Remember when “the experts” said that reading and intellectual pursuits gave women hysteria?* Or that fairy tales and those “dreadful” fantasy stories led to a weakened mind, incapable of coping with reality and the day to day minutiae of life?
Thankfully, I don’t. Not those exact things at least; although, once long ago in a health class, I stumbled across similar thoughts in a textbook that claimed obsessive readers were blocking out their problems and refusing to cope with them and that said act led to depression and social isolation.
What a load of hogwash! That was my first thought, because I was very fond of my 2-4 book a day habit. Besides, at this point (middle-school) I was still trying to read through my school’s library before I finished high school, and that’s a lot of books, which equals, as you can probably guess, a semi-truck or four of reading material. Of course it wasn’t a very realistic goal, but I was rabid about it at the time despite the heckling of my peerage, at least until I ran across Piers Anthony**. After slogging through the first two of his books, and looking despondently at the two shelves full of them to come next, I decided certain revisions to the goal were in order. At least Ad, as in Douglas Adams, came before An. That made the entire project worthwhile. I think there were a few more of Joan Aiken’s books on those shelves, too, but I’d already had the joy of discovering her.
Not unlike the present day, however, at the time I was besieged with unpleasant obsessions, and desperate for any small clue as to how to best avert these disturbing thoughts and feelings. Eventually I gave, I’m ashamed to say, a trial effort to this silly advice. After all, I thought, maybe I did read too much. Surely I could afford to cut down to a book, or only half a book, per day. Or even less…
A world without words is a shallow comfort, and without a well spun tale, I, at least, find myself without armor, as I have learned to my detriment. I am seeking solace in books once again, even if I no longer have the same number of hours to expend in the effort. My one vice (besides smoking), these last few years, has been the indulgence of purchasing coffee on my weekend at a nearby bookstore, and unsurprisingly, perhaps, while waiting for my coffee to be brewed, I engaged in compulsive fits of spendthrift upon seeing all the books I would read “someday”. I can assuredly say that my library now numbers more books that I have not read than books I have, and it has occurred to me, now that I am in need of diversion, that I might as well make “someday” today.
Even though every book I’ve read in the last month ended with some note of sadness, they have buoyed me up, granting me a pleasant diversion from the normal tone and subject-matter of my thoughts. Still, I found it a bit odd that every book I read ended with some melancholy, not only because that is the very thing I am trying to get away from, but because I often hear complaints that books seem to end “happily ever after” along with the belief that it would be a great novelty if someone actually wrote something with an unsatisfactory conclusion once in a while. The most important thing, however, is that the books have been stimulating. I wish I had written down some of the better quotes for everyone else when I had the chance; now I’d have to reread each book in entirety to catch them again.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith happened to be the first book on the shelves that I hadn’t yet read. I was given this book as a parting gift ten years ago by someone who said they’d enjoyed it immensely and thought I’d find it engrossing, too. In the years following, while I tirelessly re-read every Patricia McKillip novel I own and many other favorites, someone actually took it upon themselves to make a movie, which is reasonably faithful even if it is, by necessity, unfortunately divested of the author’s charming prose and some of her best insights on writing, procrastinating writing, and writer’s block. I’d probably be most likely to recommend this book to young women who like writing and are suffering from the pangs of unrequited first love, but the eccentricities of the characters, quick wit, and a daughter who locks her father in the crumbling ruins of a tower dungeon when his inability to write destroys the family’s chances and fortune could broaden a potential audience’s scope immensely. The protagonist holds Jane Austen in high regard, and parallels could be easily drawn. I must confess, however, that despite all of the book’s charms, my favorite part was how it smelled.***
Next up was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) and why I have never read it before, I can scarcely begin to guess. I meant to, I really**** did, but other books kept calling to me. One of the best reasons for this trilogy’s success, besides it’s fantastic flights of fancy (armored polar bears, charming animal sidekicks linked to one’s soul and personality, warring angels, a journey to the world of the dead, and a knife that cuts portals into parallel worlds), is the way philosophy about our origins, consciousness, and beliefs (and the age old skirmish between science and religion) twines throughout the books and changes with culture and experience. I prefer to think of the book as a fantasy story, with an interesting philosophical take, but some religious persons have denounced it as heretical (which perhaps Philip Pullman might have meant; he is, supposedly, an avowed atheist). Sometimes, I’ll allow, the dialogue got a bit clunky, but the orchestration of the plot, and creative devices make the books well worth the effort despite any small shortcomings.
