For The Love of Libraries

When I was in elementary school, I went to the library frequently. I would take out as many books as they would let me. I’ve seen it even now. Children walk out with a pile of books in their arms as their mothers hold open the door for them. I know I’m not the only one who tried to read entire sections of the children’s library because I loved reading so much.

As I grew into middle school, I started visiting the adult section. I remember sitting upstairs on the floor while thumbing through philosophy books, such as Kant and Kierkegaard. Hidden among these stacks was where I first encountered the atheist writer Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. I loved that library.

After I went to college, I no longer had time for recreational reading. All my spare time went to reading the subjects I studied in Business School at BU. Even when I had time off, the last thing I wanted to do was use my brain. I stopped using my home library.

After I graduated, I restarted my use of the libraries. I was at various times a member of the Boston library system, the Somerville library system, the Malden library system, and now again I’m a member of the Floral Park library system. In the early years of the millenium, I worked for a time in two libraries in Massachusetts. But working there affects your relationship with your library. It goes from provider of entertainment to a job.

Since I work from home and writing is my game, I am back to using the library frequently. I’m in there at least twice a week to pick and return the books I’m reading. I try to read something every day, other than the Internet which can only be satisfying on a gossip and time-wasting level. Like eating too much candy, my brain soon craves something more substantial.

For years, all I read was nonfiction, especially psychology, self-help, and self-improvement. I had read some stories that I found wanting, and I no longer wanted to invest or try to find fiction books that would catch my interest. My desire for personal and psychology improvement and refinement was strong enough and satisfied enough that I put fiction reading on the back burner.

I’ve been slowly getting back into reading fiction along with my nonfiction books, although the former now outweighs the latter most often. In my quest to learn about memoir writing, I have read more than a dozen. A topic I once never thought of now captivates my interest. Ditto romance novels now that I am planning one for this upcomign November NaNoWriMo.

My hometown library looks the same on the outside. Inside, it has changed. Where a wall of encyclopedias and two long wooden desks with chairs were now sits wall bookcases light on books, a huge reference desk, a few round tables with chairs, and bigger lounge-style chairs with adjustable table tops like you might see in a college auditorium. The wall bookcases with new fiction, large print, and nonfiction are the same. The front checkout desk is the same. The staff are all changed over, but are just as attentive and helpful as ever.

My life has come full circle. I am living in the upstairs apartment of my childhood home, I can walk a few minutes to get to my library, and I can walk out with a stack of books in my hand as I use my back to hit the push bar to open the door. I once again feel pride and excitment of walking home with interesting books where, once home, I will plop on the couch to read them. The other books wait patiently for their turn in my hands.

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Abandoned Books and Rediscovered Authors

As part of my research for my memoir, I have been reading a variety of memoirs that come across my path. My memoir is themed around my struggles with illness since I was born and how they affected my life. Some of the titles, such as Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, are directly relevant; this book is about how a near-death experience changed her life.

Others are tangentially about illness but not memoirs, like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. I was hoping to plumb the book for insight as to how metaphoric comparisons of illness might have affected how I experienced and interpreted illness, even though Sontag talks mainly about tuberculosis (TB) and cancer, and then later, AIDS.

Sontag’s writing style seemed dense and intellectual, drawing on a truly staggering number of literary references that demonstrated illness (TB and cancer) and its metaphors through fiction, such as in the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. In this manner, the book reminded me of a history tome, filled with date after date after date. Sontag also seems to repeat herself as if there was only so much that she could say about it, but her publisher made her try and stretch the thoughts way past their prime. I mentally pushed myself through about 70 pages of the book before setting it aside. I really hate doing that, but I hate torturing myself through repetitive, difficult to read books.

And in my procrastinations yesterday to avoid writing, I decided the next best thing was to read articles related to writing. This quickly lead me to the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (DFW). I tried getting into his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, but I abandoned both because I could not get into the stream of consciousness that his writing seemed to be. I tried. I had read about how beloved DFW was both to his readers and critics, and I wanted to be one of his fan boys. But I had to come to the conclusion that his writing wasn’t for me.

