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Wives and Daughters

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Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives & DaughtersI’ve been inching slowly through this long Victorian novel for the past three months, a few chapters at a time, as part of the Read-Along for Unputdownables online book club. After so many weeks, the earlier parts of the book seem far away, like a book I once read a long time ago. Exact details have blurred. If I were back in school writing an essay for English class, with an expectation that I be specific in references and quotations, I’d be struggling.

At the same time, so many weeks spent in the company of these characters has left a cumulative effect in my mind which stays with me, details or no details. This is how we live life outside of books, isn’t it? As the years pass, we lose hold of specific details, no longer sure of what was said or the exact chronology of events. But our memory is rich with the accumulated impressions of months, years, decades, spent with people and places that have grown so familiar that we no longer need factual details to build impressions on. We “know” a person or place more directly than that. So why shouldn’t we experience the books we’ve read the same way we experience everything else? The books I’ve taken into my own life are remembered like any other lived experiences. I remember Molly and Cynthia and the Squire and the Miss Brownings as I might remember people I’ve met this summer around the neighborhood.

Early in the Unputdownables’ discussions of Wives and Daughters, there seemed to be a lot of judging and pigeonholing going on, beginning in the first couple of chapters. Mr. Gibson was a great dad when he fetched Molly home from the Towers, but a hateful one when he sent Molly away to the Hamleys and dispatched the hapless suitor Mr. Coxe. The same with other characters, as they made their entrances in the book. The readers piled on to approve or disapprove, to divide the cast into good and bad. The Squire, Lady Harriet, Mr. Preston, Cynthia, were all pulled apart vigorously whereever they failed to live up to the mark. This was particularly true of the vain and silly Mrs Gibson. From her first appearance as the widow Kirkpatrick, she was snowed under by a tsunami of vituperation which took me utterly aback. I admit I’d find her exasperating if I had to be in her constant company, but I simply couldn’t understand why everyone took to attacking her so violently.

As the weeks went by, and as we readers spent more time in the company of these characters, something changed in the nature and mood of the discussion. The way the company discussed the characters became less judgmental, less critical. It wasn’t that the group arrived at any deliberate decision to handle them less roughly, or to judge them more favorably. Rather, there seemed to be less judgment of any sort, favorable or unfavorable, going on at all. It seemed irrelevant to weigh and measure them. They were no longer literary symbols of good and bad, but people we were coming to know, with the same mixture of quirks, gifts, humor, temper, blindness and humanity, that we find in ourselves and each other. We accepted them for what they were, as we do real people. Mr Gibson made some wise decisions and some foolish ones. Mrs Gibson could be sometimes selfish and sometimes hospitable. The Squire’s emotional roller-coaster sometimes brought warm hugs and sometimes hasty prejudices. If people are never all good or all bad, then how are we to judge? We certainly may be interested in learning more about them, discerning their unique combinations of weaknesses and strengths, but no longer interested in deciding what it all means in terms of good or bad.

There are a series of chapters in the middle of this book which highlight the corrosive effect of judgmental gossip. I don’t think all gossip falls into this category. There is also a sharing of information which makes us more friendly or more understanding: — “Be nice to so-and-so today, she’s had a rough week; had a wisdom tooth out, hit a deer on the road. See if you can get her off work early.” — “How’s whosit these days? Haven’t seen him in ages. Three grandkids now? Retired last fall? Tell him I asked about him.” — When we condemn gossip as damaging and sinful, it’s not this sort of gentle gossip we have in mind.

But there’s another way of discussing people which rips apart the fabric of communal life, lacerates the folks we talk about, and hardens our own hearts to others. It’s a basically judgmental gossip, whether the judgments are pronounced explicitly or insinuated snidely. It’s the kind of talk which leads to bullying in school cafeterias and ostracism in workplace break rooms. It begins with the hasty pigeonholing of people about whom we really know almost nothing, when we assume the worst about them instead of the best. Then it grows when others’ desire to be part of the popular opinion draws them to jump onto the pile. These late-arrivers don’t even have the minimal facts which were the basis of the original judgments, but accept as true whatever they hear going around. Next thing you know, it has snowballed into an avalanche.

In Wives and Daughters, both these factors, negative judgments and following the crowd’s lead, played a part in the growth of the gossip. Even people who actually liked Molly and Cynthia got sucked into the easy trap of agreeing and tongue-wagging and head-nodding. I felt like cheering when Miss Phoebe, usually such a mouse, declared her independence from prevailing opinion and refused to be budged. When Lady Harriet, definitely not a mouse, joined the skeptics, the gossip ground to a halt. Such forthright mavericks, when there are enough of them, are the only way to stop the snowball in its tracks.

