Monday, October 18, 2010

Let's Talk Books

In an essay by Joan Didion ("Why I Write") that I first came across years ago, the iconic author makes the thought-provoking observation that "setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space." Writing, unless in a personal journal for the writer's eyes only, demands readership; conversely, what it is that draws readers to the written word was the subject of a recent talk by Francine Prose at The Center for Fiction in New York City. The center is housed in the Mercantile Library (with which it's now affiliated), a neoclassical building on East 47th Street that is a treasure in its own right. Founded before the advent of public libraries, the New York Mercantile Library evolved into a cultural institution where the likes of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass would lecture. In its early incarnation, members requested books via prepaid stamps. Books were delivered via horse and wagon.

Sitting in the small library, listening to the author of Reading Like a Writer (and other wonderful books) talk about Why We Read was a reminder that whatever market-driven, get-it-while-it's-hot book-acquisition habits modern times have foisted on us, there's always that one, classic or otherwise, that demands being reread. In fact, at the beginning of her talk, Prose gives an anecdote about a discussion with grad students at Southern Mississippi who asked what she was reading at the time. They looked at her dumbfounded when she answered, Dostoevsky. And yet, I imagine, after the time they spent studying with her, with the close attention she brings to passages in books that illuminate a character or sentences that shape a narrative and its tone through very deliberate word choice, they came away with some greater insight into the ways in which writers are shaped by what the read. How could it be otherwise?

Why do we read? The very act of settling oneself down in a private space, book in hand, reading closely, for the first or the fifth time, noticing something that escaped us in an earlier read is pleasure of a very certain kind — pleasure being just one of the handful of reasons we read, according to Prose; we also read for escape, for information, for connecting with another person's consciousness, for community, as in becoming part of a fictional character's world. To which I would add community, as in talking about books. How many times have I said to a friend, "You really have to read this book"? How many times have I bought a particular book with a particular friend in mind? It's no secret why book clubs have grown in geometric proportions, from living rooms to cyberspace.

All of which is to say, that hand-in-hand with the ongoing dialogue about the death of print publishing is that other dialogue, the one premised on the very life of books, the way we live them, breathe them, talk about them.

For every high-profile book we read about (and read), there are countless sleepers and almost as numerous online book clubs and book blogs to remind us of them. Here are a few favorites of mine: Flashlight Worthy Book Club Recommendations, Book Club Girl, Campaign for the American Reader . . .

. . . And a gorgeous passage from a favorite book:

"The Stroms sang with a skill built into the body, a fixed trait, the soul's eye color. Husband and wife each supplied musical genes: his mathematician's feel for ratio and rhythm, her vocal artist's pitch like a homing pigeon and shading like a hummingbird's wings. Neither boy suspected it was at all odd for a nine-year-old to sight-sing as easily as he breathed. They helped the strands of sound unfold as easily as their lost first cousins might climb a tree. All a voice had to do was open and release, take its tones out for a spin down to Riverside Park, the way their father walked them sometimes on sunny weekends: up, down, sharp, flat, long, short, East Side, West Side, all around the town. Jonah and Joseph had only to look at printed chords, their note heads stacked up like tiny totem poles, to hear the intervals." — The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Dog's Life

My dog is poised on her rocky perch, staring out at I don’t know what. Alert to anything and everything, squirrels and deer high on the list of attention getters, cars and trucks (UPS and Fed Ex especially) a close second. I learn a great deal from watching her. She’s a smart dog, smart enough to turn a command– Come, Maggie! Now!– into a game of ‘catch me if you can.’

The wind spooks her, so does heavy rain, with or without thunder. She follows me around, a panting shadow. It is a bodily thing, sound and air pressure combining to unsettle her. No amount of soft words or gentle stroking reassures her. She wants to be – with me – downstairs where she can tuck herself away in the washroom, knowing I’m within easy reach, on the couch in the family room. Who, I wonder, has trained whom?

She stands next to me, awakens me with her restless pacing and a slight whimper. It is the middle of the night, she wants to – needs to – go out. I admit it, being awakened in the middle of the night by a dog who has in all likelihood feasted on something in the yard not really meant to be eaten is not the way I pictured my life. On rare occasions (for example, years ago when a family of foxes was playing near the pile of logs in our backyard) it is the call of the wild rather than the euphemistic call of nature that makes her wake me. And yet, inconvenienced (do I daresay annoyed?) as I might be, there is a kind of silence that only comes in the deep night outside. If it’s a star-filled night, or the moon hangs high, I might even say I’m grateful to be pulled out of bed. In ministering to a dog in her senior years, annoyance gives way to compassion.

Old dogs do not get up so quickly in the morning. That’s not all that different from old people. An older dog with lymphoma has a way of making you worry when you look at her lying on her bed, a little like a teenager, do I really have to get up? This is a far cry from the dog standing so close to my side of the bed I can feel her breath, feel her tail wagging, wake up wake up! The dog who would start barking at my husband, barely finished with dinner, let’s go out, have a catch! The fact that her idea of fetching is to retrieve the ball about three times before running off with it and hiding it is irrelevant. The fact that she almost never does this anymore is something I’m just coming to grips with. It's said that humans are the only animals with a conscious awareness of what it means to die. When I watch my dog poised on her perch, looking out at anything and everything, I gain some new awareness of what it means to live.