Saturday, August 19, 2017

Library Days

The former Greensburg Public Library on South Main St.
I was probably nine, maybe ten when I got my first library card. It was a momentous act. I doubt that I had ever read a complete book yet. But apart from the stories in the Book House books, or in Boy's Life magazine, which I started getting by subscription when I joined a Cub Scouts den in fourth grade, the only place that had reading I might be interested in was the public library.

 I remember talking it over with my mother, and she accompanied me to the library and they signed me up. After that, I went to the library on my own--a few times with friends (especially after Saturday afternoon movies) but mostly on my own. It was the beginning of my life of independent reading.

 It may be difficult for readers today to believe it, but I walked to town unsupervised before I was ten. It was just under a mile, a straight shot down and up hills, down West Newton Road and across to continue as Pittsburgh Street, finally, steeply up to the business district on the crest of a hill.

 The first public library in Greensburg opened in June 1936, ten years before I was born. Before that, libraries were associated with schools but mostly the private property of wealthy families. One such library was featured in the palatial home of Major William Stokes, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, built in 1846 and situated on a high hill where the Seton Hill University campus is now. (The building itself survived as St. Joseph's Academy, later renamed St. Mary's Hall. As the original building of the college, I believe at least part of it is still there. It was visible from the window of my very first home on College Avenue.)

That library is intriguing because it may have inspired a young visitor to the house in 1852, a telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie. It was apparently the first library he'd seen and it impressed him. Ironically perhaps, though Carnegie built some 1700 public libraries across America, there was never a Carnegie library in Greensburg. He did offer to build one in 1896, but he always insisted that the host municipality pay for upkeep, and Greensburg demurred.

The first attempt at a public library quickly outgrew its space, and General Richard Coulter, who commanded troops in World War I and belonged to a prominent Greensburg family wealthy from banking and coal, donated his old home on South Main Street. (Built in 1881, this may have also been the home of his father, the first Richard Coulter, who was a member of Congress and a state supreme court judge.) It opened as the Greensburg Public Library on June 26, 1940, almost precisely six years before my birth.

This is the building where I got that first library card, and which I frequented until I left for college. On that first day I learned the terms: I could borrow as many as three books from the children's room (but only from there), for two weeks, with the opportunity to renew for another two weeks. Fines for overdue books were on the order of a penny to three cents a day.

 I was probably asked what kind of books I was interested in, and I mentioned science fiction, or at least spaceships. I was steeped in Saturday morning shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, and even before that, I'd watched Captain Video every evening. By then the exciting Man in Space episode of Tomorrowland on the Disneyland hour may have aired. I'd seen a few science fiction movies, and may have read a Robert Heinlein story in Boy's Life.

So I went home that day with The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. It looked like this, although I remember the cover as red.

 So many times--up the steps, into the front door, with the circulation desk dead ahead. A sharp left turn and down a few polished wooden steps to the children's room. In a few years, I would be sneaking behind the bulletin board at the far right corner of the room, which hid the dimly lit adult stacks in the rooms next to it, books from ceiling to floor.

 It was a bit spooky in there at first. But by junior high years, having learned the rudiments of the Dewy Decimal System and how to use the card catalog, I searched and browsed back there.

 I also checked the shelves of new books on the wall just opposite the circulation desk, to the left of the entrance. To the right were a couple of smaller rooms, one of which was the reference library, with a big globe. I remember reading chapters in the Catholic Encyclopedia in there on a high school evening, shocked by what some of the Popes had gotten up to.

In the early '60s I discovered that I was allowed to take the stairs to the second floor that began just behind and a little to the right of the circulation desk. On the second floor was a room of recordings, and a record player. Amazing! Classical, jazz and most importantly just then, folk music albums.

I also was introduced to recorded humor--the albums of the new comedians I saw on TV like Bob Newhart, but especially to the satiric Stan Freberg. I loved those albums! Freberg (among others) inspired me to write satirical scripts and record them with three friends (The Four Frauds) and later I learned songs and even stole funny bits from those folk albums, as three of us morphed into a folk group, the Crosscurrents.

 The public library provided access to records I didn't know about and couldn't afford to buy anyway. But it mostly put books into my hands--books I had no other way of even touching, let alone reading. Going to the library, selecting the books, were among my first independent acts.