Until now.

I was sitting at Argo Tea on a corner of 7th Avenue and West 26th Street in New York City with a writer friend. I quickly began laughing out loud and hastening my hand to cover my mouth. You know when you find something so funny that you immediately want to start making eye contact with everyone around you and telling them about it? That was me yesterday at the Argo Tea.

Here’s a little tidbit of his writing after which I had one of many outbursts:

I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I know what a Coco Loco is. I have in one week been the object of over 1500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I shot skeet at sea. Is this enough? At the time it didn’t seem like enough.

It’s not just his descriptions of things that makes reading the Supposedly Fun essay such a joy. Right away, you come to understand that this essay truly reflects his actual first person thoughts and feelings, uncensored and as they are. How easy it would be for DFW to pretend to feel something that he did not and make it seem real? Very. He shares his impressions of the staff, the other people at dinner Table 64, and his struggles with semi-agoraphobia that teeter him on the edge of whether he is going out of the cabin or whether he shall avail himself of room service.

What hit me deeply in reading this essay by DFW, however, was his repeated mentions of death, despair, and loneliness. In 2008 at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Pictures of him often show him with a wrap around his head, hair disheveled, and a pained expression on his face. Even in an essay that he wrote when he was sent on a cruise for pay and asked to write an article, the pain came with him. When you have major depression and anxiety, there is no holiday or cruise that you can take that will separate you from the pain. If only there were, maybe DFW would have found a way to be with us still.

Kinda Sorta Done with YA Dystopia

In between reading memoirs, I am driven to engulf myself in some kind of fantasy novel that will erase the empathetic pain I feel for the writers. The last memoir I read is Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within by Gayatri Ramprasad, another gripping tale. Somewhere in the middle of reading these memoirs, I start to feel a little sick, reliving my bouts of depression through the lens of their lives.

Someone I know mentioned that they were looking for stories similar Hunger Games / Divergent / Maze Runner for their summer reading. Because I loved The Hunger Games, I decided to pick up the entire Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth from my library the other day. I think there’s a part deep inside of me that hopes I can scrub the terrible feelings from my psyche by plunging myself into an alternate reality.

Roth’s story and pacing are gripping, and I do like it. However, I feel like I still loved The Hunger Games a lot more. It’s kind of like when you eat the best chocolate cake you can ever eat in your life and then go on to eat nearly-as-good chocolate cake. You taste the difference. But here I am, most of the way through book three (Allegiant) because I have to find out what happens to everyone. I want to know the whole system is gonna break down.

Earlier this year I read another YA dystopia novel called The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings, book one of a three book series. I enjoyed that quite a bit, too. The second one is out, and I am waiting for the libraries to order copies. I could only find 1 copy available, and that’s already been taken out. So I have to wait for the end of the month.

While reading the Divergent series, I have been thinking underneath why it is that maybe this series isn’t as interesting to me as other ones I have read just like it. All three stories have female protagonists who live in a society structured to “fix” the problems with human nature and society. All three heroines defy the odds, find their inner strength, have relationships, make mistakes, deal with guilt and consequences, and somehow find their way into winning at the end.

And, just like that, I think I’m just done with this genre for a while. The formula is too obvious and similiar to the others that it takes out some of the enjoyment for me. It makes me feel like I’m reading the same thing again, even though I am not.

I like fantasy, but I need to find a fantasy series that doesn’t follow the pattern I described. I need something else, something different, and, by its difference, something by more interesting.

If anyone has suggestions for fantasy (some sci fi is OK), please tell me!

Why I Read The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I tend to read a lot of YA fantasy and not a lot of mainstream books. Although I read a lot of fiction as a child, I found a fiction I read as an adult to be disappointing. As a result, I eschewed a lot of books that have been hawked by Oprah and/or made their way onto the New York Times bestsellers lists. I’d made a couple of attempts to read David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephens, but I simply couldn’t get into their writing style.

