderful that her life at last imitated her art, however briefly.
Image: Painting of the three Bronte sisters by Branwell Bronte, via Wikimedia Commons
In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s pop music-obsessed narrator Rob Fleming asks, following his most recent in a spate of romantic failures, while slumped in his apartment feeling desperately sorry for himself: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Having recounted a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups,” Rob becomes increasingly revolted by his decidedly unmanly tendency to completely disintegrate following each new failed love affair. It’s romantic to believe that pop music supplied a language through which he could identify and express his angst and longing. But what if that “language” had started to supplant his feelings altogether? Without pop music, were things really that bad?
Literature, like pop music, can be dangerous, to those who love it best, and who therefore take it the most seriously. And just as tragic love songs are often the most beloved in pop music, tragic love stories are often the most beloved in literature. But what happens if feeling miserable becomes your way of getting closer to the books you love, rather than the books you love enabling you to get closer to your feelings? This is the scenario I’m describing: when you find yourself storming about, banging your head against a tree and bellowing in rage like Heathcliff for Cathy, and a feeling of hideous familiarity overtakes you. “I’ve felt this way before,” you think. Possibly even several times. And that you can’t remember who inspired this, or when, or why, is the most worrisome part of the altogether worrisome situation. Do you love… (what was his name again)? Or do you just love Wuthering Heights?
Young people (or so it is comforting to think) are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As a teenager, I read The End of the Affair, or more accurately, I fell for The End of the Affair. The prose is gorgeous, but the intensity is searing. The story covers a short time span, only a smattering of events that occur after Henri Bendix’s affair with Sarah has already ended, but so intense are Bendix’s emotions that in scope it felt comparable to The Divine Comedy: we’re in the depths of hell, then we’re up in the clouds, and then we’ve plunged deeper than ever before.
By no means is Greene encouraging you to want to be Henri Bendix. He is not an enviable character. The man has a private detective follow around his married ex-lover. He lives in a black hole of misery. He mostly loathes himself. But his love for Sarah enables him to routinely run the gamut of all existing human emotions. He was one of first characters I read outside of the science fiction genre capable of effectively taking trips around the world in a matter of seconds, without applying any sort of effort. What teenager could help but envy that?
So ardently did I love The End of the Affair that it wasn’t nearly enough to read it; I had to embody it. And if its extreme philosophy on love was a virus, I was more than happy to play host, spreading its insidious gospel to many of my unfortunate friends. During one late night phone call with a friend in boarding school, we quoted from the novel to each other while mourning recent romantic failures. But did we quote from The End of the Affair because of our romantic failures, or were we failing romantically because we could quote from The End of the Affair?
“I keep thinking of this line in particular,” my friend whispered fervently, “after Sarah dies, when Henri says, ‘I recognized my work for what it was – as unimportant a drug as cigarettes to get one through the weeks and years…’”
“There’s just no more point in going to class,” I said heavily.
Resigned, she could only agree.
But declaring like Bendix, “I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever” seventeen times by the age of twenty is only part of the problem. It’s one thing to repeat yourself; it’s quite another when people catch you in the act. In this matter, I think I’m entitled to throw a little frustration toward Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate as well. Like The End of the Affair, Strait is the Gate is the story of young love sacrificed for religious dedication, of man losing out to God. But Strait is the Gate might win over The End of the Affair, and perhaps even The Age of Innocence, for documenting the most maddeningly unsuccessful of love affairs. Hamlet has nothing on the main character, Jerome, for sheer ability to endlessly dither while doing absolutely nothing. Thus the most agonizing scene in the novel occurs when Jerome finally, mercifully, is presented with the chance to declare himself to his love Alissa, the closest he gets to doing so in years. But as Alissa shuts the door behind her, “her eyes filled with an unspeakable love,” he does nothing. He could have knocked on the door, he admits. But instead he chooses to just stand there, “weeping and sobbing in the night.”
It is a credit to Gide that he dares let his narrator make such an aggravating decision: only a great novelist would risk the reader washing her hands of him entirely at that point, trusting that his creation is so fully-realized so as to withstand the subsequent censure. And so Jerome defends himself:
But to have kept her, to have forced the door, to have entered by any means whatever into the house, which yet would not have been shut against me – no, even today, when I look back into the past and live it over again – no, it was not possible to me, and whoever does not understand me here, has understood nothing of me up till now. (emphasis mine)
Fantastic line, isn’t it? It could win any argument. It could compellingly justify even the most erratic of actions. The moment I read it, I knew I had to use it. I committed it to memory. It would be my line, the same way Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction memorizes Ezekiel 25:17, because he “thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker.”
