Sunday, March 4, 2012

"This great and trivial story": a love-affair with print

At the time when this story begins, the Stanhope press and inking-rollers were not yet in use in small provincial printing-offices. Angoulême, although its paper-making industry kept it in contact with Parisian printing, was still using those wooden presses from which the now obsolete metaphor 'making the presses groan' originated. Printing there was so much behind the times that the pressmen still used leather balls spread with ink to dab on the characters. The bed of the press holding the letter-filled 'forme' to which the paper is applied was still made of stone and so justified its name 'marble'. The ravenous machines of our time have so completely superseded this mechanism--to which, despite its imperfections, we owe the fine books produced by the Elzevirs, the Plantins, the Aldi and the Didots--that it is necessary to mention this antiquated equipment which Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard held in superstitious affection; it has its part to play in this great and trivial story.

--Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, trans. by Herbert J. Hunt

I am fascinated with late-18th-century/early-19th-century French and British printing and bookselling. It started as a fluke. I was introduced to the Albion press owned by my university's rare books library at around the same time that I was brainstorming the NaNoWriMo project that became The Printer's Tale, and I decided on a whim that my main character and her father should be printers. I already knew that they lived in provincial pre-revolutionary France, I already knew the thrust of my main character's story, I just needed to know what she did for a living before the novel got started.

I thought this would perhaps be a minor detail, but as the present working title would suggest, printing quickly came to take up a great deal of space in the novel. I talked with librarians, checked out musty old books, and researched the history and the art of printing. I parlayed this information into a final project for one of my first-semester courses, in addition to insinuating it piecemeal into my November novel, but even after the semester was over, this new-found fascination wouldn't leave me alone. I examined the bindings of old books in the local used bookstores; I sought out laid paper and fell in love with the way it felt beneath my fingers. I enrolled in a research seminar taught at the rare books library. When I had the opportunity, I took a graduate history course entitled The Hand-Printed Book in Its Historical Context, where I spent six weeks learning the history of hand-printing via a series of example books culled from the library's extensive catalogue, and six weeks using that same Albion press that had sparked the obsession a few years earlier to typeset and print a short manuscript of my own.

In some academic circles it's considered a bit gauche to pay too much attention to the materiality of the text. Yes, changing conventions in printing, editing, and publishing do affect the way texts are received and read, but--so the assumption seems to run--not the way texts are written, which is what should matter. It's the job of a literary scholar to work with the text at hand, not to fuss with the fact that the books we read now are things as well as texts.

But while the things I've learned about printing and bookselling may not be central to most of the work that I do, I nonetheless feel a frisson of excitement every time a literary text references the mode of its own production. When I opened up my copy of Lost Illusions and read this first paragraph, I was transported back to the Printing Room in the second story of the Bancroft Library, sunlight streaming in through the huge windows, myself standing poised with hands near the press bar as a classmate ran the roller over the ink which made its snicker-snack reverse-suction sound, waiting for the forme to be inked and the paper to be positioned before pulling the press down, thud-click, and releasing it again to reveal a perfectly-printed page.

When The Printer's Tale begins, provincial printing is already dying out. The catalyst for a great deal of the story is the reluctant necessity of my main character giving up her life as a printer in order to find work that pays. But the magic of the novel--and it's me we're talking about, so at times this magic is literal--is so tied up in printing, in the idea of work done with one's hands. The groaning of the wooden press, the sickly-sweet turpentine smell of the ink, the cool lead of the type sorts, these things matter. And part of what I love about working in the eighteenth century is that sometimes I can feel them there, behind every book I read, reminding me of the number of hands that these words have passed through and worked their magic upon.

It's not a particularly academic pleasure. It won't make itself heard in my seminar papers, or future conference papers or articles or dissertation chapters. But it is a pleasure that, for me at least, gives my academic work weight and heft, that makes it more material and that makes it matter.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Musings of a 21st-century researcher

I've been using Goodreads for a while now to keep track of the books that I read, and one of its features I find most useful is the new one that recommends books you might like based on ones you've already read/reviewed. I always get the best recs from friends who know my tastes, but Goodreads' system is still helpful when I'm not sure where to start.