Being conscientious about getting the books back on time was among my first independent responsibilities...And of course I remember fondly several of the library ladies who were always there--friendly, sometimes scary, but who knew me and talked to me as a reader.

Several years after I'd left for college, in 1969, the library moved to a much bigger building, the massive old Post Office a block away on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Post Office moved into a new and smaller building across the street.

 This building, now called the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, itself has a complicated history I haven't entirely put together yet. It opened in 1911--old enough to offer a prospect for watching one of the last Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows parade into town.

One Greensburg history says it was built according to the plan for the Charlotteville, Virginia post office (1905), and indeed they look all but identical. (That's Greensburg above, Charlottesville left.)

That provenance may help account for the prominent columns and portico--though a popular style at the time (variously called colonial revival, neo-colonial and Beaux Arts) it especially echoes a lot of Charlottesville (and University of Virginia) buildings, which themselves echo Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home outside that city.

 The Greensburg building's interior was extensively renovated and probably expanded (I'm thinking perhaps at the back of the building) in 1934-5.  According to the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, this project was designed and carried out by Samuel Plato, the first African American to receive commissions to build US Post Office buildings. He was also a builder who insisted on integrated work forces.

The 30s and 40s were busy in Greensburg and Westmoreland County, so this was not just the post office but the county Federal Building, housing offices of the Agriculture Department, U.S. Navy, IRS, Civil Service Commission, Census Bureau and the congressional district office.

 It seems likely that the renovation was at least in part a New Deal project, but I can't find documentation of that. I'm still looking into the history of this building and this 1930s project, so if anybody in Greensburg could find and photograph a cornerstone dedication or a plaque inside the building, I'd love to have it. It's puzzling to me that Greensburg seems to ignore this building and its history, even though it seems to be within its official historic district.

When I returned to town for a couple of hitches in the 70s and 80s I dropped by the library in its new building. The entrance area was huge, the circulation desk impressively big, and the ceilings very high. The first time I visited there was even one of the same library ladies there. I asked her if she remembered me. "Yes," she said, not approving of my beard, however. "You look like an old sailor." I immediately thought of all the books I'd borrowed that featured ships and the sea.

At this point they were getting rid of old books and had them on sale in the lobby or just outside. I bought my cherished two volume set of William Manchester's history of the 20th century, The Glory and the Dream, for twenty cents. And a first edition of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems, for a dime.

 A final anecdote suggests a different aspect of this story. Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was suddenly inspired to look for a book I'd taken out in high school. I found it in the stacks. It was obviously the very same copy (dark blue, gold lettering.) The old card system was still being used, with a card in a pocket just inside the book to indicate the due date. Often this card traveled with the book, and had its title and number on it, as well as the signature of the person borrowing, so you could actually see how many times it had been taken out, and by whom. Homeland Security would have loved it.

 As I took the book to the circulation desk, I glanced at the card. The first and last time it had been taken out was 1963, and the first and last person to take it out was me. The book was by Richard Hofstader: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

It's a small town library, serving small town people. But among those people is somebody like me; in fact, for those years, exactly me. This book, clearly of minority interest, was here. They bought it and kept it, and it waited for me.

 The public library is open to all, but serves individuals within the all. Even a minority of one. And we all get to borrow these books, on the same easy terms. The public library is a miracle. It's the most democratic of institutions, and therefore, a democratic miracle.

 As for the first book I borrowed, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, it's a somewhat witty tale that today would remind people of E.T. But after my two weeks were up I took it back without completing it. (I have however read it since, and have acquired my own copy.)

  Reading a whole book is a skill, and in my case it took more time to acquire it. I would soon find on those shelves just the books to really get me started. But that's for next time.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hero of His Own Life? Notes on Dickens' David Copperfield

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” It's one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and after reading Charles Dickens' David Copperfield again, I'm struck by the ambiguous answer I might give.

 For in key moments, it isn't David Copperfield who is heroic, but other characters. The novel has the usual thoroughly evil Dickens' villains: David's cruel stepfather Murdstone and Murdstone's echoing sister Jane, the craven and cruel schoolmaster Creakle (a brief appearance but so meaty that Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan both made a ham sandwich of him in film versions) and the unforgettable Uriah Heep.

