Running with writers

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

In his essay "Childhood of a Writer," E.L. Doctorow describes how his passion for fiction ignited when he was eight years old:

"Back home [from an appendix operation], and more or less on my feet again, I took out of the library the two great dog novels of Jack London, published together for my convenience in one sturdy binding, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, the one about a civilized dog who is kidnapped and enslaved as a sled-husky in the Yukon and, under the brutal pressures of human masters, finds freedom and self-realization in reverting to the primeval wolf ways of his remote ancestry, the other about a savage wolf who, under the ministrations of a decent human being, becomes a civilized human-friendly dog. On such tales as these he became the most popular writer in America, and he is still widely read around the world, though he sits at literature's table below the salt while the more sophisticated voices of modernist and postmodernist irony conduct the conversation.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"The tests and trials to which Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, is subjected, and the way he meets them and learns and grows in moral stature, make Buck a round character, while the human beings in the book are, in their constant one-note villainy, flat. This is irony too, a fine irony. Furthermore, this little speed-readers' novel, written at the level of a good pulp serial, is in fact a parody of the novel of sentimental education, not only because the hero is a dog, but because his education decivilizes him, turns him back into the wild creature of his primordial ancestry. I appreciate that now, but then I only knew that Jack London was different from the picture-book writer Aesop, he was not tiresome as Aesop was, he took animals seriously, granting them complex character as the veterinarily incorrect Aesop never did. The moral of the Jack London book was not something you knew already without having to be instructed. But it was there and it was resonant with my own life.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis"Every day, it seemed, old men knocked on the front door to ask my mother for money to help bring Jews out of Europe. Playing with my friends in the park, I had to watch out for older boys who swept up from the East Bronx to take at knifepoint our spaldines and whatever pocket change we were carrying. My father, the proud owner of a music shop in the old Hippodrome theater at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, a man who knew the classical repertoire inside and out and stocked music that nobody else had, a man whom the great artists of the day consulted for their record purchases, lost his store in the 'little' Depression of 1940. My ancient grandmother, growing more and more insane each day, now ran away to wander the streets until the police found her and brought her home. We were broke, what the newspapers called war clouds were growing darker and more ominous, my brother was of freshly minted draft age, and The Call of the Wild, this mordant parable of the thinness of civilization, the savagery bursting through as the season changed in the Bronx and a winter of deep heavy snows, like the snows of the Yukon, fell upon us, the whole city muffled and still, made me long to be in the wild, loping at the head of my pack, ready to leap up and plunge my incisors into the throats of all who would harm me or my family.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"At one point I must have realized the primordial power belonged not to the dog, or not in fact to the dog, because around this time -- I was perhaps nine years old -- I decided I was a writer. It was a clear conviction, not even requiring a sacred vow; I assumed the identity with grace, as one slips on a jacket or sweater that fits perfectly.

"It was such a natural assumption of my mind that for several years I felt no obligation to actually write anything. My convalesence had left me flabby, out of shape, with less energy for running around. I was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done? It is a kind of imprinting.

"We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well -- this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being."

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photographs by Paul Croes

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The extraordinary imagery today is by Belgian photographer Paul Croes and his studio assistant Inge Nelis. Please visit their Behind Eyes Studio website to see more.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis


Home is Imaginary: depression, imagination, the power of stories

Woodland gate

This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.

Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.

Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.

Through the leaves

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy," writes Ursula K. Le Guin. "This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Leaf and moss

"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts," Le Guin continues. "We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.

Rock hound 1

"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.

"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.

Rock hound 2

"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Through the leaves again

"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

"Reading is an act of listening."

Entangled

The passage above comes from Le Guin's 2002 essay "The Operating Instructions," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in her excellent new collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).

Related reading:

* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)

* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)

* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)

* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).

On the hillside

Words Are My MatterThe text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.


