Friday, August 8, 2014

On Books

I am book-lender. I love books. The way they reach in your soul, and move around your heart. And I love people. Generally speaking, I am a good friend. I am genuinely interested in the trials and triumphs of the people around me. When loved-ones move, I try to keep in touch. When people are struggling, I want (and try) to lift them up. I never quite took up letter-writing, but I think if I didn't have such an easily accessible cell-phone, that would be my medium.
And since books bring me inexpressible comfort and joy- I want to share them with everyone. (I have an extremely difficult time buying gifts for non-book readers, since the only gifts I know how to give well are books.)
When people come in to my home, and casually say about book on my shelf, "I've been wanting to read that," I am quick to pull it down and press it to them. If someone mentions that they don't like reading, I find my brain tumbling through book-covers, searching for the one's that I know they'll fall for. And when I read books that make me think of certain people, I can barely wait to finish the last page so I can drop it off on someone's step. I want my friends to read what I love.
And sometimes they give books back, and I am jubilant to hear that they loved it like I knew they would. I want to burst into tears when they describe their love for the characters or the way their heart swelled at their triumphs.
But more often, I don't get books back. And I forget who had them.
And I look at my shelves and think, "Wait. I thought I owned a copy of..."
I bet I lose over half a dozen books a year, by forcing people to borrow them. Oh well. I guess that's my own fault.

A couple days ago I told a friend that I didn't like "art for art's sake," and since then I've been dwelling on that statement and feeling like I need to defend it.
Because I love art, but I like it best with a purpose. Art that defends, art that draws the eye to a problem and calls for change. Art that beautifies, that reminds us that there is good in the world and in people. Art that praises and uplifts, Art that is a song to our creator. Art that relieves, that is an outlet and respite from the every day. Art that comforts, that warms the heart with reminders that things aren't so bleak as they may seem.
When I told my friend that I didn't like art for art's sake, I was referring to a book that I didn't like. It is kind of a miserable book, filled with disaffection, unhappiness, drugs, etc. And frankly, I don't want to read that crap. If there is an uplifting ending, a call to arms, perhaps, a character who changes for the better- encouraging the reader to believe that they too can change and that the world isn't so bad after all... then maybe I'm interested.
But if not, why read that book? I don't care that if it shines a mirror on the world, I don't care if it's thrilling.
I've noticed that most of my own creative outlets are very useful. I don't make art for it's own sake. I make quilts, food, and knitted hats. Things that are beautiful, creative, require some small level of skill- and which warm, comfort, and sustain the people I love. Even my photography is like that. I don't care so much for the beauty of the photos as for their use. I want them to document my life and my children.
Looking at other mediums of art, I think I follow suit with this theme. (Although, to clarify, I do think that being beautiful or making you feel are both valid purposes of art.)
I didn't reason this out for very long, though - so I'm sure that someone will immediately and easily poke holes in this theory of mine.

Recently, we had friends over for dinner - someone I hadn't seen in years, since we took a writing class together in college. At one point she asked me, "So, are you writing at all these days [and my stomach dropped], or do you also cringe when people inevitably ask you that question?"
Um. Yes. That one. The cringing and not writing one.
Aaaaauuurrrrrrrggggghhhhh. Bleccch. I should write. I love to write.  I'm even quite good at writing!
An agent at a writing conference once read part of my novel and said, "I'm interested in representing this, send me the whole thing by the end of the summer."
That was three summers ago. Wanna know what happened? A big, fat nothing. I didn't ever email him and say, "Sorry I'm the worst, but I haven't worked on this book in years and won't for several more."
But I have three little people underfoot, so when I have time for a little relaxation and art-therapy- it doesn't get to be sitting in the non-distracting silence at my computer. It gets to be at the sewing machine with two people on my lap and maybe one person asleep or building a lego tower.  They are talking or fighting or making noises like farts, and I don't have to think - I just sew it (relatively) straight lines, and then look! I made something pretty.
But writing? Ain't nobody got time for that.

I am a book rereader. You know this. Sometimes, people like my husband will say "Why are you rereading this book again? You already know what happens!"
And I always think, "Many of my friends live in books."
I don't reread the Lord of the Rings because I can't remember if Frodo ever makes it to the cracks of Mount Doom or not. I read it because it is beautiful. I read it because the joy and grief, the love and friendship, the death and always-enduring life make my heart ache in the best way. I reread for the steady wisdom of Aragorn, the unfailing courage of the hobbits, and the reminder that hard things are not only possible, they're worth it.
I need those reminders, and I love the characters who give them to me. And didn't I mention before that I am a good friend? I am. And once I love someone (even someone fictional), I have a hard time forgetting about them. I want to keep in touch. And if they can't visit me, I guess I have to visit them in their stories.

Children's books are better than books for adults.
You already know that I feel this way, I'm sure. There are many reasons for that, in my opinion. But here are some of the reasons I've been thinking of lately.
1. Children are braver than adults. 
I do not mean to say that children perform more daring feats or face more impressive dangers (although they often do, since children's books also tend to be more fantastical). I guess I mean that they have greater moral courage. They tend to have integrity. Protagonists in children's book fight for what they believe is right, almost always- no matter what. They don't worry about how things will look, how action might affect them negatively, or how difficult things will be. They do what is right and what is hard without a lot of hemming, hawing, and lip-chewing.