I'm in the process of pulling together a bibliography for my MA essay (about the truly zany gothic novel Zofloya -- more on this later!) and finding myself wishing that there were a similar feature specific to the scholarly community. So often I scour books of literary criticism for their footnotes/works cited, looking to see who's quoting what and using that research to get a sense for the other books I should be reading on the topic. I've been using citation management software to keep track of the books I've read and cited on this project so far, but I wish there was a way to link that bibliography-in-progress to a database containing other scholars' bibliographies, past and present -- a database that would analyze everyone's input, look at the kinds of books/articles/authors that are often cited together, and provide me with recommendations for other works I might want to check out based on the ones that I'm currently reading.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this kind of recommendation system. Sometimes the best research projects result from pairing texts or fields of inquiry that haven't been previously considered in tandem. Sometimes I go to the library looking for a single specific book, only to find several others shelved nearby that are just as relevant to my project, but which I never would have known to look for in the library catalogue. But I can't help thinking that specialized database like this would still be helpful -- so helpful, in fact, that I have a niggling feeling it may already exist and I just haven't heard about it yet.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Makdom and Fairnesse"

Maybe it's because I'm still in the honeymoon period, and I will shortly metamorphose into the expected image of the graduate student, deeply dissatisfied with academic life, but right now, despite the fifty pages of academic writing that I have to complete over the next fifteen days, I don't feel distressed. I'm frustrated that I'll spend my favorite time of the year writing papers instead of window-shopping on Fifth Avenue and ice-skating in Central Park, and I'm not looking forward to the long days spent in libraries, the late nights spent with eyes glued to the computer screen. But whenever I turn my gaze to the big picture, I can't help but grin a little bit. Being a grad student is hard -- but it's something I care about, deeply, something in which I'm still incredibly invested, and right now this makes all the difference.

Fifteen to twenty of those fifty pages will be spent writing about George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I finally finished reading earlier this semester, and which is one of the most intricate, thoughtful, complex, and beautiful novels I've ever read. It's not light reading, but it's been incredibly worth it for me, and I suspect part of this is because of the way some of its characters attempt to define work: not just as a job, not just something that pays the bills, but as a vocation, a calling, something you are instead of just something you do. Early in the novel, Eliot describes in detail the moment when one character, Lydgate, decides to become a doctor. On a rainy day, he wanders into the library, pulls an encyclopedia off of the shelf, and opens it to a random page to begin reading:
The page he opened on was under the head of Anatomy, and the first passage that drew his eyes was on the valves of the heart. He was not much acquainted with valves of any sort, but he knew that valvae were folding-doors, and through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanism in the human frame. [...] the moment of vocation had come, and before he got down from his chair, the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast spaces blanked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge. From that hour Lydgate felt the growth of an intellectual passion.

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman's "makdom and her fairnesse," never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of "makdom and fairnesse" which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires?
Or to put Eliot's question another way: why is it that no one writes novels about how men and women come to fall in love with their jobs?

When my professor asked this question to the class of mixed undergrads and grad students, there was a kind of silence, punctuated by a few suppressed giggles and blank stares. How could you fall in love with your job? That's not what jobs are about. They're things you do because you need to pay bills and put food on the table, and even if they start out in love with your job that's not a sustainable attitude, sooner or later the system will grind it out of you, and then you'll come home after work and on weekends and do your best to forget your job ever happened.

It's a response that I've gotten before after guiltily admitting that I really do love my work. I think it's an understandable response in our cultural context. But it's one that I hope I'll never come to share.

I'll still complain, I'll still be upset and frustrated, and there will still be days when I just don't want to do all the work that needs to be done -- but I will never think it isn't somehow worth it. The study of literature and all that it entails is my vocation: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer (let's be honest, it's for poorer), in sickness and in health.

Yes, I have fifty pages to write in the next fifteen days. But I also get paid to read books and talk about them with other interesting and interested people, and I can't imagine any career more worth wooing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Makes a Good Novel

When I started work as an intern for the Office of Letters and Light back in September 2007, one of the first perks of the job (after the burrito lunches and scintillating office conversation) came in the form of a free copy of Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem!. It had suffered the slings and arrows of "RETURN TO SENDER" and come back a little worse for the wear, but I'm one of those people who prefers the term "previously loved" to "previously owned," at least when it comes to books, and that scuffed-up cover did nothing to prevent me from diving right into it as soon as I got on the bus back to Berkeley.