There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1

When the clamour of the world (and the Internet) grows harsh and cacophonous, I find it healing, grounding, and necessary to turn away from keyboards and screens, to ration the time I spend online, and to be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

Bumblehill Studio 2

This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Bumblehill Studio 4

Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

Bumblehill Studio 5

Bumblehill Studio 6

Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Bumblehill Studio 7

Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

Bumblehill Studio 8

Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The final quote is from "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" by Toni Morrison (The Nation, March 2013); I owe thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for introducing me to it.  Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood.


I'm off...

Catskin by Arthur Rackham

I will be away from home for the next week, and then back to the studio on Monday, October 10. These are the words I'd like to leave you with, from an interview with Anthony Doerr:

Drawing by E.M. Taylor"Life is wonderful and strange...and it’s also absolutely mundane and tiresome. It’s hilarious and it’s deadening. It’s a big, screwed-up morass of beauty and change and fear and all our lives we oscillate between awe and tedium. I think stories are the place to explore that inherent weirdness; that movement from the fantastic to the prosaic that is life....

"What interests me -- and interests me totally -- is how we as living human beings can balance the brief, warm, intensely complicated fingersnap of our lives against the colossal, indifferent, and desolate scales of the universe. Earth is four-and-a-half billion years old. Rocks in your backyard are moving if you could only stand still enough to watch. You get hernias because, eons ago, you used to be a fish. So how in the world are we supposed to measure our lives -- which involve things like opening birthday cards, stepping on our kids’ LEGOs, and buying toilet paper at Safeway -- against the absolutely incomprehensible vastness of the universe? 

"How? We stare into the fire. We turn to friends, bartenders, lovers, priests, drug-dealers, painters, writers. Isn’t that why we seek each other out, why people go to churches and temples, why we read books? So that we can find out if life occasionally sets other people trembling, too?"

Indeed.

Rain cloudsThe quote by Anthony Doerr is from an interview in Wag's Review (Issue 8). The illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and E.M. Taylor (1906-1964).


Children, reading, and Tough Magic

Seymour Joseph Guy

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood by  Jane Yolen:

"The great archetypal stories provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then hones by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection....

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

Walter Firle

Eastman Johnson &Michael Peter Ancher

Emile Vernon

Izsák Perlmutter & Knud Eric Larsen

"In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons."

Carl Larsson

Florence Fuller

 "A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Boy Reading by Thomas Benjamin Kennington & Charlotte J. Weeks

Boys reading, vintage photograph

Clark Kelley Price

Gilbert Young

Dorothea Lange

"Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

Tatiana Deriy

Tatiana Deriy

Honor C. Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

John Weiss

Children’s books change lives. Stories pour into the hearts of children and help make them what they become.Denise Holly Ulinskas

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always suprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed.

Rebecca Kinkead

Adelaide Claxton

"Why do so many fantasies shy away from Tough Magic? Why do they offer sweet fairy dances in the moonlight without the fear of the cold dawn that comes after? Because writing about Tough Magic takes courage on the author's part as well. To bring up all the dark, unknown, frightening images that live within each of us and try to make some sense of them on the page is a task that takes courage indeed. It is not an impersonal courage. Only by taking great risks can the tale succeed. Ursula Le Guin has written:

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Words: The quotes above are from Jane Yolen's influential book Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000), which I highly recommend. This text has also appeared in a previous post: "Breathing in the world," August 15, 2013. All right reserved by the author.

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions.


On reading: in words and pictures

Young Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom (Dutch, 17th century)

Norman Rockwell

"When we read a story we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own."  - John Berger

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent

"Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head."  - Paul Auster

Jan Mankes

"Stories you read when you're the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you'll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit."
  - Neil Gaiman

Samuel John Peploe

Charles James McCall

 "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally -- and often far more -- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond."  - C.S. Lewis

Honoré Daumier

"Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."  - William Faulkner

Henry Stacy Marks

Room in New York by Edward Hopper

Joseph Lorusso

"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading."  - William Styron

Ignat Bednarik

Duncan Grant & Vanessa Bell

And my favorite quote on the subject, from the great James Baldwin:

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

Vincent van Gogh

The art today is for Jane Dorfman and Stuart Hill, who wanted more pictures of men and boys reading. Artists are identified in the picture captions.