2. Children's books can have perfect characters. 
In books for adults there are very, very rarely perfect characters, characters who are brave, kind, and good merely because they want to be. In books for adults, characters who are brave are compensating for something, if they are kind it is out of guilt, and if they are good they are deluded. Everyone has ulterior motives, everyone has an ugly past, and characters are complex and many-faceted. Of course, that is more realistic. In life, people are not merely cardboard cutouts of good people and bad people, but I think it's important for us to remember that some people are good, many people, in fact. There are adults who are always kind to children (and not because they want to lure them into a back room.)
In children's books, the children are flawed, yes. And most of the adults are flawed.
But Harry needed to know that there were mothers like Mrs. Weasley in the world. Anne Shirley needed Mathew Cuthbert. Little Laura Ingalls needed her Pa, and Jo! Jo March needed Marmee.
And we need them, too. To remind us that we can be good, kind, and brave. We can still "grow up" and be better.

3. Children have manageable flaws. 
I read children's books, and the flaws and weakness that kids have are the flaws and weaknesses that I have. They are selfish and unkind, they are lazy or frightened, they are unsure, easily hurt, or lonely. Perhaps they are overly dramatic or fight with their sister. And their challenges make them better.
In books for adults? I mean, maybe I'm living a life of ease (I am. I know this.)
But I'm not addicted to drugs, I'm not struggling under mountains of debt, neither my husband nor I is unfaithful, and I have never been sexually assaulted.
So, even though I have problems like everyone else in the world, and even though I am pretty heavily flawed - I'd like to focus on those persistent little wickednesses I have (like being an accidental bully or speaking thoughtlessly), and apparently the people I have the most in common with are twelve year-olds. But if they can be better - so can I.

I keep trying to get my kids into specific books. At the library, I almost had them convinced that what they wanted to check-out were the non-fiction picture books about cowboys and the Wild West. Picture books that showed photos of saddles, teepees, and long-horn bulls with captions about each.
And then, they saw the posters up over the graphic novel section.
"Look, Mom! BATMAN!" "WOMAN WOMAN, MOM! There's a picture of Woman Woman!" (Wonder Woman, FYI).
They have never even seen a "superhero" show besides the Incredibles, but they know all their superheroes somehow anyway.
So we made our way over to the comics. We left with two comics each, Batman, Spider man, Wonder Woman and Scooby Doo, and not a single book about cowboys. (I was really hoping that going to the recent rodeo in SLC would have made them interested in lassoing bulls and riding bucking broncos.)
Part of me cringes and groans that my kids want to read comic books (and not even good comics, like Calvin and Hobbes!), but mostly I'm accepting it. My kids can be into whatever books they want, as long as they're into books. I love to see them reading, so if the books must be about fighting crime - so be it.

We went to Barnes and Nobel to play with the train set in the Children's Book section. I wandered about the aisles looking for books that I wanted, but shouldn't buy. Then I remembered that I'd been wanting a specific book, and when I'd ordered a copy online - I'd gotten the wrong version. I decided to ask for it, since I wasn't sure where it would be. It was collection of essays, but I didn't see a NonFiction section.
"I'm looking for a collection of essays by E.B. White," I said to a person at a desk, whose name tag said  something like Customer Service. "Would it be under Fiction / Literature, or would is there another section I can try?"
The woman looked slightly panicked at being asked a question.
"Is it... fiction or non-fiction?" she asked.
"Well, it's a collection of essays, so non-fiction. If it was fiction, I think they'd be considered short-stories, right?"
She didn't answer. Instead she went to her computer. She asked for the book title again.
"I think it's just, The Collected Essays of E.B. White," I said.
"We do have one copy," she said, and she took off weaving through aisles with me at her heels.

She pulled from the shelves a copy of The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk. There was a picture of an old man at a type writer on the cover. She handed the book to me.
"This is not the book I wanted," I said. "I wanted a collection of Essays. This is about writing."
"Well," said the woman, "this is the only book we have by her in the store."
She turned and walked away. And I think I stood rooted to the spot for several long moments.
I felt like Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail, when she's in Fox Books listening to incompetent sales people try to help readers.
I went back to my children in the kid's section. I passed several copies of The Trumpet of the Swan and Stewart Little. And a gigantic cardboard cutout of Wilbur and Fern watching a spider spell out words in her web.

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Lana said...

Section II. That is me all the way. My mom has been trying for years to be a "good painter". she paints for the sake of painting and is constantly furious and unhappy with her mediocre paintings of random people or bowls of fruit. I want to shake her. Why are you painting meaningless things? Don't you understand that if you were painting something you loved your painting would be good because your love would be on the canvas? She doesn't understand. She thinks she just needs to unlock some blockade and she will be a fabulous painter. No, you just need to paint something important.

MARCIE said...

You complain that you don't write, but you do write. Every day you write about your life and your family and by doing so you are practicing your art. You have a wonderful style. Someday your planets will align and you will write something remarkable. Look at your clever ending about You've Got Mail. I love it!

***Nina*** said...

You should read "the life list" by Lori Nelson Spielman. Most beautiful book ever!

Unknown said...

"And I always think, 'Many of my friends live in books.' ... And once I love someone (even someone fictional), I have a hard time forgetting about them. I want to keep in touch. And if they can't visit me, I guess I have to visit them in their stories." This. So many times this.

And E.B. White? Her? WHO IS THIS PERSON??

Katie said...

Let me just concur on the uselessness of most employees at Barnes and Noble. It's like they have never read a book in their lives and it is EXACTLY like the scene in You've Got Mail where the woman is looking for the "shoes" books.

Elizabeth said...

I found this post via a friend who liked it on Bloglovin' — such beautiful thoughts and words about books! I will have to look up E.B. White's essays, also having grown up reading his wonderful children's literature. Thank you for this! I love finding other readers whose love of books and reading reflects and informs my own.