Now that I’m digging into writing as a field, I decided that I wanted to try and read more widely. Since I’m writing a memoir, I started with reading a few memoirs. I had bought two books earlier in the year by Larry Brooks, author of many books and owner of Storyfix.com, Story Physics and Story Engineering. I haven’t a degree in creative writing, and, after going back two times, I think I’m pretty much done with that. But I need to learn and I want to learn, so I’m trying to learn from those who have gone before.

After reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (twice), I began to read Story Engineering. One section is dedicated to breaking down The Hunger Games; the other, to brekaing down The Help by Kathryn Stocktett. I decided to read The Help before I got to the section on it so that I could understand better why Brooks says it works. I had picked it up, along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I knew I wanted to read The Help last so I could then pick up Story Engineering  and learn from it better.

Yesterday, I started reading The Help. I could not put it down. I mean, I did put it down so I could do things like eat dinner, write in my journal, and get ready for bed. I continued reading in bed until it was done. The pacing was phenomenal and continuous level of tension kept that story moving right along. The racial tensions were nail biting, as you know the consequences of breaking racial barriers and speaking against the bigoted norm, especially in the South, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era, the murder of NAACP Secretary Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, were murderous. Those kinds of racial tensions continue to exist between the police and the African American communities todays, even if the social community has tampered down some of its racism. I will leave it to African Americans to determine how and to what degree it has gotten any better.

I particularly liked how, instead of a third person viewpoint, we it from the first person perspective of three characters: Aibileen and Minny, two of the African American help, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white writer who wants to write more than she want to appease the bigoted society circles through which she runs. Skeeter’s own nanny, Constantine, disappeared while she was in college, and no one will tell her why she’s gone. Each woman’s chapters have a unique voice. You feel kindly towards Aibileen, the peacemaker, riled up and rooting for Minny, the back-talker, and biting your nails over Skeeter’s to cross over the racial lines, meeting with Aibileen and Minny secretly in Minny’s kitchen. Skeeter risks her own life to meet and gather the maids’ stories, along with the stories of about 10 other maids who have worked for white families all their lives and the struggles that resulted. The root of Skeeter’s desire to write is not simply a desire to write, but a way to heal the hurt that has come with her maid’s disappearance, whom she loved and missed deeply. For me, this is the emotional pin that makes the white woman’s story believable. All the women put their lives at risk to get the stories onto paper, edited, and out the door in time to meet the New York editor’s pre-Christmas holiday deadline and so that maybe it will go into print and change the lives of them and everyone in Jackson, Mississippi.

I loved all these characters, and I highly recommend The Help by Kathryn Stockett to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I may just go reread it again myself.

Seeing and Not Seeing

This whole week, I have been immersed in re-reading the Harry Potter series. I swear that JK Rowling is a witch herself who put such a spell on her books through her storytelling that I simply cannot stop reading. I put down my book long enough to eat and brush my teeth, and then I’m back to reading.

On a related and unrelated note, I have a smartphone and frequently look at it. The calendar app also shows up  on my home screen. I can see the first of my all day listings, the first of which has been BLOG POST. I put biweekly all day reminders to myself to write my blog post so that I don’t forget.

What happened? I forgot while reading. Seeing and not seeing. I looked at the words BLOG POST on my phone MULTIPLE times today. Yet, here I am at 9:50pm, about to read another chapter in the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when the words BLOG POST finally penetrated my brain.

Oh, yeah, I said to myself, it’s Thursday.

I knew but didn’t know it was Thursday – the very same Thursday in which I regularly write in my blog. I knew I wrote blog posts, but then how can it not register in the brain?

Have you had this happen to you? Set yourself a reminder but then your brain completely glosses over the reminder as if it were never there?

It’s like hearing but not listening. I think that’s a better way to explain it. The brain just gets so used to hearing or seeing the same pattern that it no longer sees the pattern as being anything other than a kind of mental silence.

Well, at least, I remembered.

Retreat Into Reading

Not only am I a polyliberamorist, I am also a readdict. You know you’re a readdict when you plow through 2-3 books and then plow through 2 more within a 5-day range.