Carl Larsson

Frances Foy

Tilly & Howard, 2010


Reading and resting

Georg Pauli

I'm afraid I'm out of the studio for another day or two. It's frustrating to find myself back in bed again, but it's only a stomach flu this time and will surely be over soon. Meanwhile, there are plenty of books to read, and the Faithful Hound cuddled beside me.

Woman Reading by Albert Moore

Reading by the Window by Charles James Lewis

"Reading is a co-production between writer and reader," says Ben Okri. "The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn’t care to sit next to in a train, people that don’t exist, places you’ve never visited, enigmatic fates, all come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader’s creative powers. In this way the creativity of the writer calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

Charles Edward Perugini

Robert-Archibald Graafland

''Beware of the stories you read or tell," he warns; "subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.''

Carl Larsson

Leopold von Kalckreuth

The pictures today: reading and resting. Artists are identified in the picture captions.

Jessie Wilcox SmithThe quotes by Ben Okri are from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (Phoenix, 1998); all rights reserved by the author.


Reading, writing, and the life of the spirit

Studio garden

Late summer color

"I did not go to any school until I was twelve years old," writes English novelist Penelope Lively; "until then, my home-based education centered entirely upon reading -- pretty much anything that came to hand, prose, poetry, good, bad, indifferent, any page was better than no page. At a barbaric boarding school, where the authorities saw a taste for unfettered reading as a sign of latent perversity, I went underground and read furtively, hiding books like other girls hid Mars bars or toffees.

"At university, there was a great swathe of reading, which was fine, but I liked to read off-piste, shooting into English literature, which was not supposed to be my subject, and into areas of history ignored by the syllabus. Grown-up life -- syllabus-free, exam-free -- came as relief; now, there was a day job, but also the opportunity for unbridled reading. I became a public library addict, dropping in several times a week for my fix, and this continued into married life and motherhood, when I read my way through the small branch library of our Swansea suburb, pushing the pram there with a baby in one end and the books in the other.

Studio garden bench

Hound, coffee, notebook

Lively, of course, went on to become a prolific and celebrated author, winning of the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger and the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature for The Ghost of Thomas Kemp. She was appointed a Dame of the British Empire for services to literature in 2012. Reflecting on her long career, she notes:

"You write out of experience, and a large part of that experience is the life of the spirit; reading is the liberation into the minds of others. When I was a child, reading released me from my own prosaic world into fabulous antiquity, by way of Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece; when I was a housebound young mother, I began to read history all over again, but differently, freed from the constraints of a degree course, and I discovered also Henry James, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Evelyn Waugh, and Henry Green, and William Golding, and so many others -- and became fascinated by the possibilities of fiction. It seems to me that writing is an extension of reading -- a step that not every obsessive reader is compelled to take, but, for those who do, one that springs from serendipitous reading. Books beget books.

"Would I have become a writer had I been denied books? Plenty of people have done so. Would I have gone on writing in the face of a blizzard of rejection letters? Others have. Unanswerable questions but they prompt speculation. Looking back at that difficult beginning, bashing out a story on typewriter whose keys kept getting stuck together, the endeavor seems precarious indeed."

Plums ripening

Studio pond

Frog neighbor

Everything is fiction, says Irish writer Keith Ridway (in a fine new essay for The New Yorker): 

"When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones -- they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor -- please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience -- with our senses and our nerves -- is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

"So I love hearing from people who have no time for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the triviality of fiction, the triviality of making things up. As if that wasn’t what all of us do, all day long, all life long."