Meanwhile, for those who are the victims of gossip, forthright directness seems also to be their the best recourse. Mr Gibson, shaken by the gossip about his daughter, confronted her directly with exactly what he had heard, withholding hasty judgment until he had listened to her explanation. Molly replied as plainly and fully as her promise to Cynthia permitted, — and where she felt bound to confidentiality, she simply said so, instead of being mysterious or making up lies.

Gossip thrives on secrecy and show, enticing us to imagine what is going on behind the scenes. These elements of secrecy and show seemed to run all through the book, too. Cynthia and Mrs Gibson live for the sake of show, calculating how to look good before others, until their true selves are so far hidden that it’s impossible to find them. Molly, Mr Gibson, and Roger Hamley are not putting on performances. They are who they are, with a transparent honesty in how they present themselves. Out of all the impressions this book left on my mind, it’s this contrast between Cynthia and Molly, between public performance and honest openness, that struck me most.

It’s so easy in my own day-to-day life to slip into falseness, not by telling flat-out lies, but in the way I present myself. It’s easy to slide into performance mode without thinking about what I’m doing, to find myself acting a part, presenting something that isn’t really me. We all seek to please others, but we have to do this honestly, by giving our real selves. When I remember Cynthia, even long after I’ve forgotten the details of her story, I’ll remember that I don’t want to become like her, and I’ll pull myself up short and shut off the performance. That’s a good thing to have gained from this book.

Treasure Island

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Treasure IslandTreasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

It seems a long time since the last evening that Brian and I sat out in the lawn chair with our books after supper. That was at the end of May, and since then life seems to have turned into a muddle of one thing after another. It’s the busy season at work, Brian’s been in the hospital for almost three weeks, and to add to the confusion, he was in the middle of selling his house and looking for an apartment just before he ended up in the ER. So I’m spending my work days trying to get a thousand schoolkids on and off a few dozen buses, more often than not in a steady all-day downpour, then changing mental gears to spend evenings with Brian in the hospital trying to help him sort out his housing chaos and generally cheering him up and keeping him company, with my own assorted errands sandwiched in between. Sitting down after supper with a book just isn’t going to happen when supper itself doesn’t seem to happen very regularly.

A few nights ago, too weary in my mind to fall asleep, I thought that what I needed was a little dose of something that’s been missing from my life lately — a book. An easy book, an escape book. Something to read on my pillow, curled up comfortably until my mind was quiet enough for my eyes to close. I turned to the oldest books on the bookshelves, the ones I read as a girl, the well-worn ones that are pure comfort. Ran my hand over the row, and pulled out this one. Yep, Treasure Island. That was it, that was exactly what I needed.

For a few hours, this book let me be 12 years old again, with nothing to do but run off adventuring with Jim Hawkins and Doctor Livesey and the dour Captain and the silly old Squire, being creeped out delightfully by Billy Bones and Blind Pew and Israel Hands, laughing at Ben Gunn, and shaking my head at that cagey shape-shifting chameleon Long John Silver. I read the whole thing in just three nights, and fell firmly asleep each night with childlike soundness.

This was already an escape book the first time I ever read it, — escape from a dreary reading class regime. The reading classes at my elementary school consisted of reading one-paragraph selections and then answering inane multiple choice questions. Then the mother of one of my classmates started the Junior Great Books Club and the teacher tapped a handful of lucky students to participate. Escape! Hoo-ray! Instead of reading multiple-choice questions, we got to read interesting books and sit around a table talking about them. We read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Hawthorne’s Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, the stories of Mole and Rat and Toad from The Wind in the Willows — and finished the year with the wonderful Treasure Island.

I remember the discovery that struck me the most vividly upon that first reading was the disconnect between surface impressions and character. Long John Silver was such a charming fellow — until the shock of the apple-barrel chapter turned all my assumptions upside-down. This charming fellow was really a cold-blooded monster plotting to murder Jim and all his friends. I was outraged! And Captain Smollett was such a pessimistic old grouch — until he stood up to Long John in a heroic defiance at the fort. This grouch was a rock of strength, and I stood up and cheered when he told off Long John. Ben Gunn was a ridiculous tattered half-wit — until he outsmarted everyone by finding the treasure first. This half-wit was clever enough to play ghost and trick the pirates long enough for help to arrive. I was impressed. When I was 12 years old, all of this burst upon me as a fresh new thought, something I learned all on my own while reading a book — that people were more difficult to understand than a quick first glance suggested.

