Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Uniquely Portable Magic

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Stephen King

My friend Sheri invited me to hear Judy Blume speak down in PA where she lives with her husband and her sinfully adorable beagle, Olivia, who looks like a cross between my Minchy and Frances. It's not till June but I am so unspeakably excited.

Judy Blume was one of my favorite authors growing up and she holds a special, very dear place in my heart. The kids in her
books were so real- warts and all- and she wrote so honestly about them. It's easy to forget how revolutionary that was when she was first published.

Coming just before this was the news of Harper Lee publishing her second novel 50+ years after To Kill A Mockingbird. I must admit, I was worried that this was some cobbled-
together half-hearted sequel, a revisitation of characters who lived best in memory. I was quite pleased to learn that Go Set A Watchman, the new novel, is not such a thing at all. It's Lee's first version of To Kill A Mockingbird, written as an adult Scout returns home to Maycombe and Atticus. Her editor suggested she focus more on the past and on Scout as a child, and To Kill A Mockingbird was born. Go Set A Watchman was lost in a drawer somewhere until recently- Lee herself admits she thought the manuscript was lost forever. Doing some writing myself and seeing how my own story has changed and twisted and turned as I've gone along, I'm thinking this will be at least a fascinating look into how her story evolved. Like my friend Eric said, even if it's crap, it'll be better than most of what's out there now anyway.

I have a very special fondness for "Nelle." (Did you know she was named after a favorite aunt? Nelle, apparently, is for Ellen, but spelled backward.) I can't really think of Harper Lee as anyone but Nelle after seeing a wonderful documentary called "Hey Boo" celebrating the book's fiftieth anniversary. The documentary featured lots of interviews with Lee's sister Alice, who only refers to her as Nelle. (And has one of the most startling voices you'll ever hear.) Alice, bless her, was a
Alice on the left, Nelle Harper on the right
lawyer who still worked for the firm where their father had practiced until she was in her 100s. She also guarded her sister- and her sister's work- fiercely and some folks have been wondering if Alice's death last year is the reason we're seeing this new work.

I've always loved how independent Nelle is- how she's refused to fit in or be assimilated or be conventional. A friend of mine once criticized how reclusive she is- who says no to attention? Everybody wants attention, right? Why, she could be out making millions, getting guest spots on TV! I very much disagreed. I think Nelle is the example of how to do it right: give the world one absolutely perfect piece of art, then keep the rest of your life for yourself. I admire that way of thinking so much and I hope I get the chance to emulate it someday.

I also love the story of how Lee came to finally write what became To Kill A Mockingbird. She worked as a ticket agent for an airline in New York. For seven years, she wrote fiction whenever she could, mostly nights and weekends, but didn't publish anything. In 1956, she received the best Christmas gift ever. Her friends, Michael and Joy Brown, gave her a check for the amount of her salary for one year with a note that said, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." She made good on that opportunity. (Click the link above to read Lee's essay about the gift. It's wonderful.)

So it's a pretty awesome time for readers. Which makes me very happy. Reading is one of my most favorite things to do, and my oldest pasttime.  I learned to read when I was about two and a half. It wasn't taught; for me it was as natural as learning to walk. My mother says I just picked up the TV Guide one night and started reading the listings to her. When she and my dad told my dad's beloved grandmother, Mimi, she was
skeptical. They gave me one of my books and I read it out loud to her. She wasn't falling for it. Little kids memorize their favorite books and then recite them, pretending they're reading, she said. My dad shrugged and handed me a newspaper. She was a believer when I started reading headlines about Nixon to her.

I have never been able to imagine a world without reading. I found it mind-boggling that it was something others had to learn, and that some had great difficulty with. It came so quickly and automatically to me, that it never occurred to me that a process might be involved. One of the reasons I love Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird so much is that she shares that singular experience: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” I went to graduate school to study literacy primarily out of curiosity- I wanted to know how people learned how to read when it wasn't second-nature. (I wound up with masters' degrees in elementary education and reading education instead, but that's beside the point.) I still find the arguments over which methodology is best to teach reading quite pointless. Reading is such an individual thing- it seems fairly ridiculous to think there is only one prescribed way to acquire it.

I'm just about due for a library binge and I'm excited to think about the armfuls of books I'll toddle out
carrying. There is no better way to get through these dismal, gray, bitterly cold days than with a good thick book and a dog curled up on your lap. After all, like Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

1 comment:

  1. Great post :) I eat books with a big spoon myself....but never Judy Blume. Thrilling for you to meet her....