Tilly at the door

In the studioWords: The passage by Penelope Lively is from Making It Up (Viking, 2005). The passage by Keith Ridgway is from "Everything is Fiction" (The New Yorker, August 2, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Late summer in the studio's hillside garden, with flowers, frog pond, a bench under the plum tree, and ripening plums.


From the archives: In praise of re-reading

Re-reading May Sarton's Plant Dreaming Deep in the garden at Bumblehill

A question from a colleague looking for memoir recommendations reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago, looking at the way our reading of such works can change as we grow older...

Over the last several months, I've been re-reading my old, dusty copies of memoirs, letters, and essays by women writers and artists -- works that I first encountered in decades past, when I was much younger. Returning to them now, I seem to be reading different books than the ones I remember -- although, of course, it's not the books that have changed with the passing of time but me. Vera Brittain's Testament of Experience and Testament of Friendship, Nancy Hale's The Life in the Studio, Dorothea Tanning's Between Lives, May Sarton's various memoirs,  Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals, essays by Carolyn Heilbrun, Susan Cooper, and Virginia Woolf' -- these were all written by women close to my current age, give or take a few years, so my dialogue with them now is a conversation of peers, not age to youth...and there are other differences as well.

Three books by May Sarton

In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton recounts the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature's beauty, and solitude. I first read her book in my early 30s when I, too, had just bought my first house: a 16th century cottage in a tiny village in rural England; and I, too, was deep in the work of renovation. My previous decade, like Sarton's, had been rootless and urban; I'd never lived any one place for long; and moving from New York and Boston to Devon was as complicated and impractical as it was romantic. I was single then, liberated from a long, confining early relationship; I was back on my feet after two cancer operations; and I was determined to re-build my life as I wanted, now that it was wholly mine again.

What Sarton's book gave me was validation of my decision to settle down and make a real home without marriage or children as my goal. Though life had changed for women between the time Sarton bought her first house in 1955 and I bought mine in 1992, it hadn't changed entirely. Single women were still quietly pitied for our presumed failure to find a mate, even those of us with rich romantic lives who simply enjoyed living alone. (I should mention that during the winters I shared a house with a woman friend in the Arizona desert, so although I valued my independence, I was hardly a hermit.) A colleague fretted that I was in danger of "turning into Virginia Woolf, " by which he meant an accomplished but dried-up old spinster -- oblivious both to my complicated love-life and the fact that Woolf had a long, close marriage. The idea of single women as either sexless or desperate was proving a remarkably hard one to shift.

Reading at Weaver's Cottage

Plant Dreaming Deep chronicles the reclamation of Sarton's farmhouse, the planting of its extensive garden, and the slow adjustment of an intensely intellectual woman to the seasonal rhythms of country life. The book is a celebration of the bittersweet virtues of solitude, independence, and self-reliance -- and yet Sarton, too, was not a hermit. Her life was amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings ... but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that it caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

Hamlet's Mother & Other Women, essays by Carolyn C. Heilbrun

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and the book was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own work after marriage and children and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden, not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer. Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this book, she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges in these pages is prickly, moody, often exasperating...and thoroughly human.

When I first read The Journal of Solitude, I appreciated its craft and intent -- in many ways it's a better book than the first -- but I was, I remember, dismayed by the strain of bitterness that runs all through it. I could not help but wonder: would the independence I deeply craved leave me this bitter at Sarton's age? As I finished the book, I felt obscurely let down, for it seemed to suggest that the price for a work-focused life was high indeed.

Journal of Solitude by May Sarton

Returning to Sarton two decades later, however, I see what I somehow failed to see before: The Journal of Solitude is not a book about the loneliness of the single life, it's a book about depression. This fact is so glaringly obvious that it's hard to fathom how I missed it back then...but at that time I didn't yet know the signs of long-term, clinical depression, whereas now I know them all too well due to a close family member who has suffered beneath its crushing weight.