The last two books I read were classics. For many of you, they probably need no introduction or synopsis, for The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott are commonly available and cited fare. The Scarlet Letter, of course, concerns a young woman forced to bear an A on her bosom after being charged with adultery when she gives birth to a child that cannot be her husband’s and the different routes through which she, her lover, and spouse find penance and ultimately resolution. Ivanhoe is the tale of two parted lovers who reunite by the virtue of chivalrous duels and other deeds of valor in restless old England, where Normans and Saxons are still at violent odds, the Jewish are viciously persecuted and loathed, and the Templars are at their full might. Neither book is historically accurate, and they both borrow from the tales, mythos, and superstitions of the time, for Ivanhoe doesn’t hesitate to craft firm characters of Robin Hood and King Richard, and The Scarlet Letter makes much of “the black man” placing his mark on witches as they make nightly vigils into the forest depths. I’ve always been charmed by classical writing, although it seems a dying form; it seems that few authors, nowadays, are given the liberty to wax poetically for pages on end, no matter how pretty their prose or form. Perhaps this is desirable; few people I know seem willing nowadays to slog through a book that does not get to the quick of the action or a point quickly, no matter how worthwhile the final effort. If you’ve made it this far, you can probably tell that I’m not adverse to the long-winded approach. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those rare modern instances I’ve chanced upon where a book reminiscent of classical prose and it’s cousin verbosity managed to not only get published, but thrive. Perhaps there is some hope left despite the current obsession with instant gratification.
Thus concludes my recent reading list, although I think my adventures in book-land, rather than being a testament to old theories, have strengthened my sanity and rendered me more fit for worthwhile pursuits rather than weakening my “fragile” constitution. Depressed? Listless? Fatigued? Or maybe you are feeling as if you’ll start screaming and having fits like a mad-person? Perhaps you ought to try reading more; there’s nothing quite like a book for drowning out worldly troubles and stimulating new thoughts and discussions. A person could even get lucky and find the answers they were looking for all along. I promise the practice won’t make you hysterical, even if some books may make you laugh hysterically.*****
*Did you know? The term hysteria comes from the Greek hystera meaning “womb”. The Greeks apparently believed that hysteria was an illness only females came down with due to a mysterious dry-up of those “humours” and a wandering uterus. Treatment involved fumigating the vagina to lure the uterus back to its rightful place, sex, and making sure that woman had another baby, already. You know, until she eventually died in childbirth or had so much to do she couldn’t make any more trouble. Later treatments involved…well, I’ll let you look that up for yourself if you’re really interested, but don’t say I didn’t warn you that the topic isn’t necessarily rated PG.
**Apologies if there are any fans of Piers Anthony out there, and apologies to the author himself. It’s a personal thing, as in I just find it a little interesting that so many of his books seem to involve 40+ old men in sexual relationships with girls (or women in the bodies of girls) between the ages of 12 and 15, prostitution, and what I can only define as rape scenes that seemed well, bordering more on erotic fantasy or trite simplifications than true consequences for the people involved. It was a small sample, admittedly, and my memory could be wrong, but as a fourteen year old girl, I found it all a bit repugnant. Also, author afterwards informing me that the book I just read was written in less than a month don’t tend to increase my favor. I’m not asking for years or decades necessarily, but a little more care and attention wouldn’t have gone amiss. If I’d actually found something I liked about the book in question, I might have been impressed by this fact, but instead it only added to my collective distaste.
***Surely I cannot be the only person who ventures into libraries on occasion simply for the smell. There is something about the paper and bindings of old books, slightly perfumed, somewhat musty, that nearly causes me to forget the original allure of their contents. I’m sure I look a bit odd wandering about and picking up random books simply so I can inhale them, but the pleasures are worth the confused looks from strangers. Dear scent-makers of the world, while I’m normally a fragrance free person as of late (Celiac disease can make one frightfully sensitive to added scents and colors over time), I would be overjoyed if someone would bottle this smell.
****In long overdue accolades to Anne of Green Gables, I’m liberally employing italics today. I received the first of the series from my 4th grade teacher, and was baffled by the frequent shrieks and howls of merriment from my sister and mother when they read it. I took the novels seriously at that tender age; what could possibly be hilarious about Anne’s language, circumstances, or the occasional tragedy of her situation? Years later, having finally “got it” Mr. Wonderful was forced to listen to me read the entire series out loud to him so that he could “get” me (he also found the series amusing). At ten, I was very much an Anne-type personality; thankfully, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, too.
*****I mentioned Douglas Adams, right? If it’s laughter you’re after, give The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the other novels of the series a try.