The book serves as a kind of manual or advice handbook for participating in National Novel Writing Month (a challenge I've explained elsewhere), and a lot of the writing exercises and strategies are particularly relevant to those trying to eke time out of their "real life" in which to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November, but some of them stood out to me then -- and still stand out to me now -- as getting at something fundamental about all writing, and the kinds of desires that ought to motivate it.

I've forgotten more of the book than I'd like to admit, but four years (and four novel-filled Novembers) later, one of the exercises strikes me as particularly important. It's the one Chris calls "the Magna Carta." The idea is simple. Take a piece of paper. Now write at the top, in big and important letters, "WHAT MAKES A GOOD NOVEL." Now make a list. Make it your list, not anyone else's. Think about the kinds of novels you love to read, and be honest with yourself about what they're like and what you like about them. Finally, take your finished list and put it somewhere you can see it. When things get tough, when the writing isn't "working," look back at that list and use it as a way to diagnose your novel's problems, because if you don't like your novel, how much does it matter if anyone else does?

Of course these lists can change. In getting ready to write this year's novel, I stumbled across the Magna Carta list that I wrote four years ago, and for the first time thought, "That's not what my list looks like anymore." So I started working on a new one.

- characters and relationships that question traditional gender roles and/or established social hierarchies; bonds and affinities that cross boundaries of gender, class, or simply expectation without perpetuating inequalities

- girls and women who possess noteworthy mental, physical, and/or emotional strength, which they use to advance the course of the story

- clever integration of the supernatural, unnatural, magical, and/or unexpected to highlight and complicate, rather than to dismiss or solve, the conflicts of the characters and (more generally) the problems of modern existence

- a spunky and spirited character who will not take no for an answer, who is a go-getter and an optimist and may not always succeed but keeps on trying (not necessarily protagonist)

- deliberation regarding setting, both time and place; a sense that these places are loved by and important to the story as a whole in addition to specific characters within the story

- children who have honest, mature, complex, and ultimately positive relationships with their parents

- parents and/or mentors who support children in tackling the big things life throws at them (everything from love to warfare) while ultimately letting them make their own decisions, and providing them with the sense that those decisions matter

- complex antagonist(s), who operate in tandem with internal conflicts to hassle the protagonist(s)

- realistic dialogue that is always emotionally charged but only rarely straightforward; dialogue-as-conflict, dialogue-as-occasional-misunderstanding, but never dialogue-as-utterly-impossible

- ultimate affirmation of the transcendent power of love, language, literature, creativity, and/or cooperation; faith in the possibility of intersubjective exchange, however mediated it may be
It's obviously not exhaustive, and I'm sure that it'll keep growing and changing as I keep growing and changing, but it's a good place to start. And if you wrote up a "Magna Carta" of your own, I'd love to know what might make its way onto your list!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Pen and the Telescope: Words as a Source of Power in So You Want to Be a Wizard

Warning: The following post contains significant spoilers for the plot of So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane. If you haven't read the novel, and you have any intention of doing so, save this post for later! I've tried to write this post in a way so as to make it accessible to people who haven't even heard of Diane Duane's Young Wizards series before, so if you haven't read it you shouldn't be confused -- and if you are, please let me know in a comment so that I can make myself clearer!

“Part of the problem, Nita thought to herself as she tore desperately down Rose Avenue, is that I can’t keep my mouth shut.” (11)

So begins Diane Duane’s first young adult fantasy novel, So You Want to Be a Wizard. From the genre and the title, the first-time reader might expect thirteen-year-old Nita to be fleeing some fierce mythological creature or an evil sorcerer, but the truth is at once more mundane and more threatening: she lives firmly in our world, and she’s running from a group of schoolyard bullies.

Bookish and intelligent at an age when such qualities will get Nita shunned at best and beaten up at worst, her brain is all she has going for, but when taunted by Joanne and her gang, even her quick tongue won’t save her, and her cunning retorts are more likely to get her in trouble than save her skin. Like everyone else who was ever labeled a geek, nerd, or bookworm as a kid (myself included), Nita seems vitally aware of the supreme unfairness of her situation. She’s smart, so she talks; she talks, so she gets in trouble. There’s always the possibility that she could be just like the other kids if only she could just stay quiet—but she can’t, not while maintaining her own integrity and sense of self.