And with this knowledge, I find myself reading an entirely different book this time, with different insights, observations, explications, and resonances. Instead of dismayingly bitter, Sarton comes across as irascible, yes, but also remarkably honest, tenacious, and brave, pushing through the grey clouds to return to the light not once but again and again. The pain that the poet is never quite rid of is no longer solitude's dark twin; it's the pain of the illness she is coping with, making her periods of solitude both necessary and healing.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle

Likewise, Madeleine L'Engle's four Crosswick Journals speak to me now as they never did before, written in a language of age and experience in which I've become more fluent.

When I read the first three books back in the mid 1980s (the fourth was not yet published then), I found the author's life interesting but alien: her glamorous parents, her international upbringing, her marriage to a Broadway actor and soap opera star, her children, her dogs, her homes in New York City and rural Connecticut...it was all so removed from the life I led as a struggling young writer/editor that we inhabited different worlds altogether, even though we actually lived within blocks of each other on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I read L'Engle's journals with a certain detachment, for other than our shared taste for fantastic fiction we seemed to have very little in common. I underlined a few choice passages about writing, then put the books back on the shelves. I kept them, but I had no urge to re-read them until this year.

Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L'Engle

I opened the first volume, A Circle of Quiet, expecting to re-read it with the same mixture of interest and distance, the same wide gulf between the author's focus (marriage, children, church) and mine. But L'Engle had changed in the intervening years; the very words printed on the page had changed; and yes, I know that is quite impossible but so it actually seemed to me, for now her books had much to say that I was finally ready to hear. 

A quarter of a century has passed; I am roughly the age that she was then; and, surprisingly enough, her life and mine are not so far very apart now. I, too, have an actor husband, a family, a house in the country, a shelf full of published books...all of it on a much smaller scale than L'Engle's, yet close enough to share similar concerns about juggling conflicting commitments to family, community, and creative work. My life took an unexpected turn when I married my husband and became a parent; now I come to these books from a whole new direction, through a door I could not even see, much less pass through, when I first read them. In this re-reading, it is only the third volume (a meditation on Christianity, and how L'Engle's faith intersects with her work as a writer) that I still read with my early detachment...and who knows? In another quarter century a door might open into that one too.

Between Lives by Dorothea Tanning and In the Studio by Nancy Hale.

Terry Tempest Williams and others

I am speaking here of books that reward re-visiting, revealing new aspects of themselves each time you return: Vera Brittain's fascinating, heart-rending memoirs; Virginia Woolf's brilliant diaries; Terry Tempest William's gorgeous books, falling somewhere between memoir and nature writing. (If I expanded this essay into fiction, then authors ranging from Jane Austen to Ursula Le Guin would certainly be mentioned here.)

Other books, however, remain stuck in time -- eloquent and profound at one stage of life, but stubbornly mute when you try to go back; the door that stood open for the person you were has slammed shut for the person you are. Anaïs Nin's diaries fall into that category for me -- so influential in my late 20s that it's no overstatement to say I would not be the woman I am without them, and yet I can no longer read Nin with that youthful hunger and uncritical pleasure. This doesn't diminish her work for me; the diaries remain a classic of the form, and they still have a place of honor on my shelves. But some books -- and it's different books for every reader -- seem to belong to a certain age, a certain stage of one's development. Re-reading them is an exercise in nostalgia rather than one of discovery, and although that has its pleasures too, it is a melancholy kind of pleasure, tinted the sepia of loss.

Every so often, however, I take Nin's diaries down from the shelves again, breathing in the scent of the young woman I once was. Perhaps one day a new door back into those books will stand ajar.

Anais Nin and others

"I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read," remarks a character in Italo Calvino's great novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, "but at every rereading, I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern?"

I'd say that it's both those things, at different times, for different books, for different readers.

Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot is an especially lovely tribute to the fine art of re-reading. "There are books," she writes, "that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree."