So once, during what may have been either an unprecedented blow-out or a fairly innocuous skirmish with a significant other, I declared in ringing tones: “And whoever does not understand me here… has understood nothing of me up till now!”
A beat. A furrowed brow.
“That’s that quote from that book, right?” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned it before.”
“Oh.” Extended, humiliated silence. “I usually only use it once per person,” I finally offered, miserably.
“That’s all right,” he said, with encouragement. “I’ve a really poor memory of quotes. It was almost like hearing it for the first time.”
A cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker, indeed.
So what came first – the literature or the love? I blame literature. Literature, no doubt, blames me. It might not be possible to tell. But just be careful which books you fall for: some of them might get you into trouble.
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]
Whatever your feelings about Twilight, you have to admit that the breadth and scope of the Twilight phenomenon is spectacular. Boy wizards aside, literature-inspired hoo-ha of this magnitude just doesn’t come along that often. To begin with, there is the dizzying array of memorabilia: Twilight band-aids, duvet covers, water bottles, umbrellas, jewelry, wallets, life-sized wall decals, as well as the standard t-shirts and movie posters. Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays Twilight heroine Bella Swan in the film adaptations, has expressed astonishment that rather mundane items of clothing she’s spotted wearing sell out in hours. There’s a Twilight make-up line that includes a pinkish gold-flecked lotion that promises to give “Twihards,” and anyone else, vampirically luminous skin (according to the editors of Lucky Magazine, “it’s gleamy but not over-the-top-Edward-in-sunlight-sparkly”). And that’s not to mention the Twilight fan blogs (oh, TwilightMomsBlog!) and the legions of YouTube videos posted by less satisfied Twilight readers burning, beating, and taking chainsaws to their copies of the best-selling novels (Breaking Dawn, the fourth and last book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in the first day; total sales of all of the books are at upwards of 40 million, and since the final installment came out last year, all four books in the series have remained in USA Today’s top 10 bestsellers). And then there are the sell-out midnight shows whose fangirl audiences reportedly squeal with delight when the lights dim. The father of one of these fans told me that his 14-year-old daughter had taken to signing her text and email messages “Twilight,” instead of her name.
The books have also had a startling effect on the small town of Forks, Washington, the setting of Meyer’s series. Tourism has been booming. Last year, the mayor of Forks declared the weekend of September 12-13th to be Stephenie Meyer Day Weekend (September 12th is Bella Swan’s birthday). This year, the weekend’s events include a birthday breakfast for Bella, tours of Forks High School (where Bella was supposed to have been a student), a Twilight character look alike contest, and a sunset bonfire at the Quileute Reservation, on the same beach where, in the novels, Bella meets Jacob Black, a Quileute teenager, who becomes her best friend, a werewolf, and the rival of the beautiful teenage vampire Edward Cullen for Bella’s affections. By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a massive success, nearly doubling Forks’ population of somewhere around 3,000 and drawing visitors from as far away as England and Japan.
Marveling at all this on the eve of the second Twilight movie’s release, I found myself thinking of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Pamela, published in 1740, was the first best-selling novel in English; it is the story of a teenage servant girl who resists her aristocratic master’s increasingly violent sexual overtures, eventually wins his heart and becomes his wife. It was the first novel to inspire the sort of frenzy that Twilight is inspiring right now. Like Twilight, Pamela spawned themed merchandise: Pamela tea cups and tea towels, Pamela prints and painting, Pamela fans, Pamela playing cards. Pastors recommended the book from the pulpit and European intellectuals as well as private citizens sang its praises. Rousseau, for one, reported weeping copiously over it. There wasn’t any declaration of a Pamela Day, but one famous and oft-repeated anecdote about the Pamela mania verges into the kind of confusing of the fictional and the real that the Forks’ Twilight celebrations offer. There are many anecdotes dating back to the eighteenth century, in which Pamela’s wedding is taken as fact or publicly celebrated. In one of the best known, from an 1833 address given by Sir John Herschel at Eton, a blacksmith in a small village in Windsor got hold of a copy of Pamela
and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience…At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily according to the most approved rules—the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout and, procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.
These readers were practicing the English custom of ringing church bells to celebrate and announce a marriage–though in this case, the marriage of a fictional hero and heroine: Pamela and her former master, the landed squire named Mr. B.