Luckily, Nita manages to hide from the bullies in “a little brown-brick building with windows warmly alight—refuge, safety, sanctuary. The library” (12). The knowing librarian suggests that Nita hide in the children’s section and promises to misdirect the bullies who come in after her. So it’s in the basement of her local library that Nita first discovers the book that’s about to change her life: an innocuous-looking book called So You Want to Be a Wizard. At first she’s sure it’s someone’s idea of a joke—there can’t really be wizards, and even if there were, they certainly wouldn’t have instruction manuals—but she begins to read it all the same, until “it abruptly stopped being a game, with one paragraph”:
Wizards love words. Most of them read a great deal, and indeed one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first. But their love for and fluency with words is what makes wizards a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to convince a piece of the world—a tree, say, or a stone—that it’s not what it thinks it is, that it’s something else, is the very heart of wizardry. Words skillfully used, the persuasive voice, the persuading mind, are the wizard’s most basic tools. With them a wizard can stop a tidal wave, talk a tree out of growing or into it—freeze fire, burn rain—even slow down the death of the Universe. (15-16)
So You Want to Be a Wizard announces itself to a child who is both at risk and at promise because of her strong relationship to books and her appreciation for words. It appears in the moment when Nita is both at her most vulnerable and her most protected, on the run from disaster and yet surrounded by the books that have been her friends and companions when people can’t be counted on. Tellingly, the fantasy it presents her with is linguistic: become a wizard, the book says, and your words will have power. Forget those bullies—when you talk, the whole universe will listen.

Unfortunately, the bullies don’t make themselves easy to forget. The library provides only temporary solace, and as soon as Nita leaves (with her copy of So You Want to Be a Wizard in tow), she’s ambushed by Joanne and her gang. They beat her up and steal one of her most prized possessions, her space pen “that could write on butter or glass or upside down” (19). The space pen, with its pressurized ink cartridge that allows it to write on almost anything, seems the perfect representation of Nita’s desire to express herself without restrictions, and it is exactly this kind of freedom that Joanne denies her. Words are the only tools Nita has for fighting back, and Joanne both literally and metaphorically robs her of them.

The bullies might have stolen her pen, but her library book is still intact, and Nita reads on, learning of “the Speech, the magical tongue in which objects and living creatures can be described in more accuracy than any human language” (16), in which names are “‘a way of saying what you are’” (34) with the same devastating precision. Wizardry, for Nita, becomes a way of reclaiming linguistic agency and using it to fight back, not just against Joanne’s physical bullying, but against Joanne’s attempt to redefine Nita’s geekiness from a hostile perspective. Despite children’s rhymes to the contrary, Nita knows that words can hurt just as well as sticks and stones:
(Bookworm,) she heard the old jeering voices go in her head, (foureyes, smartass, hide-in-the-house-and-read. Walking encyclopedia. Think you’re so hot.) “No,” she remembered herself answering once, “I just like to find things out!” And she sighed, feeling rueful. That time she had found out about being punched in the stomach. (13)
Her experience suggests that there is no separating harsh words from harsh actions, and that it’s not only in the Speech that names have a frightening ability to define who you are. When Nita resists the bullies, she is resisting a kind of malevolent renaming. It’s no surprise that when Nita first meets Kit, a fellow young wizard with whom she shares a history of being bullied, the first thing they have in common is a dislike of what other people call them:
“I’m Kit,” he said then. “Christopher, really, but I hate Christopher.”

“Nita,” she said. “It’s short for Juanita. I hate that too.” (30)
Like Nita, Kit’s linguistic expression is threatened—he’s teased and bullied partly because he’s skipped a grade, but partly because of his Hispanic accent—and when she tells him about Joanne stealing her pen, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to help Nita get it back. The first spell they work together is one that makes use of their growing fluency in the Speech to stop the bullying and the redefinition that comes along with it. Kit hopes to attract an aura to himself that will keep the other boys from trying to beat him up; Nita just wants to regain her pen.

