Saturday, June 11, 2005

Bookworm child

I do appreciate Jean passing the book meme to me. From childhood, I have found my best refuge in books. The summer I turned nine my house was a bookmobile stop. I remember the bookmobile ladies coming to my birthday party. It was the birthday that I remember hanging upside down on the neighbors’ monkey bars singing to myself, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” in mute protest.

It was one of the few occasions when my mother’s attempts to create a perfect child-centered word went badly astray. And who can blame her from trying? If I was nine, then my sister was six, the older of my two brothers four and the other a baby or not even. I was so excited when the girls up the road invited me to play, devastated when I came to realize that it was a put-up job to arrange a surprise party for me. I don’t think anyone has given me a surprise party since. And that’s a good thing. I was not a child who enjoyed surprises, nor do I enjoy them now.

An introverted and intelligent child, I never so much as tasted the easy cameraderie I saw others enjoy. Partly it was a numbers game, that in the tiny rural towns where we lived, there were few children with whom I had much in common. Partly it was the usual childhood stuff, learning to deal with the schoolbus bully and coping when best friends move away. But a lot of it was about learning who I am—introverted, intuitive, quiet but intense. I have a boisterous mask, but that has been slowly acquired to allow me to operate with people who are mostly very different from me. Those decades in New York were priceless in this effort!

From rural Georgia to Boston to Philadelphia to New York to Chattanooga and back to New York to here, my home in rural Vermont, books have been my best friend. From childhood, I curled up Jane Aiken Hodge’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. Like Jean, I initially missed the satire, but I craved the social observation. All these books I read over and over, along with anything that came as a Reader’s Digest book and any murder mystery. I loved plot and I loved characterization. I loved being taken to a different world. I still do.

1. Total number of books I’ve owned: Like Jean, somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand, but I have cut back to around 500 now. After years of hauling too many books around, I came to prize space and simplicity over objects, and disposed of all but the ones I really, really needed. This ongoing struggle against accumulation has required that I develop rules for what I really, really need, but in the degree that I successfully implement my own rules, I am free.

I have rules for clothes. If too big or too frumpy, it goes away. If you haven’t worn it in the last year, it goes away—unless you really, really love it. My rules all have the escape hatch for what you really, really love.

I have rules for food. If it’s not good for you, it doesn’t come in the house. If you ought to be eating it (vegetables!) buy it, plan a recipe, cook it, so that you have the option to do the right thing. Any waste is readily justified on the basis of option creation and compost.

And I have rules for books. Now I have my core books—probably no more than a hundred or so—and I have provisional books which are on their way through my home. Some of the provisional books are murder mysteries that I don’t need to own on literary merit, but it is handy to have a spare few just in case I hit a day when I have nothing to read and can’t get to the library. Some are home improvement or decorating or travel books that are handy, even if they aren’t—properly speaking—essential to my well-being. It got to be such a burden getting rid of books, that I have all but stopped acquiring them. Libraries fill the gap.

There are books I treasure because they bring me back to a part of my life. My foreign language dictionaries for college. Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy for business school. A bond math handbook for those years at the bank. The Book of Common Prayer. Christopher Robin and Le Petit Prince. A strange little novel, not very good, called On the Marais des Cygnes written by my great-grandfather. My mother recently sent me some volumes of a children’s magazine called St Nicholas from the twenties that I pored through as a child, particularly the stories told around any three random objects: a spider, a bicycle and a bad boy, say.

There are books I keep because they said something to me once, or because I sense that they have something yet to say to me, although I cannot read them now. The former includes May Sarton’s books and James Hillman’s and almost all of Annie Dillard, although these days I find Dillard overly wordy and mostly unreadable. The latter group are the books I tried to get rid of but they would not let me: Isak Dinesen and George Eliot and my complete Shakespeare plays comprise a few examples.

Cookbooks, of course, have completely separate rules.

2. Last book I bought: Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance, because I need to own it.

3. Last book I read: I just finished Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen. Margaret Drabble is one of those writers whose work I will always read. Her books stay with me—literally and figuratively—for a long time. It took me about three weeks to read this book, which is quite unusual, since most books don’t last me three days. I don’t think it is her best work, but it is extremely interesting in the interplay of multiple plot lines and the blurring of one story into another. I particularly relate to the theme that we are each writing the story of our own lives—that the way we tell our own story is of supreme importance and that stories clash in the ether.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I wrote my master’s thesis on this book, which still speaks to me. Layers and layers and layers. If I had to pick only one book that meant the most to me, it would be this one with its echoes of Goethe’s Faust, its overlay of rose petal fragrance, and its exquisite rendering of the battle between light and darkness.

My favorite gardening book, Landscaping with Herbs by James Adams. Fragrance and flavor, wrapped up in beauty. And you can have it at home.

If I were able to pick something for the Christian tradition it would have to be Thomas Merton or CS Lewis or Thomas Moore or Henri Nouwen, but I don’t know how to pick. Maybe the Book of Common Prayer. The Bible seems an obvious pick, but somehow that is not so much a book to me as a more complex object, its impact both sharpened and blunted by how others have used it as an instrument of social conformity. Lately, I am branching into some Buddhist paths with Thich Nhat Han.

Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Puppet Theater is not so much a book as an essay, one that is so important to my world view that I quoted almost all of it elsewhere in this blog.

Among self-help books, I would have to pick Maggie Scarf’s Unfinished Business or Kay Redmond Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, or even Parallel Lives: A Study of Victorian Marriage, by Phylis Rose, because she gave me a way to think about what marriage is not. I agree with Jean’s pick of The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron, and would add The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney. Who could ever suspect that extroverts think we are ignoring them on purpose? We introverts are simply not particularly interested in extroverts’ flapping and fluttering, but that, I suppose, is what offends them. And who could have imagined that extroverts routinely talk without thinking first? I am offended by that.

Murder mysteries and cookbooks—I can’t begin to pick. The truth is that despite an MA in comparative literature and an MBA to follow, these are the categories of my daily fare. Maybe another essay another day.

5. Which five bloggers am I passing this to? Since we have already established in the previous section that I either cannot count or cannot play by the rules—or perhaps this overly conforming child is finally learning that I don’t always have to—I am passing it to any of you who want to do it. Despite my blog-absence of the last few months, I confess to feeling a slight reprise of those childhood slights that I wasn’t asked earlier. I was always the last picked for kickball, too. But I would have done this particular meme eventually even if Jean had not asked, since I am grown up now and I write about what I like. If something in my piece speaks to you, please do respond, but many of my favorite bloggers have done this one already. It would, as always, be great to hear from Robert at Beginner’s Mind or from Susan at Visual Voice-Net but if I have missed your booklist in my absence, please forgive me.


Visual-Voice said...

I'd love to participate!

Jean said...

I loved reading this, Karen, and have finally responded - on my blog.

Carol said...

I enjoyed reading this post of your favorite books. It is wonderful that you have a novel written by your great grandfather.

Carol said...

Hi, Carol again. I wanted to add that that I can relate to anyone that reads Kay Redmond Jamison.