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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Life- and Mind-Changing Books


My student, Courtney Bates, challenged me and 9 other friends to make a list of the ten most important books in our lives.  I understood that these were supposed to be life-changing, though other list-makers have interpreted the instructions differently--which is appropriate, I think.  Important books don't say simply one thing, which is why they're important.  They leave respectful room for the reader.  You will smile when I say that I couldn't simply make a list; I want to explain the list--of course.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking me to the public library in Muskegon Michigan, where I was born and lived until I was five. I remember taking out favourites again and again, particularly Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins. As well, my mother had a small pamphlet given to her by my Aunt Hazel, the only one of my mother's siblings to attend what was then called "Normal School."  Aunt Hazel became a teacher, as my mother should have done if she hadn't found the first few days away from home overwhelming.  I can still see this little booklet, which was about 8" x 5" and printed widthwise.  The book titles, along with brief descriptions, were printed by age group.  My mother consulted this pamphlet constantly. Nevertheless, my family had a very small "library," which sometimes lived in the cupboards under the bathroom sink.  There was Daddy Long Legs, Gone with the Wind, several volumes of the Funk and Wagnall's Encyclaloopedia, bought from A&P,  along with a very old, musty copy of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins

Much as I loved and read over and over Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins, Alcott's book would be number 1 on my list were I following chronology.  It's the most feminist of all Alcott's books (of the ones I know).  Rose Campbell has been recently orphaned and sent to the Aunt Hill, where her father's siblings live, to be brought up primarily by her Uncle Alec--a sailor who makes perhaps unusual guardian until we see that he combines compassion and good sense in exactly the right measures.  The aunts give Rose, as they gave me, a variety of patterns for being a woman.  Aunts Peace and Plenty  were domesticity and self-sacrifice personified; they were philosophical but  somehow stifled.  Aunt Myra was the hypochondriac:  not a good choice.  Aunt Jessie was bringing up four boys on her own while her husband was away at sea and is often Uncle Alec's sensible partner in bringing up Rose.  My favourite scene occurs when "the aunts" gather together to give Rose new clothes for her 16th birthday:  a lovely drapey mauve something that is absolutely the latest thing for the period.  Rose tries it on and looks glorious.  But Aunt Jessie has warned Uncle Alec, who has his own birthday present prepared, and asks her to try on his clothes and make a choice.  His outfit is a sensible kind of girlish sailor outfit that gives Rose the freedom to run and jump--and of course is the one she chooses.  She vaults over the sofa in it to prove to her aunts that if she is wearing this she can run away from mad dogs.  This  scene is perhaps the closest to Austen's wise advice to heroines in Love and Freindship [sic]:  "Run mad as you choose but do not faint."  Heroines who can't act for themselves are sitting ducks.  And women who assume there's only one way to be a woman are given plenty of choice by Alcott's novel.

Number two isn't a single book, but twelve.  My mother's family drew names out of a hat for Christmas presents, and I suspect that Aunt Hazel went to particular trouble to find mine, for two years running she gave me the first two of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.  Raised in a time when "history" was names, events, and dates, I suspect I found in these a kind of history of daily life that provided me with a somewhat sanitized but detailed account of how the pioneers who settled the west managed to survive between 1868, when the Ingalls family leaves the woods of Wisconsin and 1881, when they endure, without much food and no coal, one of the most difficult winters experienced in South Dakota.  The more I read these, the more I realized how heavily they were censored and idealized, how they left me with a sense of the paradox of women's lives.  Ma is crucial to the survival of the family.  She milks the cow, makes the butter, makes soap, smokes meat--things that are described in luscious detail in the novel.  But she has no say about where the family lives.  If Pa decides that he needs more space, they go.  But at the same time, I had a sense of how pioneers lived their daily lives, making quilts, building sod huts, hemming sheets or getting the first sewing machine in time to make the sheets for Laura's new household.  They've left me with a love for the history of everyday lives, with a sense of the beautiful ways in which people improvise to make life joyful.