Italo Calvino, Rebecca Mead, and Patrcia Meyer Spacks

Patricia Meyer Spacks notes that the pleasure of re-visiting our favorite books is one of mingled familiary and surprise. "By definition, rereading reacquaints us with the familiar. It does so, often, by defamiliarizing. The book we thought we knew challenges us to incorporate fresh elements in our understanding. The book we loved in childhood provides delights we never anticipated. We thought we already knew what it was about, but now it tells us that it is about something else. As our memories inform our understanding, that understanding changes. We who love rereading love it for its surprises as well as for its stability." (I recommend her book On Rereading if you'd like to explore this subject further.)

"We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading,"  C.S. Lewis states provocatively in his essay "On Stories" (1947). "Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Til then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words."

Read it again, children demand when we close their favorite storybooks. Read it again. And again. And again. One reading is simply not enough.

As adults, many of us have a book (or books) that we've re-read not once but countless times ... and I suspect you can learn quite a lot about a person by finding out what it is. Working in the fantasy field, it's assumed that I'm a re-reader of The Lord of the Rings, but I hereby confess that I've read Professor Tolkien's great epic exactly twice: first in my teens and again in my twenties when I was commissioned to write about it. The book I've re-read so often that I've long lost count is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- which I didn't even particularly like on my first encounter as a sophmore in high school, but which has dazzled me with its clarity, depth, and wicked humor in every reading since. Re-reading the book in my 20s (thank you, Ellen Kushner!) was the key that unlocked its treasures.

Re-visiting old friends

Dream and Wishes by Susan Cooper

So let us praise the distinctive pleasures of re-reading: that particular shiver of anticipation as you sink into a beloved, familiar text; the surprise and wonder when a book that had told one tale now turns and tells another; the thrill when a book long closed reveals a new door with which to enter.  In our tech-obsessed, speed-obsessed, throw-away culture let us be truly subversive and praise instead the virtues of a long, slow relationship with a printed book unfolding over many years, a relationship that includes its weight in our hands and its dusty presence on our shelves. In an age that prizes novelty, irony, and youth, let us praise familiarity, passion, and knowledge accrued through the passage of time. As we age, as we change, as our lives change around us, we bring different versions of ourselves to each encounter with our most cherished texts.  Some books grow better, others wither and fade away, but they never stay static.

"No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities," writes Patricia Meyer Spacks, "but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.”

Do you feel guilty for re-reading? I never have -- just frustrated that this one short life is not nearly long enough for all the books that I want to read and re-read. Revisiting books over years, over decades, is a multi-layered experience that first-time reading can never match -- though it has, of course, pleasures of its own. Re-reading is a different art than reading, but not a lesser one.

So today, let us praise re-reading, since reading itself has less need of champions; let us praise old books that are dog-eared, creased, cracked, and marked by years of handling. New books are fine but give me old ones too: underlined, coffee-stained, hiding pressed flowers and old letters faded into illegibility, and containing the ghosts of the woman I was and the woman I will be, the next time I read them.

Let us praise re-reading, which only gets richer and deeper with age. Take heart, young readers. The best is still to come.

More old friends

Re-reading on the garden bench

In addition to the books mentioned above, I recommend Lisa Levy's essay, "The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading";  Anne Fadiman's charming anthology, Rereadings: 17 Writers Revisit the Books They Love; and Francis Spufford's memoir of a reading life, The Child That Books Built.


From the archives: Daydreams and spells

Brambles by Adrian Arleo

I'm afraid it's another post pulled from the archives today (first posted in 2013), as I'm having a week in which the time and spoons for all I need to do is in short supply. I do like re-visiting these old posts, though, and seeing the different kinds of conversations they spark a few years down the road. Which reminds me that I must also apologize for taking so long to respond to comments. I am reading all the comments (and poems!) as they come in, and will go back and respond properly just as soon as pressing work deadlines ease. In the meanwhile, I'm so grateful to all of you here who keep the discussion going. It's what makes this blog feel like more than just mine; it is made by a whole community. 

