catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27


An open letter to literature

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life.
- Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway

This is my love letter to all the books.  You know who you are.  Some of you I’ve read again and again.  Your covers are torn and taped, and I can turn to any page within you and sink into your story within a few words of reading.  Some of you I’ve never met – we may or may not have a future together, lingering over coffee, stealing bits of time together in waiting rooms.  Or I will watch you with others in those coffee shops and waiting rooms, and I will wonder. 

Some of you I’ve heard of, from friends who have loved you.  I may resist you now, but then, resistance and refusal are common in matters of love, too.

You know me.  I read you for the same reasons that Clarissa Dalloway walks the streets of London on a fresh morning in June.  For the love of life, the love of story, the crush of it all together down into the unknown jewel at my center that that turns its facets this way and that.

I didn’t always know that this is why I read you.  I have journeyed through other reasons – I have even been to the desert place where I came very close to hating you.  All of these places were beautiful in their own way – your essence was always there, in one form or another.

In elementary school, I believed all of you to be manuals for life – problematic in the 1970s, when the didactic messages that adults wanted to pass down to children were all over the spectrum.  While Marlo Thomas told my generation that we were Free to Be, there were older writings with beautiful dark covers to assure us that children who were too free and too wild suffered horrible fates.  I kept careful mental notes on all of it, sure that someday you would yield enough of the puzzle pieces to show me exactly what I was supposed to do in every single possible situation.  I was sure that if I could approach you with the right understanding, you had the power to keep me safe and right and knowledgeable about the ways of this vast and overwhelming world in which I had found myself.

When confronted with a story like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I was at a loss.  Instead of accepting Max’s journey to the land of the Wild Things as a dream, a compensation, a safe way to work out a child’s desire to simply “be a monster” for a while, I tried doggedly to apply my logic.  It never occurred to me that Max was dreaming or fantasizing.  After all, the pictures showed his room morphing into jungle and ocean, and my dreams never did that.  Who was right and who was wrong – with which side would I align myself?  Dears, I looked to you and you looked back, enigmatic and silent.  I would have to work harder than that to unlock your mysteries.

Later, I read because I majored in English in college.  I became an English teacher and a sometimes writer.  I read for literary reasons, for cultural reasons, because reading the best of your lot is good for the mind and useful in many circles.  I was never completely competent at these reasons, though I believed them deeply.  I owe a special apology to Moby Dick, which was only the worst of the casualties of my English major phase.  I wrote an A- paper on the image of whiteness in Melville’s masterpiece, and I could not read the thing.  (I’ve since read your first chapter, Ishmael, and thoroughly enjoyed the humor.)  Gorged on lofty literary expectations, I simply couldn’t take another bite without heaving.

This was our darkest night, dears.  You were still with me, the same presence you had always been.  But I was different.  Still, I had built an identity around you, and we tried to struggle on. 

As in a failing marriage, those who suffered most may have been the children.  As an English teacher and as a parent, I forced myself, dragging and despondent, to read books to children, because you are good for them.  Are there more adults in the world today who hate and fear you because I passed on that dreary undercurrent to children who would feel it but could not put their little nail-bitten fingers on it?  I will always wonder.

I’m sorry to say that I began to hate you, dears.  Or maybe not you in particular, but the mythos built up around you.  Whereas before I had denigrated television and video games (practically a prerequisite for English majors and book lovers), my need to step away from your scribblings allowed me to look more closely at these fast-moving pixilated ways to tell stories.  I could see my children’s enjoyment of them more clearly. 

Did you know that the culture of our educational institutions has a rather indiscriminate worship of you?  (You respond to the question with your usual silence.)  Child advocate Sandra Dodd puts it this way:

There was a time when the only way for a kid to get information from outside his home and neighborhood was books.  (Think Abraham Lincoln, log cabin in the woods, far from centers of learning.)  Now books tend to be outdated, and Google is better for information. If Abraham Lincoln had full-color DVDs of the sights of other countries, of people speaking in their native accents and languages, and of history, he would have shoved those books aside and watched those videos.

Adults who think books to be a superior way of learning will criticize a child for staring at the TV for hours, not moving, oblivious to the happenings around them – and yet those same adults will stare at one of you for hours, not moving, oblivious to the happenings around them.  Perhaps it is stories in general that weave a spell and reach into some inner space. 

(And still you look back at me, enigmatic and silent.)

In the paradoxical way of a fairy tale, my hatred of you was what allowed me to begin to love you again.  The desert stripped me clean of an identity that revolved around you.  I could finally see you anew.

Still, for a long time I saw nothing special in you.  I do not know when you began to vine your way into my ribcage again.  But at some point, I looked up from Mrs. Dalloway and realized that I was laughing, waist-deep in the waves of words, allowing the rhythms to hit me in the chest and face like the wind and waves of the ocean.  I realized that I was doing so simply for the experience of being hit by something bigger and deeper and truer than I.

I do not know how it happened.  I know only that by grace it has, and I can once again read stories and take my place among my fellow humans, for, as Helen Luke writes in “Inner Story:”

The essence of all religions, from the most primitive to the most highly developed, has always been expressed by the human soul in stories.  … We can say, ‘I believe in this or that,’ and assert the truth of many doctrines, but these things will not affect the soul of any one of us unless in some way we experience their meaning through intense response to the images conveyed in story. … Valuable as conceptual theory is, it can only speak to the intellectual faculties in men and women; whereas in a story the living confrontation of the opposites and the transcendent symbol that resolves conflict speak directly to the listener’s mind, heart and imagination in the same images.

And so here we are, dears.  It is something like our first meeting, when as a young child I sat, sleepy after my bath, between my mother and father.  I smelled the dish soap on her hands, the office and tobacco on his shirt.  The quilt we wrapped around us smelled of fresh cotton and furry cat.  I smelled you, ink and paper and possibility.  My two parents, young and strong as only their child could know them, took turns reading to me about a badger named Frances and her deep affection for bread and jam – and I knew, and you know, that loving bread and jam is some kind of badgers-and-children-only code for inexplicably loving life.

“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh….” 

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