Reading it now, with bifocals and a head of gray hair, I’m aware of moral ambiguities that I never recognized as a child. Captain Smollet’s heroic defiance of Silver is still as stirring as ever, but reflecting on the bloody outcome, I wonder whether it would have been wiser to use more diplomacy. Doctor Livesey wheels and deals with Silver while double-crossing him, which isn’t strictly honorable, yet probably saved lives. Silver himself changes sides so often that nobody on either side can trust him anymore. Silver has no loyalty, choosing whichever side will do him the most good. Yet his crookedness plays a part in saving Jim and his friends. The Doctor urges Jim to make a break for it over the stockade wall even though this flouting of his parole would be less than honorable and would leave Silver open to punishment by his crew. Jim himself deserts the fort and goes AWOL at a crucial moment, although his selfish flight sets in motion the chain of events which save the ship. This is a morally gray story in so many ways that escaped my attention at the age of 12, when Jim’s side were the good guys and the pirates were the bad guys and that was that. The three sick, marooned pirates in the final chapter, kneeling on the beach with outstretched hands, begging to be taken aboard the departing ship, strike my conscience now in a way they never did then.

But despite these more sober thoughts, the book’s effervescent youthful high spirits still come to me like cool water when I’m thirsty for refreshment. Even after all these years, the sheer confidence of Stevenson’s inventiveness still carries me away. Even though I know the plot by heart and can almost quote much of the dialogue, I still remain delighted at the sureness of the story’s spinning, the zest of the telling. If this is just a boys and girls adventure book, which it admittedly is, it’s still arguably the best one ever written. In the world Stevenson invented, chased by pirates that I know are never going to catch me, I’m always set free for a few hours from whatever’s weighing me down.

Fahrenheit 451

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Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury

On World Book day, volunteers are asked to give away free books. I guess there’s an official sign-up, where the volunteer is given the books, which are donated by the publisher, and distributes them according to assignment, but I didn’t know how to go about joining up. So I simply looked over the list of books selected for the 2013 giveaway, chose  one of my favorites, bought a new copy, and gave it away to a woman I met at a bus stop in the neighborhood. The book I chose was Fahrenheit 451. Of course, having been reminded of it, I had to go find my own well-worn copy and re-read it.

I first read this book in high school in the 1970’s and it blew my mind. I’m not a science-fiction fan, but this didn’t read like sci-fi. It seemed more like a realistic contemporary novel, with only a few slightly unfamiliar bits of technology, and those not so outlandish as to be off-putting, but perhaps just the latest new twists on familiar gadgets. Without the usual trappings and barriers of sci-fi getting in my way, I was easily drawn directly into the story. Every few years since, I find myself picking up this book again, and every time I have the same reaction. It’s always contemporary, always familiar, always an ongoing great conversation that I’m longing to get in on.

It’s those deeply packed conversations that sucked me in most deeply. I wanted to go inside this book and jump into every conversation between the characters. Whatever subject they were discussing, I always had thoughts of my own boiling over inside me, so that I was longing to speak up, to agree or expand or contradict. I got the same feeling I so often had in real life, eavesdropping on a great conversation at a nearby table of people I didn’t know, wishing I could just lean over and put my two cents into the mix. They reminded me of the sort of conversations that I’d seen happen on occasions when my sisters and dad got all wound up and began taking apart the universe and putting it back together again. Philosophy, politics, entertainment, culture, society, the meaning of life, all explored, delighted in and argued over.

I’ve occasionally read other dystopian future-world sci-fi, featuring opressive government, book-burning, and apocolyptic war. Usually these books have struck me as unreal. Everything in their world boils down to just one thing. There’s no room for messy ordinary daily life, because everyone is boxed into the same situation. It’s all about Big Brother, and if only we defeat him, the world will return to normal. Fahrenheit 451 might have been that sort of book, in which opressive government censorship was the whole story, or in which vapid empty culture was the whole story, or in which chronic threat of war was the whole story. But there is a whole world going on here, with individual concerns as tangled and varied as the variety of characters. Maybe that’s why this is the one book in that genre which never wears out for me.

