PART I – WHAT I HAVE LIVED FOR
One of the chapters of Walden is entitled “Where I have lived, and what I have lived for.” Each individual’s list of what he or she has lived for would differ from mine in the details. Some might say, for example, athletics, sewing, gardening, decorating or fishing. As I read through the essays that are used for this book, I see what has been important to me as I’ve traveled through the seasons and landscapes of my life. Looking back over the days of my life, I discern that there have been several threads of different hues that have made up the warp and woof of my existence and formed its pattern, making it as rich as a vivid Oriental rug. I have lived for:
Reading and writing
Love and marriage, friends, and family
Encounters with unusual people
Travel Food and the arts
All of these experiences have been seasoned with good food and drink, beautiful music, art and theater.
Reading And Writing
“No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket, A written word is the choicest of relics, It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself, It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips, not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself…Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
Henry David Thoreau – Walden
MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH WORDS
Reading and writing are part of the foundation of my life. My mother read to me as Old Granny had read to her. When I was
seven years old one day Mother was too busy to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so I said, “Well! I’ll just read it myself!” That started a lifelong passion for books and reading. My entire family was caught up in the same compulsion: We needed to read, couldn’t stop reading.
Compulsive readers share a private universe: reading by the light of a lamp hidden under the covers when you were supposed to be asleep: the excitement of leaving the library with a whole armful of books; discovering an unread book by a favorite author; sorrow at the deaths of great authors because there will be no more books by them. I just heard that Anne LaBastille, one of my favorite writers had died.
One of the greatest satisfactions of dedicated readers is to talk about books, relive books, wallow in books with like-minded people. I used to stand on the corner after school, talking books with Ed Fort. The query, “What are you reading?” brings instant rapport with strangers.
Bill and I illustrate the difference between those who read out of purpose and those who are driven; He reads slowly and with premeditation; I read faster… faster… gobbling up the words like one who is starving. The pages of his books are crisp, white, virginal, but my bools are dog-eared and have underlined passages and notes written in the margins. I rarely throw away a book. It was with a pang that I finally discarded a disintegrating copy of Shogun.
Genre, style, philosophy mean little to the compulsive reader. We read cereal boxes during breakfast. That doesn’t mean that we don’t apply exacting standards to what we read seriously. Robert Ruark said that truly fine writing reads like cream. Perhaps only a real reader, as my old granny called us, would understand that. Once Bill asked me why I read certain books again and again. “Well,” I replied. “You like to listen to your favorite records over and over.” I, too, hear a kind of music.
I suspect that underneath the surface of every dedicated reader lucks the soul of a writer. When I was a teenager I worked at the Knightstown Banner, and occasionally Tom Mayhill, the publisher, would have me interview someone and write a column. I started writing a weekly column for the Banner eleven years ago.
Its publishers gave me carte blanche to write as I chose. Wisely , I think, I called it “Ramblings” because it has been a reflection of my journey through life. It is also published in the Eastside Voice. I understand what Connie Scholtz, a Senator’s wife who won a Pulitzer for her newspaper columns, wrote in her insightful book, And His Lovely Wife. “Writing wasn’t just what I did. It was who I was… I couldn’t imagine how I would make sense of the world unfolding in front of me if I wasn’t writing it down and thinking it through my computer.” A Chinese philosopher said, “To re-create something in words is like being alive twice.” Thus, it is with me…I am so rich!
CONVERSATIONS WITH GRANNY
This essay that I wrote many years ago won First Prize in the Indianapolis Marion County Library Essay Contest
In no way does memory of old Granny conjure up vision of the prim, rosy-cheeked, lavender-scented grandmother of magazine ads. Granny smelled of tobacco and sometimes beer; her dresses hung shapelessly and crookedly; her cotton stockings sagged; and her language was salty. To add to her general dishevelment, her right eye socket was empty as she refused to wear a glass eye. (What the Hell do I need with a fake eye at my age?) Her questing mind, however, was untouched by her body’s disintegration. It was she who turned my love of reading into a compulsion.
Granny spoke in italics and exclamation marks. During my visits, we talked books, relived books, luxuriated in books with that almost erotic satisfaction that the dedicated reader achieves. Often she would be sitting with her good ear cocked toward a record player, listening to a talking book about which she maintained a running commentary: “Damn-it-all anyway! Why do those people send me such junk? They know that I can’t stand Grace Livingston Hill – that mealy mouth! And I don’t have another thing to read! Why can’t they send good stuff like Dickens? Now, you take David Copperfield – there’s a real book. Remember Aunt Betsy and the donkeys? What? You haven’t read it? You get yourself right down to the library. Oh, are you in for a treat!
One day I asked, “Granny, what’s it like not to be able to ready anymore?”
“Well, you take these talking books. They’re wonderful. I’m truly grateful for ‘em, but it’s not like holding a good thick book in your hands. Why when I could read by eye I could almost taste the words. Know what I mean? Now taste is second hand.