It turns out that wizardry is not quite so simple. Their initial spell backfires, and Nita and Kit find themselves unintentionally babysitting a white hole dubbed “Fred,” who has come to Earth to warn the local wizarding advisories that what he calls The Naming of Lights—and what Earth wizards know as The Book of Night With Moon—has gone missing. Suddenly, the story is not just about allowing Nita and Kit to reclaim their own names, but about making sure that the definition of everything in existence is preserved. One advisory wizard explains:
“When you use [the Speech], you define what you’re speaking about. That’s why it’s dangerous to use the Speech carelessly. You can accidentally redefine something, change its nature. […] The Book of Night with Moon is written in the Speech. In it, everything’s described. Everything. […] It’s one of the reasons we’re all here—the power of those descriptions helps keep everything that is, in existence.” (51)
The quest to find The Book of Night With Moon takes Nita and Kit straight out of their universe and into one “next door,” where carnivorous taxi cabs prowl the streets of Manhattan and living things cower in the shadow of Life’s great antagonist, the Lone Power, who invented death and set it loose among the worlds, and who spends his days tricking species after species into accepting his “gift.” There’s some sneaking, some fighting, some injuries, and a whole lot of running—but when it comes down to it, the final battle to keep The Book of Night With Moon and to preserve the universe in working order is fought with words. In the book that describes everything, exactly as it is, Nita and Kit find the section that describes the Lone Power. To gain influence over him, and to come out the winners, all they need to do is finish reading his name—because encapsulated in the Lone One’s name is his first banishment, and to read that name again is to re-enact the expulsion from grace, the fall from heaven, the removal (even if only temporarily) from a space of influence over this universe.

As far as magic goes, it’s rather straightforward: read the name, and banish Life’s eternal enemy into darkness (at least for a time). But Nita and Kit understand something important about the value of names, something that comes not only from their training as wizards, but from years of enduring taunts and name-calling. They understand what it means to allow what others call you—perhaps even what you come to call yourself—to overcome and ultimately become who you are, limiting the possibility for change and growth. And that’s not something they would wish upon anyone, the Lone Power included.
If only there were some way he could be otherwise if he wanted to. For here was his name, a long splendid flow of syllables in the Speech, wild and courageous in its own way—and it said that he had not always been so hostile; that he got tired sometimes of being wicked, but his pride and his fear of being ridiculed would never let him stop. Never, forever, said the symbol at the very end of his name, the closed circle that binds spells into an unbreakable cycle and indicates lives bound the same way.


…she knew what she had to do. While Kit was still on the first part of the name she pulled out her pen, her best pen that Fred had saved and changed. She clicked it open. The metal still tingled against her skin, the ink at the point still glittered oddly—the same glitter as the ink in which the bright Book was written. Nita bent quickly over the Book and, with the pen, in lines of light, drew from that final circle an arrow pointing upward, the way out, the symbol that said change could happen—if, only if—and together they finished the Starsnuffer’s name in the Speech, said the new last syllable, made it real. (145)
What started out as a simple desire to regain a lost pen directly precipitates the greatest and most significant change in the novel, and the pen itself is the tool Nita uses, not just to defeat the Lone Power, but to give him the room to change his nature—to remove the trappings of eons and become something beyond what he has formerly been. This might seem strange for a number of reasons, but in a universe that values the power of linguistic agency so highly, it is anything but. The pen is an object of power, a tool for writing one’s own history instead of succumbing to the definitions of others. Nita rewrites the Lone One’s name from a perspective inconceivable to those who have bullied her throughout the years, and probably quite inconceivable to the Lone One himself: rather than attempting to restrict or to bind him, she turns his name and all of the connotative baggage it entails into something that can set him free.

If the novel ended there, it would still constitute a powerful argument for the magic inherent in language. But it goes a step further. Rather than concluding with Nita and Kit’s heroic victory over the Lone Power and their triumphant return of The Book of Night With Moon to the appropriate authorities, the novel ends where it began, with Nita and Joanne face to face once more. This time, they exchange words rather than punches:
I don’t know what to say to her, we have absolutely nothing in common, Nita thought frantically. But it has to start somewhere. She swallowed and did her best to look Joanne in the eye, calmly and not in threat. “Come over to my place after supper sometime and look through my telescope,” she said. “I’ll show you Jupiter’s moons. Or Mars—” (150)
Nita still can’t keep her mouth shut. But what makes her a target for bullying at the beginning of the novel has turned into a tool for disarming bullies by the novel’s end. Wizardry offers Nita the opportunity to see the positive uses to which all language, not just the Speech, can be put. Rather than keeping this knowledge to herself, she shares it—even with a bully who can’t quite be trusted to listen.