From Clarisse’s family talking about the meanings of things on the porch late at night, to Mildred and her friends rehashing the latest TV reality show, to an old woman here or an old man there engrossed in the quiet pleasure of hidden books, to teenagers dashing around sports fields and driving fast cars, to firemen smoking over card games, there’s a sense of individual life always going on behind and around the edges of the plot.  It’s not a one-note ballad about book-burning.

And yet books remain at the center of it all. We keep coming back to the books.  Why do books matter so much that some people will die for them while others will destroy for them?

As Faber says, it’s not the book itself, the physical material object, that matters. The book  is only a receptacle, just one of many possible receptacles, for the important things that we don’t want to lose or forget. What matters isn’t the pages and ink and covers.  The ideas, the understandings, the experiences, the hard-earned wisdom that came from so many lives lived — all of this matters. All of this is important. It could be shared through good conversation, through the deepening of understanding that comes through words passed around on a front porch. It could be shared through the ways we interact with each other in community and family life. It could be expressed in the kinds of art we produce, the kinds of houses we build, the kinds of laws we support. A society which was able to express its important ideas in so many other ways might have no need for books. It might function perfectly well as an oral culture.

But in real life, we know too well that people forget. We lose track of our most important insights. We forget to talk about them. We forget to practise them in daily living. We’re not going out and looking for them because we’ve forgotten they ever existed. This is why we need a back-up memory system that can help us simply stumble across truths that we’re not actively looking for. Books do this job for us.  They hold onto things we might need someday.

Filed away in books, our important things are kept in a safe place, so that one day when we need to be reminded of them, they will be there. We open the book and rediscover all over again what we had neglected and forgotten. Sometimes we discover for the first time what we never knew at all, whatever our own daily life failed to show us. The books matter because they sit patiently and wait for us until we’re ready to open them. A wise human being may move out of our life, or even die, before we hear what he or she might have taught us. But the book will just go on waiting for us — so long as we don’t make the mistake of destroying it in the meantime.

Favorite quotes:

  • Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.
  • We’ll have time to put things into ourselves. And someday, after it sets into us a long time, it’ll come out of our hands and our mouths. And a lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right. We’ll just start walking around today and see the world and the way the world really looks. I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after awhile it’ll gather together inside and it’ll be me.
  • Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there…Grandfather’s been dead all these years, but if you lifted my skull, by God, in the convolutions of my brain you’d find the big ridges of his thumbprint.

Persuasion

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PersuasionPersuasion
by Jane Austen

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels more than once over the years, but I can always read them again.  This time, I read Persuasion as a read-along with an online book club called Unputdownables, joining in a monthlong discussion with people I didn’t know.  An interesting new way to experience a familiar book.

So many of the other readers were critical of Anne. They described her as “dull” and “boring”. They wanted to see her behave in a more defiant and take-charge style. Why doesn’t she just go marry Captain Wentworth and to heck with anyone else’s opinion? — they wondered. And the same to Wentworth himself. What’s he waiting for?

I felt a desire to rush in on Anne’s side. When they found her impossible to identify with, I felt myself in her place. I felt that Anne was the kind of person I’d want for a friend. I only wish I had her patience and good nature. I realized, as I defended her and offered explanations for her, that this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this position. A character who strikes other readers as bland or meek often strikes me as the most “real” person in the book. This is the character whose thoughts and feelings and decisions make the most sense to me, the one whose interior life seizes my imagination most powerfully.

One of the first books we read in Amanda’s book club, a couple of years ago, was Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons. Among the questions posed for discussion was “Which character was most interesting to you?” Almost all the other women in the group talked about Merit, about her growth and change, about her acts of rebellion. I was the only one who loved Skip. In response, most of the other members said, “She’s nice, but she isn’t interesting. She’s just what she is, there’s not much of a story to her.” Maybe I’m attracted to characters who are just what they are, whose integrity is their strongest feature.

Anne Elliot is a character of quiet integrity. I have to keep insisting that she is not actually a meek, pliable doormat.  While she’s not an openly assertive person, she remains sure of who she is and what she thinks. Some people have such shallow and unformed convictions that they have no truths to uphold or betray. Anne knows her own mind. Once in her life, disastrously, she was false to her own inner conviction. Her regret is so strong because she knows that she betrayed herself. If she was really as big a waffler as all that, she’d never have been sure whether she was right or wrong. But Anne knows very well that she made a terrible mistake by betraying herself.