Pamela was revolutionary in its day and Richardson was both celebrated (as by the Windsor townsfolk) and reviled for the novel’s “leveling” tendency. Servants and common laborers were widely considered a lesser order of being in the eighteenth century—there to serve the pleasure of their masters, whatever that pleasure might be. The idea of a titled landowner marrying his maid—when he might sleep with her with impunity—was considered scandalous and subversive, to say the least. Historian Lynn Hunt’s recent book, Inventing Human Rights, claims that novels like Pamela were foundational in the development of the idea of human rights that surfaced explicitly in the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
On the surface, then, it would seem that the similarity between Twilight and Pamela, between Bella and Pamela, ends in their popularity and the mania they inspire(d). But these twin phenomena, one sitting at each end of the history of the novel, I think, share more. By an admittedly cynical and reductive reading, Twilight and Pamela are the same book, the same archetypal female fantasy: a poor or undistinguished girl is chosen as “the one” by a handsome, rich, aristocratic man who sweeps her off her feet and takes her out of her (more or less) grubby, mundane, low-born life. And the cynical reading goes further. These are not merely Cinderella love stories; in fact, they are not love stories at all. By the cynical reading, these novels are only about class, about becoming rich, becoming one of the rarefied beautiful people.
A year after Pamela’s publication, Henry Fielding published Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s novel motivated by the belief that Pamela didn’t resist her master’s attempts to rape her out of fear or a moral certainty that her desires were just as important as his, but because she thought she might get more out of him if she held out. Fielding’s sham Pamela is a hypocrite, a wily girl on the make—after money, finery, and social position that she was not entitled to by birth or by her incredible virtuousness (which Fielding tells us is only a ruse designed to ensnare Mr. B, her master.). Pamela protests too much on Fielding’s reading: he suggested that Pamela’s belaboring of the spiritual peril that Mr. B’s advances threaten her with, combined with her obvious attraction to him, didn’t quite ring true.
In Pamela’s case, I think Fielding goes too far. A marriage to a landed, titled man would have been quite literally beyond the wildest dreams of a servant like Pamela, even assuming that she possessed the sort of calculating wiliness that Fielding attributes to her. In fact, if she were as wily as Fielding drew her, Shamela would have known that she’d never become Mr. B’s bride. (Only by the rules of Richardson’s quasi-allegorical plot can Pamela’s virtue be rewarded as it is.) But in the case of Meyer’s Bella Swan, I think Fielding’s hypocrisy reading might stand. Like Pamela (and Pamela is more convincing), Bella insists that what she values, particularly in her beloved vampire Edward, is spiritual: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” she tells us.
But why, if the spiritual is supposed to be paramount, are the Twilight novels so distractingly full of money – literally, piles of cash – and the things money can buy? “There was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade,” Bella reports of the Cullen family home. This cash buys Bella an acceptance to Dartmouth, a special order Mercedes (a model preferred by drug dealers and diplomats for its bulletproof glass—Edward’s very protective), a Ferrari, lots and lots of couture clothing, and a faux rustic cottage in the woods that I came to think of as a version of Marie Antoinette’s hameau (the little faux farmhouse where the queen and her ladies played at being peasants). All of this, Bella claims to resent or to feel uncomfortable accepting.
But the idea that the Cullen wealth holds no appeal to Bella, when it is Bella herself who draws so much attention to it in her first-person narration, just doesn’t stand. When, at the end of the fourth book, she finally admits a little pleasure in the jaw-dropping, head-turning spectacle that this wealth allows her to become, it feels like she is finally admitting what she’s felt and wanted all along—a pleasure that anyone, most especially a teenage girl, would feel:
He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail gown. I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The maitre d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.
Of course, the idea here is that it’s (spoiler alert) Bella’s newly enhanced physical beauty that stuns the man (she’s become a vampire at this point, and vampires are more beautiful in order to attract their prey, i.e. humans), but Meyer/Bella lingers on the clothes—the things money can buy.
Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful things does not come to seem a metaphor for spiritual superiority but a conflation of material wealth, physical beauty, and moral elevation. While the books suppose to be about a perfect, otherworldly love (this love could be metaphor: it certainly doesn’t exist in the real world), the material intrudes constantly (cars, money, clothes), suggesting that beauty and money and blessedness and happiness are all one, confused and interchangeable.
This pernicious lie that is at the heart of Twilight. When I see pictures of young girls waiting in line to buy these novels or tickets to the movie, this is why I get angry. I don’t get angry because Meyer’s recycled the classic female fantasy of the most desirable boy picking the girl he never will in real life (I love My So-Called Life, while knowing all too well that Angela Chase (Clare Danes) would never have gotten Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) in “real” life), I get angry because Meyer didn’t seem to trust the unbelievable love between Bella and Edward as sufficient to hold her readers’ interest. Love, apparently, needs to be tarted up in designer clothes, given sparkling six-pack abs, armed with platinum credit cards and Ferraris before we’ll recognize it. For all of its heavy-handed allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Twilight is, in the end, fatally invested in the shallow materialism and the youth and beauty worship that continue to define and corrode American popular culture.
It’s scarier than vampires.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?