 There are the usual slyly satiric portraits of institutions of law and order, and the men who make their livings from them, more than hinting at Dickens' underlying outrage and disdain. There is also a hero (at least in David's eyes) who commits acts of villainy that Copperfield condemns, yet he persists in remembering him "at his best."

 There is a kind of angel or goddess, a child woman, a girl who yearns too much, a wayward girl, and an old woman servant with a heart of gold. There are the stalwart and large-hearted men of the sea, Mr. Peggotty and Ham.

 And there are the somewhat comic characters that populate a Dickens novel: his Aunt Betsey and her friend Mr. Dick, the eternal complainer Mrs. Gummidge, Copperfield's school friend and later companion the hapless Traddles, and the most famous of all, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Mr. Micawber, and his long-suffering wife.

 As he does in other novels, Dickens' pegs several of these "minor" characters with their repeated turns of phrase and small repeated behaviors. But notably and in some respects unexpectedly, several of them do the heroic deeds. It's Micawber and Traddles who bring Uriah Heep to heel. It's Aunt Betsy who rescues young David, Mr. Peggotty who with the help of the wayward girl rescues the girl who yearns too much, Emily. And it's Ham who dies attempting to rescue a survivor of a storm at sea. Even Mrs. Gummidge becomes heroic.

 It's true of course that classical heroes often have decisive help, and couldn't accomplish their goal without aid. And David does have his moments, particularly when he suddenly becomes the financial support of others and applies himself with discipline and hard work. But it took the special interest and attention of others, as well as their good-heartedness and generosity, responding to David's good-heartedness and generosity, for him to succeed.

I read this Signet edition, which was the
first to publish Dickens' entire text.
Since I knew the story, both from having read the book before and from seeing a couple of film versions, the emotional response to key happenings was muted, and I was better able to appreciate how Dickens created his effects, and generally to savor the details. So while it didn't have the emotional resonance of reading W.G. Sebald's enigmatic The Emigrants, which I also recently finished, it provided other pleasures.

 But it's probably more than that. When I was younger I was more than impatient with the pace and language of 19th century novels--it took great effort to sit still for them. I craved faster prose and faster styles of storytelling that I found especially in some contemporary authors. I was young, it was the 1960s, my metabolism was set to rock music. I eventually could become immersed in the images of foreign films but I found these books difficult to sink into.

 That's not a problem now. My old metabolism is happy to read those long sentences and long books, though I take my time, and read not much more than a chapter at a sitting. For both reasons, I read with delight, savoring the language and narrative skill.

 For example, he gives us the murderous-hearted Mr. Murdstone (need it be said for a character in Dickens that he's aptly named? J.K. Rowling must have known her Dickens) and his sister, Miss Murdstone, as the tyrants of David's young life. Then after leaving them behind in David's boyhood, he inexplicably and a bit awkwardly makes Miss Murdstone the paid companion of David's employer's daughter who he loves and intends to marry. But it pays off in a confrontation scene.

 After Miss Murdstone has informed on David, the father opposes the marriage. As the scene begins with formalities, Dickens reminds us of Miss Murdstone's character with a memorable expression. He doesn't say that David takes her cold hand in greeting, but that "Miss Murdstone gave me her chilly finger-nails, and sat severely rigid." What a sentence!

But the resonance is given additional power at the end of the conference, as David observes: "Miss Murdstone's heavy eyebrows followed me to the door...and she looked so exactly as she used to look, at about that hour of the morning..." when she glowered at him over his lessons.

 It's true that David doesn't exhibit much psychological acuity, apparently not sensing that his first choice for a wife replicated qualities of his mother. But on more general matters he shows some insight. “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.” 

Originally serialized in a periodical, each
installment ended in a "cliffhanger."
This was a popular work of fiction, serialized in a periodical. So the philosophical observations in the writing may not be earthshaking but remain essential--and especially essential to Dickens, as in the ruminations of a very minor character near the end of the novel:

 “Dear me,” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, when the two ends of life meet...he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can... And I don’t speak of myself particular, because, sir, the way I look at it is that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced.” 