Ultimately, Duane shares the same message with her readers. After all, we are reading a book with the same title as Nita’s wizard’s manual. Just as Nita learns a new language from her copy of So You Want to Be a Wizard, we can learn one from ours. Even if we can’t become wizards and fight evil throughout the worlds, we can become kinder and more considerate people who use plain English to break the cycle of violence within our home lives—and to Duane, this work is just as important as that carried out by wizards with all their powers:
A wizard’s business is to conserve energy—to keep it from being wasted. On the simplest level this includes such unmagical-looking actions as paying one’s bills on time, turning off the lights when you go out, and supporting the people around you in getting their lives to work. (16)
Throughout the novel, Duane transforms not just “unmagical-looking actions” but the commonplace and often unmagical-looking given of language itself. All words, it seems, can be “magic” when used properly. And if “a spell always works” (150)—if language always, no matter how gradually, effects the changes it seeks—then it’s not just wizards who have a duty to make sure that the power of language is used for good.

All citations are from Support Your Local Wizard, an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Young Wizard series.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tailor Made

One of my favorite feelings upon reading a book is the sensation that, somehow mysteriously, the author has written this specifically for me. It doesn't crop up too often, so I know it when I feel it -- that headlong rush into stunningly familiar territory, the thrill of discovery underwritten by a sense of comfort at the fact that you and the book exist within the same universe, have the same notions of right and wrong and have come to a basic agreement as to how stories should work.

But there's a flip side to this coin. Sometimes, my reactions to these kinds of books seem so intricately (and intimately) tied up in specific strands of my personality that I'm wary of recommending them to others who don't share my values and obsessions. More often than not, I'm afraid to admit the depth of my affection for these books, despite feeling like my bookshelves are empty when I don't have them near. Maybe it's because I move in academic circles and the books that have hit me in this way are mostly not academic. Maybe it's because I'm afraid what portrait of me might be constructed from the books that I feel drawn to in this way. And maybe I'm just afraid to think about what this list of books might tell me about myself -- about what I see as fundamentally me, what I care about, what makes my heart beat.

Whatever the reason, I'm about to (begin to) find out, because here -- for the moment -- is my list.

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane

On the run from bullies, Nita Callahan takes refuge in the children's room of her local public library and finds a book called So You Want to Be a Wizard. At first she's sure that it must be a joke, but she picks it up and begins to read it -- and the moment when it stopped being a joke for her is the moment I would have known (or at least so furiously desired) the same:
Wizards love words. Most of them read a great deal, and indeed one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first. But their love for and fluency with words is what makes wizards a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to convince a piece of the world — a tree, say, or a stone — that it’s not what it thinks it is, that it’s something else, is the very heart of wizardry. Words skilfully used, the persuasive voice, the persuading mind, are the wizard’s most basic tools. With them a wizard can stop a tidal wave, talk a tree out of growing, or into it — freeze fire, burn rain — even slow down the heat death of the Universe.

That last, of course, is the reason there are wizards. See the next chapter.
Nita's copy of So You Want to Be a Wizard goes on to change her life. My copy continues to change mine.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I have a complicated relationship to this novel, but it all started when I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior, just starting to take life and literature (and love) seriously, and searching for a paradigm that would speak to the struggle that I felt, but would do so without rejecting the goals I'd set for myself. I don't exactly understand how this came to pass, but Jane Eyre helped me find those answers I hadn't even known I was looking for Four years later, I've read it for at least three other (college) English courses. Thumbing through my well-worn Oxford Classics copy (thoroughly underlined, festooned with Post-its and dripping with marginalia) in search of a single quote that would sum up this book's impact on me, I find it impossible to choose just one, because so many of the words of this book are like old friends, pleased to meet me in my re-perusal.

Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier

When I first read this book, I was overcome with a sense that this was the novel I had always wanted to write. In fact, its plot is in some ways quite similar to the one I've been trying to write for five years: a retelling/homage to the story of Beauty and the Beast, which pits an educated heroine against a culture that cannot value her education and carefully questions what it means to be a "beast" and what it means to be a man from within a richly-defined world. Marillier's tale departs from mine in many ways (not the least of which being that her version is finished and published), but I nonetheless feel a connection to it that ignores its occasional flaws in favor of lovingly attending to the moments where everything happens just as it ought. And from my perspective, at least, there are many moments like these.

Possession by A. S. Byatt
"Do you ever have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects — all the time — and I suppose one studies — I study — literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful — as though we held a clue to the true nature of things?"
I knew long before this passage of dialogue that Possession had been written with me in mind, but this is perhaps one of the most coherent examples of why this book speaks to me in a voice at once wise and familiar. Roland's hesitant shift from "one studies" to "I study" speaks to the dilemma of every modern academic, but particularly those in the humanities: how much of me is meant to be in what I do? The questions he asks here are in some senses rhetorical -- he wants, like I want, to believe that there is some "clue to the true nature of things" secreted away within literature -- but also intensely doubting. Who is he -- who am I -- to say that things even have a true nature at all? And yet. By the end of that second sentence, the question that he started all those interjections ago isn't really a question at all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Moving Eastward

Sometimes I wonder how much of my life has been influenced by where I grew up.

I'm the daughter of a nurse and a high school English teacher-turned-administrator. They moved into the house I grew up in when I was a little under a year old. They picked it because it was close to the best healthcare and in the same district as the best public schools, and because it was safe and suburban and the kind of place where you want your kids to grow up.

For eighteen years, I lived in a city that only became a city the year before I was born, in a house that was "old" for the area because it had been built in the 1970s. I lived in a community that depended on cars and scoffed at public transportation, where the hum and rush of traffic along the 5 freeway was ubiquitous the way the sound of waves is to people who live along the shore. I lived in the kind of suburban city that is no longer even a suburb of anywhere, except for the suburbs themselves. The closest major city was Los Angeles, all spread out and gleaming and so emphatically and insistently new, but even LA was an hour away, and for eighteen years, I probably spent 90% of my time within a fifteen-mile radius of home.

My parents grew up within that radius. When my mother was in high school, her family hosted an Italian exchange student. Mom remembers showing Beatrice all the sights around where she lived, but specifically, she remembers showing her to Mission San Juan Capistrano. Founded by the Spanish in 1776, when much of California was under their control, it's one of the oldest things there is around here. Mom had always found it pretty impressive, but seeing it with Beatrice, she realized how strange it must seem to a girl who grew up just outside of Rome that the oldest thing around was just over two hundred years old.

The American dream, for better or for worse, is about conquering new places and building new lives. As a culture, we're still dealing with the myth of the west as a grand frontier, the newest part of the New World, the place where you go to remake yourself. But it doesn't seem that way to someone who's grown up there. Aside from intermittent travels and nine months spent studying in London, I've lived my whole life on the west coast of the United States, and somewhere along the line, being surrounded by so much that was "new" just got old.

For a while, I've wanted something very different. I want to live at a center of things, a place to which everyone feels connected by a depth of history almost unimaginable from the perspective of a southern California suburb. I want, not the movement to the unexplored and uncharted, but to trace my steps back across the American plains and to the cities where my ancestors first landed on this continent -- back even further, across the Atlantic Ocean to the ports of Europe, where once those same ancestors mingled and shared a cigarette or two before boarding the ships that would take them across this bridge of water to a new world. I don't want the new world, having grown up with it. I want to reclaim some of what is old, some of what lasts.

Moving to New York seems like a twentysomething's rite of passage. (After all, hasn't American television taught us that everything that's anything happens in New York City?) But for me, it's more than that. It's about reversing the movement west, the movement to the new. It's not about leaving something behind me, but getting something back. And I wonder: if you grow up on the edge of things, in the place that used to be a frontier, the place where the American Dream ends, how is your cultural narrative different because of it? I grew up in the west. Maybe that's why I feel so much destiny in moving east.