This readdict’s post is brought to you by the libers The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen and The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. You know when you’re going through an information-assilimation faze and you can’t read fast enough to accommodate the voracious hunger of your brain? That’s where I am.

I picked up Mark Sundeen’s book in the last month or so at the same time that I bought Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. But it wasn’t until I returned three books to the library that I picked it up. Not only is Sundeen’s writing excellent, the story of Daniel Suelo (aka soil nee Shellebarger) is gripping. Suelo is a fascinating person who, brought up in and living by tenets in his Christian faith, removed himself from the soul-crushing modern world, found a way to stop using money, and to support himself on wits, survivalist skills, and the support of a community of family and friends.

Even though I am no longer Catholic, I realized along the way that a lot of the way I see the world, the values that are important to me, and lessons I learned about what’s important in life came from my faith. To some degree, a change in or lack of faith does not mean that every single thing you ever learned from your past, nor could you do so even if you wanted to. The things I like about myself, about how I believe, the values I hold are things I like, find value in, and believe in their goodness. Why would I want to change that? I do not feel guilt about keeping that which brings meaning to my life and helps me feel as good about myself and my actions as possible.

Reading Daniel’s story, I found that I felt a kinship with this man I do not know who seeks to live his life with faith that God will provide for him. This is not because I share this exact belief, but because I share Suelo’s desire to live as closely to his beliefs as possible. He has put a lot more action into that than I have. I have things I need to work on: Reducing clutter, reducing my dependency on the money system, and living my life the way I want to live. I can’t say I am doing all those things right now.

The more I read Daniel’s story, the more I thought, the faster I read, the more silent I fell inside my head. It becomes almost brain-wrenching to try and change direction from reading vortex into linguistic projections (e.g. blogging). I want a countryside cabin where I can retreat, where I can be alone with only the birds and bugs to be my audience.

From the story on Suelo, I plunged into the Manifesto, a book that has sat on my bookshelves unread for years. The tagline: How to free yourself from anxiety, fear, mortgages, money, guilt, debt, government, boredom, supermarkets, bills, melancholy, pain, depression, work, and waste seemed like the kind of book that would make a good segue from Sundeen’s book.

I was right.

I’m about ⅓ of the way through Hodgkinson’s book, but a lot of what he says resonates with me and would probably resonate with Suelo as well. The suggestions that are made in Hodgkinson’s book are kind of like Suelo Light. The idea that you can make changes to bring yourself closer to self-sufficiency seems a lot more reasonable and even possibly doable than it would be to give up using money altogether and go live by your wits in caves in Moab. Not many people have beliefs that would drive them to even test out such a system, let alone by able to implement it for over 14 years as they aged well into their middle years.

I spent my 20’s locked into finding my way into the money system because I couldn’t admit that I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t want to have to put into practice my beliefs about finding work I truly loved because I could only imagine being a starving artist who would never be good enough to make money at her art.

I spent my 30’s trying out a better money making path in computers, only to leave behind 10 years of working with miserable, unhappy coworkers. No matter where I went, the griping and the resentment drove me to madness. I decided to side step my way out via graduate s school. I graduated with writing confidence, but not a strong desire to write technical documents.

Now in my 40’s, I think I’ve made my final attempts at getting my value through the system. I am working on my health and my writing – fiction, nonfiction, and blogging. I seem to be making a little bit of progress in both areas. If anything keeps holding me up, it’s a life-long belief that what I do will never be good enough so why bother trying?  This time around, I have the answer.

Because I want to.

Jong and Winterson

This weekend, I finished Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and began Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. I borrowed Jong’s book, but bought Winterson’s. How could I not with a title like that?

For some reason, I had imagined Jong’s book to be a work from a purely psychological perspective, much like Eric Fromm’s works (The Art of Loving, To Have or To Be). I was surprised that Jong’s Fear of Flying was a fiction novel. I flipped through the book: 336 pages. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read it.

