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Saturday, July 20, 2013

The summer river of reading


When I was a child, there was a family down the street with six girls--the boy came along at the end.  As large families on a single income will do, they struggled along, and the girls often wore, with great pride, the beautiful handmade clothes my mother made for me.  Mr. Shaeffer made his own root beer and the two oldest daughters and I occupied various spaces in their many-roomed basement and garage, making ourselves homes for the various movie and TV characters we idolized.  (Mr. Shaeffer worked for a company that distributed fan magazines, which littered their house, with the covers torn off so we couldn't re-sell them.)  We were always "sisters," and had an odd habit of calling one another "sister" rather than by name.  I wonder what that was about, whether it was designed to make our play more real more artificial?

While I had lovely clothes I could pass on to them, they had something I couldn't boast:  family members who lived on a lake.  Several times each summer, Mrs. Schaeffer would pack up all the girls in their suburban station wagon--including me--with our towels and already in our swim suits.  What I remember most about swimming in that lake was the way rivers of warm and cool water twined around our legs.  The lake must have been stream-fed so that water warmed by a shallow stream or coming quickly from the wooded areas around entered the lake and yet kept to its stream.

For some reason, this summer's changeable weather has reminded me of that lake for the first time in years; in turn, they both make me think--probably or improbably--of reading.  One of the lovely things about summer for me is reading in the long summer light with a concentration I have only in the summer.  At the same time, the weather--whether it's hot  or muggy or cool and dry in the evenings--plays a role in my choice of reading.  If it's muggy, I might grab the mystery I've been working on, whereas perfect summer evenings with a hint of night time coolness in the air urge me to tackle something profound.  There's a timelessness about such summer nights that makes me feel as if I have the time and the concentration to do another volume of Proust or dig out the newest translation of War and Peace.  It's as if my mood and my body, as they respond to the weather, are having a conversation with my mind.

 Dark stormy afternoons or evenings make me want something altogether different:  the comforting familiarity of Galsworthy's predictably unpredictable Forsyte Saga.  Galsworthy has given us a family tree at the very beginning, so we know the broad outlines of the plot even before we begin to read--who is going to marry whom, who is going to live a long life or die in England's ignominious Boer War; as well, the family saga has its own pace and purpose that, like most genres, we understand without understanding. Windy days make me pick up Woolf's diaries, which I'm reading to write the chapter on Three GuineasThe Years and Three Guineas were originally conceived of as a hybrid essay-novel, but keeping her credentials as a high modernist who didn`t get involved in politics dictated that she pull them apart.  The Years caused her more grief than anything else she`d written, though it was also her most popular book.  So the diaries from that period change  mood as quickly as a windy day.  Some days she feels that her method in The Years is profound; other days she feels the novel is too slight, an abject failure.  Writing Three Guineas went at a gallop; before she even started to draft, she felt that she had enough "powder"--evidence of male folly--to blow up St. Paul's Cathedral.

Hot afternoons are for the reading I need for my research.  This is one of the rituals of an academic`s life:  spending a major part of the summer working on a publishable project.  Even nearing retirement, I find chasing an idea to be exhilarating and in an odd way steadying.  So over the last couple of days I`ve been reading the letters people wrote to Woolf`s about Three Guineas.  That intensely pacifist and feminist work brought Woolf more letters than anything else she wrote, and she answered all of them. I wanted to know whether readers who were her contemporaries saw the attention she paid to Three Guineas' aesthetic form, structure, and argument.  The letters come from people in every walk of life, and many of them talked about the beauty, the pleasure--as well as the rhetorical power--they found in her long letter-essay.  This is what hot afternoons are for:  finding out that you have these powerful hunches for a good reasons.

Hot nights when I can't sleep are for poetry.  Quilters have a rule of thumb:  if you are looking at a quilt as it grows and there's a colour that sticks out, add more of it.  That sounds counter-intuitive, but it simply make the colour "normal," in a sense.  Oddly enough, the same can be said of reading poetry when you are working on poems.  If you are afraid of someone's influence, read widely so that you are learning about and absorbing poetry's possibilities and not simply the style of one poet.  Hot nights, while not timeless in the way of perfect evenings, are nevertheless a kind of found time.  You can read a single poem over and over, not worrying so much about what it means (if that's the object of poetry); rather you are trying out the many different ways it can speak to you, touch you; you are delving into the layers in this still windless air.


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