“Another thing,” Granny continued, cocking her head and stroking her chin meditatively, “Reading fixes things inside of you. For instance, I can’t picture my people in my mind’s eye, but the things I once read about – cities and mountains and such – I can still see. I guess that good writers see better than we do, and then their impressions stay inside our minds forever.” She also said, “You know, real readers like us read just for fun.
Take me: I don’t give a hoot in hell whether I learn anything or not – it’s too late for self-improvement. Yep, we read just for fun…’Course, other writers see better than we do, and then their impressions stay inside our minds forever. “things happen incidentally.
Now, the outside world and I won’t ever know each other completely, but a really good writer like that Hemingway fellow, he’ll never know me or give a hoot in Hell about me as a person, but he has to care about me as a reader or I wouldn’t like his books. We serve each other. His writing and my reading make our worlds match up. Have you ever read For Whom The Bell Tolls? I know I told you to read that one! Go get it today!”
The worlds match up. The graffito, “Frodo Lives!” is not altogether frivolous. Indeed, Frodo does exist somewhere within me along with Jake and Lady Brett, Pilar, Lord Toranaga, Lady MacBeth, Pombal and old Scobie, Miss Marple, Tom and Huck, Ivan Denisovitch and hundreds of others.
Granny has been dead for over sixty years, but still she shuffles along behind me through the landscapes of my internal vision; Durrell’s Alexandria, Zola’s cabarets and coal mines, Herriot’s Yorkshire, Baker Street, Watership Down, Twains river…
Granny once said, “I always thought I’d like to try my hand at writing, but you know, I was always so busy reading that I just didn’t have time.” Robert Ruark wrote that great writing reading like cream. Writers out there who do what I cannot, bring on the cream. I simply cannot find a thing to read around here!
This Damned Book
Putting this book together has been a humbling experience. During my woes and lamentations about it, Bill heard me refer to “This Damned Book” so often that he finally said, “That’s what you should call it.”
My only other experience in putting a book together was with Irvington Cooks a Benton House project. A volunteer did a fine job of data entry, but as inevitably happens, there were errors. Proofreading was a maddening experience. It’s very easy to end up with incorrect quantities so that, for example, ¼ teaspoon becomes 14 teaspoons. Teams of volunteers proofread out loud, but a few errors slipped through, including my omitting Worcestershire Sauce in a recipe that I contributed!
This project seemed straightforward and simple. All I had to do was select some of my newspaper columns and e-mail them to Susie. I have been writing for The Knightstown Banner for eleven years, and it publishes 51 issues a year. That’s over five hundred columns that I had to sort through.
Also, I didn’t anticipate that reading through those columns would be such a poignant journey. Sometimes the proves brought laughter, but occasionally I shed tears because of memories of beloved people who are no longer here and regret that I cannot repeat the wonderful times of my younger years.
Susie said that I needed an editor. However, I refused to spend the money. I finally told Susie, “If I don’t do something according to the rules, just consider it poetic license!” At least one thing should be easy: I taught English, and certainly know grammar right? Wrong! I had to take a refresher course in commas. Further, almost every column needed editing, and that process caused new mistakes. Several people read the book individually and also out loud to each other, but we still found errors.
At last the book is finished, and now I feel like a mother who’s reluctantly sending a child off to the first day of kindergarten. A member of a book discussion group that I attend recently wrote a novel. Her husband finally said, “Dammit, hit the button and send it!” If you find errors in this book, kindly keep it to yourself!
A Cure For The Soul
I’m being dragged into the electronic age. People would tell me that I ought to get a Kindle. I’d reply, “I like the feel of a real
book in my hands.” Vicki and Tom gave me a Kindle for Christmas. In many ways it is wonderful: It fits in my purse; I can enlarge the type; and the books are affordable.
Vicki has started reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities which cost little or nothing.
The word “kindle” means to ignite, inspire. Therein lies a trap – so many books that I can buy with the flick of a switch! Amazon has my credit card number, and I must be very strict with myself. I already have one whole shelf of unread “real” books in our library that I bought impulsively.
There are books that I read just for fun – murder mysteries and escapism such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Other books I read seriously and underline passages and write notes in their margins. doing this with a Kindle isn’t the same as flipping meditatively through underlined passages on “real” pages such as my much-used copy of Walden, like a miner seeking golden nuggets.
E-books will surely have a huge impact on the way bools are published and bought. However, I hope that they never replace the library that was my sanctuary when I was young. I use the word “sanctuary” deliberately. When I was a girl the Knightstown Library was a second home to me. Low on the pecking order at school, I bore my share of bullying and exclusion, but I forgot my troubles when I entered that tranquil place and carried home an armful of exciting books. I still remember my library card number – 1369. One day the librarian, Miss Montiqu, announced that I was old enough to check out adult books. Oh promised land! an impersonal Kindle can never replace a library or book store.
I loved Pat Conroy’s My Life In Books, the account of his life in terms of his experience as a lover of books. A military brat and eldest son of an abusive man who beat him, his siblings and their mother, he, too, took refuge in libraries and read voraciously both to lose and to find himself. I consider Conroy worthy of the Nobel, and the writing in My Life In Books is perfection and will resonate with “real” readers as Granny calls us.