 As for the film versions, they may guide the reader through main events and give visual references to the characters, but they are far too short to suggest the richness and riches of the book. It's good to have a guide through the story, though, and fun to see good portrayals of the characters.

 Probably the best version is the 1999 BBC/PBS miniseries, mostly because it is the longest. But even this one is not full enough--after lavishing attention on the earlier parts of the novel, it rushes through climactic scenes and invents others. One notable change is the fate of Uriah Heep. In the movie he is arrested and is seen as a prisoner to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. But in the novel, Micawber and Traddles force Heep to make restitution and return funds he had stolen, under threat of exposure. Dickens clearly doesn't trust the justice system of his day. (The film's solution also muddles the positive meaning of a new life in Australia for other characters in this book.)

But this film version features a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe as the very young David, shortly before he became Harry Potter. Other performances are definitive: Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Nicholas Lyndhurst is Uriah Heep and so on down the line--in particular, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber (and that's saying something, since the role was also played in movie versions by Ralph Richardson and W.C. Fields.)

 The one questionable role was the adult David Copperfield, and that seemed to be the case in all other film versions. Probably it is not the fault of the actors--in this case, perfectly serviceable--but in the role. He is the center of the action, but he mostly reacts. Still, it's notable that well-known actors played the "minor" roles, and not this one. 

Which suggests again but doesn't answer the first question posed. David is the narrator of the story, and he becomes a writer in the course of the book. (Which could be one reason why Dickens named this as the favorite of his novels.) But is he is the hero of his own life? Well, we might say of him as of ourselves: if not, who is?

My Bleak House Experience

Perhaps it was my selection of classes, or a reflection on the times (the 1960s, though the lit department was still enthralled with the New Criticism of earlier decades) but I got a bad impression of Charles Dickens as an English literature and composition major in college.

It didn't help that my only experiences with Dickens were an interminable term in high school forced through Great Expectations, and the annual television viewing of one or another version of the melodramatic romp of A Christmas Carol.

But things are different now, and so am I.  I'm not in the academic grip of modernism, nor postmodernism for that matter.  I'm in no academic grip at all. Nor do I read for money much anymore.  I can read what I like.

These days I'm liking Charles Dickens, perhaps because I've become acquainted with his work through Bleak House, one of his later big novels which some consider his best.  Some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description. In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic. Some of it bordered on surrealism. The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope. This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I also watched the 2005 miniseries of Bleak House on DVD.  It was decently faithful to the book's characters and plot, and especially useful to me fairly early in my reading.  I watched all the episodes on the first of three disks, which coincidentally ended at about where I'd last left off reading.  It helped in clarifying some plot points.  After that, I enjoyed it less as accompaniment as for itself, with its uniformly fine acting.

Having the plot clarified and seeing the characters portrayed did not disturb my reading at all, partly because I was reading in considerable degree for other elements.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time. It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives. When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books. He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

 At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading. I don't worry about how much I retain. Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can. One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms. The words, the sentences, and so on. I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My Book House

These days I live in a house of books. There are book shelves in nearly every room, and in the two rooms where I spend the most time alone, overflowing bookcases line several walls in each, from floor to nearly the ceiling.

 Growing up most of a continent away, there were always some books in our house (though none in most other homes I visited), and I always had books to hold and look at. I had Golden Books of the 1950s, and other child-size books like Little Toot and The Little Red Caboose. But I also had a library of particular book-size books. My first house of books was My Book House.

Officially called The Book House For Children, they were illustrated anthologies of verse and prose edited by Olive Beaupre Miller and published under its own imprint in Chicago. The first set came out in a series beginning in 1920, and some version would continue to be published until 1971.

 The set that I grew up with was published in 1943. The prior 1920s editions were six thick volumes but by the 40s the same basic material was in twelve volumes of more than 200 pages each. They were deep blue, thinner but larger in size to better accommodate illustrations.

We had fifteen books in all, for the set included a Parents' Guide Book and two extra volumes, the orange Tales Told in Holland and the lighter blue Nursery Friends From France, both unchanged from 1927, when they accompanied the original sets as "My Travelship." There was a third Travelship volume called Little Pictures of Japan, but I don't recall we had it, possibly because it wasn't offered in 1943 since the US was at war with Japan.