The passage below is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming," a lecture by my old friend Neil Gaiman (we grew up in publishing together) in which he argues not only for the value of reading, but also for the value of stories often dismissed as "escapist."

Consider by Adrian Arleo

"Fiction can show you a different world," Neil says. "It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave Siren with Palm by Adrian Arleothem better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Glade by Adrian Arleo

In her lovely biographical essay "Spells of Enchantment," fairy tale scholar Helen Pilinovsky Oxgaard notes that there are many kinds of children who need escape, even those who don't come from particularly troubled homes:

"Fairy tales, fantasy, legend and myth...these stories, and their topics, and the symbolism and interpretation of those topics...these things have always held an inexplicable fascination for me," Helen writes. Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo"That fascination is at least in part an integral part of my character — I was always the kind of child who was convinced that elves lived in the parks, that trees were animate, and that holes in floorboards housed fairies rather than rodents.

"You need to know that my parents, unlike those typically found in fairy tales — the wicked stepmothers, the fathers who sold off their own flesh and blood if the need arose — had only the best intentions for their only child. They wanted me to be well educated, well cared for, safe — so rather than entrusting me to the public school system, which has engendered so many ugly urban legends, they sent me to a private school, where, automatically, I was outcast for being a latecomer, for being poor, for being unusual. However, as every cloud does have a silver lining — and every miserable private institution an excellent library — there was some solace to be found, between the carved oak cases, surrounded by the well–lined shelves, among the pages of the heavy antique tomes, within the realms of fantasy.

Canopy, A Variation on Romulus and Remus by Adrian Arleo"Libraries and bookshops, and indulgent parents, and myriad books housed in a plethora of nooks to hide in when I should have been attending math classes...or cleaning my room...or doing homework...provided me with an alternative to a reality I didn't much like. Ten years ago, you could have seen a number of things in the literary field that just don't seem to exist anymore: valuable antique volumes routinely available on library shelves; privately run bookshops, rather than faceless chains; and one particular little girl who haunted both the latter two institutions. In either, you could have seen some variation upon a scene played out so often that it almost became an archetype:

"A little girl, contorted, with her legs twisted beneath her, shoulders hunched to bring her long nose closer to the pages that she peruses. Her eyes are glued to the pages, rapt with interest. Within them, she finds the kingdoms of Myth. Their borders stand unguarded, and any who would venture past them are free to stay and occupy themselves as they would."

Tree of Life by Adrian Arleo

Persistence by Adrian Arleo

The exquisite mythic sculpture above and below is by Adrian Arleo, a ceramic artist in Lolo, Montana. "For over fifteen years," says Arleo, "I've been creating sculpture that combines human and animal imagery in a variety of ways. Some of these works elude to a relationship of understanding or connection between the human and animal realms. In others, the human figures possess animal faces, limbs, or other features in a way that reveals something hidden about the character or primal nature of the person.

"The Honey Comb sculptures are another variation on blending the human form with elements from nature. What appeals to me about the quality of this material is its appearance of simultaneously growing and deteriorating. I also like the way the wax approximates the material created by bees, enabling the work to be visual, tactile, and appealing to the sense of smell, like fresh honeycomb. On the flip side, the work might suggest the swarming, stinging insects that create this beautiful material. As with many things in life, beauty and the grotesque can cohabitate."

To see more of her beautiful work, go here. To read an interview with the artist, go here.


Honey Comb Girl by Adrian Arleo

Dog With Hands by Adrian Arleo

Adrian ArleoThe passage by Neil Gaiman is from a lecture delivered to The Reading Agency at the Barbican in London (October 14, 2013), subsequently printed in The Guardian (October 15, 2o13). Follow the link to read it in full. The passage by Helen Pilinovsky is from an essay published in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2001). I recommend reading both essays in full. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the authors & artist.