Ever since then, she has kept the knowledge of that mistake as part of her character. She won’t betray herself again. This doesn’t mean that she won’t surrender to other people’s wishes to keep the peace in trifling matters, like seating arrangements at parties, or carriage assignments on road trips. It does mean that she will hold firmly to her own convictions in any matter of true integrity, like keeping up her friendship with Mrs. Smith or refusing Charles Musgrove’s marriage proposal.

A Christmas Carol

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Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens

Every December, for a half century, I’ve either read this book or listened to Daddy read it. It’s so familiar that I’d know instantly if a sentence was left out. What is there to say about something that’s simply a natural and recurring pleasure?

It’s one of the little miracles of human storytelling. All about love and hope, about blindness and the dawn of blinding light. It’s like the story of Saint Paul on the Damascus Road, or Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper. “So that’s it, then!  That’s what it’s really all about!  Now I get it”

The wailing ghosts outside Scrooge’s window aren’t the shades of the damned. They’re the saved, the ones who finally see what they should have seen sooner, who suffer because they saw too late. But is it too late? Is there really nothing they can do? Marley figured it out. He came to see Scrooge. He made a human connection again. He came in from the wailing cold and began again.

Never too late. Begin again at any moment. Right now, right here, for instance.

Ignorance and want, both waiting for rescue. My own ignorance doesn’t know it’s blind. My own hunger doesn’t know what it hungers for. But here’s the answer:  When I am blind, find someone who needs light. When I’m hungry, find someone who needs bread. Give away what I myself need. Then I will finally see what I needed and understand.

Life can wear us out with discouragement. It’s good, once a year, to remember what hope is all about.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Tree Grows in Brooklyn EditA Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

Grandma, this will always be your book, our book. The world Francie grew up in was the world you grew up in. Every time you and I read this book together, you took me back into your own memories. Even this old volume, this particular copy handed down from you to me, brings you close.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. Dozens, probably, over four decades. The whole book is a time capsule of small memories saved from oblivion. I think of the place in the book where Francie tries to fix a moment of time by sealing it in an envelope. A newspaper cutting, some lipstick, a loved poem, small scraps of life as it was at that instant, to be opened decades later, hoping that what has been preserved there will still be as real as it once was. This entire book does for me what that envelope did for Francie.

I lived my entire life with Grandma. In some ways, I feel as though I belong to a generation earlier than my own. I have memories of more distant times, closer and more personal memories than most people my age have. Grandma wasn’t just an occasional presence in my life, but a constant and intimate one. Her own recollections of her girlhood were strong and vivid, and I lived with those recollections every day, until they became my own recollections too. Other people my age have such second-hand memories of the generation immediately before our own, stories of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Raised by Grandma, I heard the stories of her youth, of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in the same detail. More than that, Grandma carried a strong recollection of her own mother’s memories, and passed them along as though they too were her own, memories of the decade before the first world war.

History is history, but memory is memory. There’s a personal scent to memory, an emotional content that goes deeper than the knowledge of history. This book is the catalyst that activated memory. Whenever we used to read it, Grandma’s memories would come alive and pour out in floods, carrying me with her into her world and her mother’s world. The way I feel now, reading this book when Grandma is gone, feeling her presence, flooded with her memory, this is how Grandma felt when she used to read it, feeling the presence of her own mother long gone, recollecting her own mother’s memories.

We both wanted to keep alive another person’s life. We both wanted that life, those experiences, those memories, to live into another generation, not to be lost. I know, sadly, that the whiff of Grandma’s mother’s life that I touch over the century between us is only a fragment, that so much of that memory was carried away in Grandma’s dreams, lost to me. I know that my own fragile ark of Grandma’s life is carried largely beyond words, inside my own dreams of her, impossible to completely pass along to someone who didn’t know her as I did. But I want to say, “Here’s some of it. Don’t lose these bits. Keep them safe.” I want to seal a slice of time in an envelope as Francie did. I want Grandma, age 18 and completely young and alive, to step out of that envelope and speak again.

A few years ago, when Daddy was cleaning the attic, he brought down a garbage bag of trash to take out and dump. Curiosity led me to paw quickly through the bag before tossing it. Almost lost, almost destroyed — Grandma’s diary, which neither of us had ever seen, written when she was a teenager. That night, reading those faded pencil scrawls, I touched Grandma alive, and went with her back into memories of her girlhood, memories that made me see and hear and smell the days long gone. It was like opening Francie’s sealed envelope.

This is what it’s like every time I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”