Our set must have been acquired at my birth in 1946. I believe my mother's sister Antoinette, who was a teacher, either gave us the set or advised my mother to buy it. It became central to my childhood and that of my sisters, Kathy and Debbie. I have the set now, and evidence of each of us survives in the books themselves: my scrawls of the alphabet and attempts to print my name in pencil and crayon, a number of blank endpapers in the Parents' Guide volume decorated with Kathy's drawings, and a clutch of napkins stuck in one volume upon which Debbie wrote and drew--and signed, when she was seven.

We were not the only ones who grew up with these books, of course. In recent years they've become a favorite of home schoolers. Writers remember them. Novelist Jim Harrison mentioned the Book House set several times in his fiction and nonfiction. Larry McMurtry writes a few words about it in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which I've recently read and which prompted these musings on my early experience with books.

 For me now, the color, slight shine and heft of these volumes, the very touch of their cool surfaces, still define "books." As I view their contents, browsing by the light of the floor lamp that had once been in my grandparents' living room, now nearest to the shelves where these books repose, I can be taken back to earliest impressions, especially by the relationship of these evocative, colorful and now singular illustrations to the text.

The content is comprised of verse and prose, often by (or adapted from) classic authors from many countries. The twelve volumes were arranged in a graduated sequence of readings for children from babydom to early adolescence. This approach is codified in a general way by the Parents Guide Book titled In Your Hands. It provides advice and information in a direct and informal tone, like the then wildly popular books by Doctor Spock.

 Once I'd learned to read I don't recall my mother offering any guidance as suggested, but she seems to have heeded some of the suggestions on reading to babies. (I have the advantage of having my own very real memories confirmed by watching her with my younger sisters, particularly Debbie, who was born when I was 8.)

 For example, the book suggests how to hold a baby's arms and clap while mother recites "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man" (which sounded more like "patty-cake" to me) and how to play with the babies toes for "This little piggy went to market." It's exactly how my mother did it, although she sometimes added a rhythmic bouncing as she held me on her knee, which I believe was important in showing me that whatever else words in such arrangements were about, they were first of all about rhythm and music.

Since my mother's own babyhood was in Italy and the Italian language, and I was the eldest child of two eldest children in the vanguard of my generation, I believe she was following this book's instruction, including gradually getting me to chant along, and to anticipate the words and rhymes. The rhythmic bouncing, however, was probably homegrown. Since I remember my grandmother doing that with us, she probably had done so with my mother.

But other instruction she ignored, just as we ignored many of the other selections in that first volume, In the Nursery. I know that we used this book even for these common nursery rhymes because I remember poring over the illustrations. Many of the illustrations were comical, many quite literal, many romantic in a 19th century style.

When I look at them now, I feel the resonance of their magic then. Like the animals around a music stand under the verses about the sounds they make ( Bow-wow," says the dog; "Mew, Mew," says the cat; "Grunt, grunt," goes the hog; And "Squeak!" goes the rat.) Or the cow flying over the moon accompanying "Hey diddle diddle," the subject as well--as my mother once pointed out to me--of our cookie jar.

 After fifty pages of common nursery rhymes, there are successive sections of short rhymes from Scotland, Wales and Ireland; Norse, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, South American, Mexican, Polish, Swedish, Chinese and East Indian nursery rhymes, and one Japanese lullaby, before national and regional rhymes from America, including American Indian Songs.

Then another set of short sections of German, French, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Canadian, Russian, and Hungarian rhymes, and a Roumanian lullaby. Rhymes from Finland, Africa; rhymes from Shakespeare, verse from Keats, Robert Burns, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert Lewis Stevenson.

 Some of the verses get longer before the book turns to prose, and explores childhood experience in a neighborhood, on a farm, in a big city and so on, sometimes in stories similar to those found in an early grade reader, sometimes adapted from authors like Hans Christian Andersen. Ending up with tales from Greece, Rome and the Bible. All in this first volume.

 This resolute international inclusiveness, the combination of folk stories, myths and work of classic authors, set one pattern for further volumes. Olive Beaupre Miller would change the mix over the years, but this edition seems to preserve some authentic cultural fragments, perhaps otherwise lost, with no apology for how puzzling many selections were and are.