I have long since been disappointed with many fiction novels. I actively stopped reading contemporary ones, unless I had heard of their value. Even then, it was no guarantee I would like them. Take Oprah’s book club, for example. I picked up Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone after watching Oprah’s book club episode about it. Although I finished reading it, I could not identify in any way with the main character. I was able to understand the feelings, but her actions? No. I found Doris’ actions utterly disbelieving. By the end, I was angry and glad it was over. It’s a sad state of affairs for a book lover and avid reader to put down a book and think: I’m never going to get those hours of my life back. 

I have tried several times to read and enjoy books by David Foster Wallace, notably Infinite Jest and The Pale King. His rambling style exhausted me. I felt like I’d been lead around the backyard on a leash going in circles and circles, often hoping that this turn would bring me out of the rut and into a new direction. But Wallace just kept on going. I put both books down feeling dizzy and unfulfilled.

I read the cover to Jong’s book and thought, Why not?  I had to admit that I was curious to find out what new sex term Ms. Jong had coined in the year of my birth, and so I read. Its appearance at the beginning of the book had me thinking, This is it? I debated stopping a few times during the first half of the book. The lines are dense. Action everywhere. Verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Rich, detailed descriptions. So many of them! It’s a bad sign when I wonder if I want to spend the time reading the book. The main character thinks about sex. A lot. I probably would not have finished it if the story were written by a man about a man’s sexual thoughts for over 300 pages. I would probably have thought him vain and shallow and full of himself. And I did roll my eyes at Isadora. But I kept reading. After a while, I realized I was hooked, even when the thought provoking thoughts entertained by Isadora where thoughts I’d considered in my own 20’s. But those have been gone going on 15 years soon.

Then, half way through, I gasped! Rare are events in books not in the thriller, fantasy, or sci-fi genre that have me gasping. I was in for the long haul. Towards the end, I kind of got the moral that Jong was aiming for. I mean, I understood it but only so far as my understanding could go. But the main character switched just a little too quickly into understanding it all and moving past the rage of being used by another human being, even thought the using was mutually done. The novel was nearing its close. I get that. But it seemed like a cheap move. I guess that goes to show you where I am stuck in my own development. Now, if I only had picked this up 15 years ago, I might have felt differently about Jong’s book. Make no mistake, her writing is an excellent, engaging read.

No sooner had I put down Jong’s book than I picked up Jeanette Winterson’s. I picked up Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? when M and I dropped by the Three Lives & Co. bookstore in the West Village of NYC. I liked the title, and the carefree-looking child in her bathing suit with a beach ball on a beach hooked me. I was hopeful where I should not have been.

Winterson’s book is autobiographical. She was adopted by Pentecostal evangelical parents in a northern England town called Accrington. I am enjoying Winterson’s style, and with writing that covers deep topics in stark contrast to the seemingly all-sexually driven nature of Jong’s. Winterson reveals her true, deep self in many ways. Isadora talks about her body and desires and needs, but not so much the psychological, spiritual aspects of herself as a human being (a fear of independence from men notwithstanding). I am awed how any sixteen year old person could be strong as Winterson is, whereas I have long felt weak, needy, and unable to live without others, so much so that I have been willing to sacrifice my own thoughts, dreams, and desires to do so.

Not Winterson. I could not have lived out of a car and supported myself by work at sixteen. Winterson did. She was determined to go to Oxford and nowhere else but Oxford. I would have been driven crazy with anxiety and fear and depression over being rejected. I would not have been able to stand alone, not like that. Maybe I would have found the way. Maybe I didn’t because I had so much support that I knew it was there when I needed it. Winterson did not.

When Jeanette was discovered to be in a relationship with another teenager, she was outed in church, assaulted and beaten by her pastor, and her mother tried to get her to renounce her sexuality. At the end of one conversation where Jeannette tries to explain to her mother that she is happy being who she is, her mother asks, Why be happy when you can be normal? I almost burst out into tears. I had somehow imagined the question being asked in jest. But it was much, much worse when Jeanette’s mother asked her in all seriousness.

I’m not done reading yet, but I can tell you that Winterson’s book will stay on my shelves for years to come.