Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Essayistic

Just finished the collection titled Rereadings : Seventeen writers revisit books they love, edited by Anne Fadiman. It's a great book, though it's not a lot of book for the money: I wouldn't have bought it but for that intangible mix of things that makes you pick up a book in a shop and not want to put it down again, which in this case included the facts that it's beautifully designed in a similar vein to Fadiman's excellent Ex Libris (Fadiman is an absolutely brilliant writer, her first book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is pretty much perfect) and I'm feeling naked of books in my Cambridge sublet and most particularly there's an essay in it on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, a story that I'm completely obsessed with (it provides the title and the framework for the as-yet-unwritten sequel to Dynamite No. 1).

Highlights:

Diana Kappel Smith on Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers ("Somewhere in its second year, the book's dust jacket, with all its pretty colors, began to disintegrate. I tore it up and used the bits to mark sites of future searches and past victories. When I ran out of dust jacket, I used whatever came handy--sticks, matchbook covers, strips torn from a package of peanut M&M's. This became part of the field guide's natural habiliments, like the topknot of a distressed parrot");

Luc Sante on Enid Starkie's New Directions biography of Rimbaud ("I read the book slowly, in part because it was dense and in part because I wanted to be seen reading it. I wore the book as much as I read it, 'absentmindedly' holding it in one hand on the street even when I was carrying a satchel of books in the other, 'casually' parking it atop my notebook next to my coffee cup wherever I sat. I proudly displayed it on the subway, at Nedick's and Chock full o' Nuts and the Automat, in garment-district cafeterias, at the juice stand in the passage from the IRT to the shuttle at Grand Central, in the bar car of the 5:30 express home (drinkless but trying to outsmoke everybody), maybe once or twice at some dump on St. Mark's Place that advertised Acapulco Gold ice cream");

Pico Iyer on D. H. Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy ("Growing up within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school, my friends and I took as our tokens of accomplishment the somewhat recherch'e gray volumes known as PEnguin Modern Classics. When I was in college, in the mid-1970s, Picador books would become the rage (Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Richard Brautigan--outlaw American energy packaged as real literature!); and, a decade later, in the sleek Manhattan of the 1980s, the Vintage Contemporaries series (born, it seemed, out of Bright Lights, Big City) would have a special cachet as some of us hobbled off to Area at 3:00 a.m. But in 1972, in rural, changeless England, where our allowances were scarcely large enough to stretch to three packages of McVitie's digestives every six months, and where we had to attend chapel twice a day, Latin hymns on Sunday nights, and class at 7:30 a.m.--all in white tie and tails--we could think of no better way to distinguish ourselves than through amassing these formidable gray paperbacks on our shelves");

and David Michaelis on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fadiman's introduction also appealingly describes the experience of reading C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy aloud to her son. The other essays are all strong too, there aren't any clunkers.

But my two favorites are clear, they're the two that make me passionately want to read the books talked about and the essay-writers' own books. The first is Michael Upchurch on Christina Stead's House of All Nations, a book I must clearly get and read at once since it sounds so exactly like something I would love. Here's Upchurch late in the essay:

One benefit of learning your own limits as a writer is reaching the point where, in reading a book, you recognize straight off that you can't make use of it--so you simply sit back and savor an author who, like an acrobat or a silversmith or a high-C soprano, does things you will never, with all the training and practice in the world, be able to do.

And the other is the essay that jumped out at me straight off, Barbara Sjoholm on "The Snow Queen." It's a great essay about an amazing tale, and it's also exactly what I'm obsessed with--she even visits the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland that is the first place I am going to go if I ever have a couple thousand dollars to blow on something wholly frivolous. (Well, I expect it would be tax-deductible because of the novel. Follow this link for pictures.) I must get Sjoholm's books: I particularly want to read her memoir Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood, published under the name Barbara Wilson.

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