Volume 2 is appropriately named Story Time because it introduces stories rather than anecdotes and descriptive narratives, including fables (Aesop and otherwise), folk tales from many cultures (one retold by Tolstoy), Bible stories ("Noah's Ark") and classic tales (Peter Rabbit, the Nutcracker) interspersed with verses, including two by William Blake, one ("Owl and the Pussycat") by Edward Lear, and one by the Indian poet Tagore.

 Some stories have morals and messages, but they aren't all "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Engine That Could" (which are included.) The one that stayed with me is "The Gingerbread Man" (who in the story is called the Gingerbread Boy.) The Gingerbread Boy comes to life, leaps out of the oven and over 8 madcap pages inset with illustrations, he laughs and outruns everybody. Until the last page when he reaches the river, still being pursued, and accepts the fox's offer to carry him across on his back. As the water gets deeper the fox counsels him to jump up on his shoulder and then his nose, until the fox eats him.

Not exactly a strive and succeed sort of story, but the impact of it hit me with the final illustration. Most of the figures had been cartoonish, except the fox in the final one, which is rendered with startling realism. I'm surprised now to see how small this illustration is, down at the bottom of the page, because it made a big impression on me, when my mother read me the story.

 The illustration in this book I most loved however was of the Sandman holding his wondrous umbrella over a sleeping child. The umbrella reminded me of a similarly shaped and decorated lampshade on a table lamp at my grandparents. (I believe my sister Kathy has it now.)

Volume 3, Up One Pair of Stairs was transitional--I remember reading parts of it myself. I learned to recognize words on my own, but didn't really read until taught to do so in first grade, where I was in the Rosebuds reading group, the most advanced one. We started with the classic Dick and Jane readers, though possibly a Catholic edition.

This volume of My Book House has more and longer prose stories, and the illustrations have changed. In the first two volumes the colors were bright and varied, with variations of reds. Though I believe they all were done with a four-color process (illustrations using similar colors appeared together), the palate mostly became restricted in this and subsequent volumes to shades of blue and orange as well as black and white, and more like art deco. They were less prominent usually, deferring to the text, but not always.

Both my sister Kathy and I especially remember the final selection, "Water Babies," with verses based on the story by Charles Kingsley. A kind of fairy tale that I can now see is touching upon issues of innocence, socialization and nascent sexuality, its illustrations probably seemed daring to us, as they modestly portray the nudity implied in the text.

By volume 3, the books in my set are also in better shape, showing less handling than the first two. Now I seem them as treasuries, but at the time they competed with schoolbooks and later with comics and library books. But I did read selections in all of the volumes, often in bed and especially when restricted to bed by my many childhood illnesses (mumps, chicken pox, measles twice as well as colds, flus, etc.)

In volume 4 (Through the Gate) I'm sure I read about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed and the Fisherman and His Wife, a cautionary tale about greed.

Volume 5 (Over the Hills) wove in more history, with several pieces about Abraham Lincoln (and the Gettysburg Address verbatim), along with Jack and the Beanstalk, a poem by Emerson, and William Dean Howell's "The Pony Engine and the Pacific Express" (I especially loved stories about trains, like those I could see a few blocks from my grandmother's house.)

Volume 6 (Through Fairy Halls) emphasizes magical worlds, though hewing close to impressive classical sources, such as libretto for operas, a tone poem by Debussy, Shakespeare (prose telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Dickens, and stories about Leonardo da Vinci and composer Felix Mendelssohn. The versions of stories we would know in more popularized form like Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty are closer to original sources. Again, a mix of international tales, including Alaskan, Hawaiian, Northwest and Winnebago Native tales, and poems by Basho and Eugene Field.

 Now when I browse subsequent volumes I see poems, excerpts and rewritten tales from authors and works I've since read. If I read these as a child, their influence was subconscious, but then much of education is. There are bookmarks left in them (one indicating 1962) by one or another of us.

The one volume I remember best is the eighth: Flying Sails. At some age--perhaps 11 or so--I became passionately interested in tales of ships and the sea, and voyages. And of all the stories in this volume, the one I recall definitely reading first there is "Gulliver's Travels to Lilliput."