Number three is Jane Eyre.  Another strong heroine.  Are we seeing a pattern here, even in the late fifties?  I took Jane Eyre out from the bookmobile that spent one day a week on a city street about a block and a half away from home.  I could go on my own.  There I found the novel in one of those beautiful Illustrated Classics volumes that made reading so inviting. Reading this book gives me the memory of an early experience of "deep reading," that state of mind that psychologists say is so good for us, teaching us imagination and empathy.  I remember reading about Jane at Thornfield, Rochester's house, and looking up, surprised to find myself sitting in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a summer day in the early sixties.  To this day, that experience colours how I look at literature:  someone from another time and place and circumstance can touch a reader's mind. If that isn't a marvel, I don't know what is.  I once had a teddy bear named Rochester.  Enough said.

Number four is Doctor Zhivago, which I studied in Grade Ten English with Mr. Twedt.  And here is another theme of the books I've loved:  I might have been able to imagine Jane Eyre's life, but Yurii Zhivago's was entirely beyond me, particularly historically.  A novel that begins at the end of the nineteenth century shows us the beauty and culture of the lives of aristocratic Russians--only to devolve into World War One and the Russian Revolution.  I don't think I thought of the Little House books as history; here I couldn't miss the historical dimension.  Nor could I miss, in the record of the lives of Yurii and Lara, the way history has a profound impact on the most intimate and private moments of our lives.

Number five is Pride and Prejudice. I borrowed the copy from my first husband during my boring early years in Winnipeg.  As you know, one thing led to another, with this miraculous book (quite brief, really) that traces a woman's education.  Somewhere in the early nineties--before the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the spate of films that followed--I taught my first Austen class in AdHum 348, which was full to bursting.  The 37 of us (a librarian came over just to spend time with us) started Austenmania all on our own.

Number six is Jacob's Room.  It's 1978 and I'm in Italy, but have run out of reading.  In a small bookstore in Florence, I find a few books in English and choose this one.  When I finished reading it, I said--aloud, I believe--"That's the most beautiful things I've ever read, but I have no idea what it means."  How did I finish both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree without reading a word of George Eliot, Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf? That doesn't bear thought, but it sends its own historical message:  I had to discover Woolf in a small book stall in Italy.  You know, too well, the rest of the story.

Number seven is Toni Morrison's Jazz, the novel written by the Novel Prize Winner that I can't quite get out of my mind.  It's a study in voice:  I can almost hear Morrison reading it.  And like Dr. Zhivago, is too studies the ways in which history resonates through the private moments of our lives.

Number eight is The Stone Diaries. I knew Carol Shields, who was just an unassuming, lovely woman, and was startled when someone I knew won all those well-deserved awards.  Another woman.  Hmmmm?  Shields creates Daisy Goodwill Flett, the heroine who almost disappears from her own book, but does it with such care and attention for the domestic realities of Daisy's life.  From Carol, I suspect I learned the call of the archive, a call which coloured my first novel (which is now living happily in a box under my desk at the University). 

Number nine is Don McKay's Paradoxides, which is really a stand-in for any of his books of poems.  From Don I learned that poetry can be crystalline yet complex.  It's diction comes from daily lives, but the wisdom coming from Don's favourite Chinese writers and his rich knowledge of the natural world.  Getting to know his work re-made poetry for me.

Number ten is Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just.  The three essays were given as the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Perhaps because analytic philosophy can't find a way of defining art that includes everything those philosophers believe to be art but excludes everything they know isn't art, philosophy has turned its attention over the last twenty years to beauty.  Don't get me start about the wonderful books this turn has produced--Denis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty and Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness are just a couple of favourites.  From Donoghue I learned that beauty too is undefinable, so we have to talk about what beauty means to us--always a fruitful conversation.  Nehemas taught me that we are in the presence of beauty when we return to the source again and again, sure that it will repay that attention and maybe even give up its secrets.  Both of these are must-reads.  But Scarry was there first.  She argues (please, it's a brief and beautiful book:  just read it!) that beauty is not a matter of prettiness scattered throughout our world, but that it is an integral part of our lives--of the Human Values the lecture series names--that prompts us to be just.  I can't do this book justice in a brief paragraph, so let me simply tell you about one of her central points.  When we are struck by something beautiful, we are taken out of ourselves, something that is crucial to justice.  The secondary effect of being thus startled by beauty is that we see the world differently.  We pay attention to particulars and bestow this different kind of attention on the people around us. Justice doesn't even begin to happen in the world until we stop insisting on our own viewpoints and give our attention to others--something that good books always ask us to do.



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