 Comparison to Jonathan Swift's text shows this to be only lightly edited and condensed, so Swift's voice is preserved as well as the now classic story. Again I remember reading it here because I recall the illustrations. But these illustrations are not so numerous, and the story lasts for some forty pages. The point being that while I was transported by the wonder of the story, I was given the opportunity to absorb its literary merits as well.

Volume 12 (Halls of Fame) is devoted largely to biographical sketches of authors, including authors of famous fairy tales with suggestions of their hidden historical references. It notably includes a long, illustrated retelling of Goethe's Faust. This final volume ends with an index to the entire set, plus a child development index that sends the parent or reader to appropriate pages for views on bravery, courtesy, imagination, shyness etc.

These books existed in my life within a context that prominently included movies (especially Disney), radio (early on) and television, as well as phonograph records. (I still have my battered 78 version of Tubby the Tuba.) But the point is that books were represented, and not just picture books or school books (which barely registered as books.) My Book House provided living examples of what books are, and the template for my further and continuing explorations of these nurturing, magical objects.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Don DeLillo and Zero K

I've been reading Don DeLillo's novels with admiration since the early 1970s, shortly after he began publishing them.  I caught up with his second novel End Zone in paperback, and after finding his debut novel (Americana) with the indelible first line ("It was the end of another dull and lurid year") I then reviewed his third, Great Jones Street.  I was a rare fan of his next and probably least known novel (largely regarded as a noble failure at the time),  Ratner's Star, and was pleased to see it's his personal favorite.  It's the one I've re-read several times over the years.

I pretty much kept up (or caught up) with his work for the next three decades (I remember reading The Names in Cancun, and I even managed to see a production of his play The Day Room) but lost the thread after Cosmopolis in 2003, which I didn't much like. (Though I did read it at one sitting in a bookstore cafe.)  So it was with a little gap behind it that I recently read his latest, Zero K.  It's nothing short of masterful.  So it got me looking at DeLillo again.

I saw a recent interview and was surprised by recent photos.  When we were both younger we looked completely different from each other.  But now the resemblance (nose, mouth especially) is pretty striking.  Apart from old white guys tending to look alike, there's also the Italian element.  His parents came from the Molise region, next door to the Abruzzi where my mother and her parents were born.  For awhile in middle age I thought I was moving towards favoring my father's side, but by now it's my mother's, or grandfather's to be more specific.

DeLillo grew up in the Bronx, with eleven people in a small house.  He's said he had no problem with this and had a happy childhood.  But once he was on his own he lived alone in a small and sparse apartment.  Many of his protagonists also live in limited spaces, carefully calibrating their environments.

Those constricted environments reach a kind of apotheosis in the facility where much of Zero K takes place--a fortress building isolated from the world, designed as a kind of art project (International Style blankness with postmodern quirks) to house cryogenically preserved bodies and brains of very wealthy people, awaiting a future that will provide them new life.  Many of these belonged to people on the verge of death from incurable illnesses (like the protagonist's stepmother) but some undergo the process while still healthy.  Their bodies go to an area called Zero K.

When the novel is situated in this brilliantly imagined facility I was mesmerized as I haven't been by a novel in some time.  It sags when it leaves it, but these sections are necessary to the novel, and the contrast is perhaps part of the point.

After reading it I felt compelled to go back to that first DeLillo I read, End Zone, about some unusual football players at a remote Texas college.  Maybe it was coincidence or maybe a vague memory (since I read it several times--for awhile I was working with a producer who wanted to option it for a film, and I was to get first crack at the screenplay. Rereading it all these years later, passages were very familiar) but its protagonist, Gary Harkness, seems to me very similar to Jeffrey Lockhart, the voice of Zero K.

Both are first person novels, both guys are self-confined, intent on words and their definitions, and obsessed with the vocabulary and imagery of violent death (Harkness the nuclear war scenarios of the 50s-70s, Lockhart the terrorism, refugees and natural disasters of this decade.)  They have similar names and even do similar physical exercises.  They could be the same man, but written differently.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reading, Writing and Obama

“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

President Barack Obama in a wonderful story about Obama as reader and writer by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.  Yet another reason we're really really going to miss President Obama.

In addition to the article, there's the verbatim interview, with even more neat reading and writing stuff.