Friday, October 12, 2007

A love letter to one of the libraries of my childhood

Reading this week about Doris Lessing winning the Nobel Prize for Literature prompted me to go to the library and check out a book of hers that has a scene in it that has stayed with me for a long time, and that struck me with more force when I first read it as a teenager than almost anything else I can think of.

It's from The Summer Before the Dark, which I think is perhaps her best novel (I say this not having read more than four or five of them, and none since I was a teenager--but it really is an exceptional book--Lessing never had the status of favorite with me--but she is such a suitable choice for the Nobel, I was very glad to hear of it). It falls late in the book, after a series of reflections on the ways men look at women, in public and in private, and the strange looming importance of physical appearance and the differences it makes.

No more explanation than that is needed, really, and I should just jump straight into the passage:
Down the street a corner block was being lifted to the sky in tall flats. The bottom part of this building was complete: it fitted exactly into its allotted area, with no space left over. For five or so floors it was as it would go on, save that the windows had scrawls of chalk on them. Then began disorder: it was as if the building at that point had been broken off. High in the air men walked on planks, dangled buckets, wielded trowels, manipulated cranes. Men were working, too, at ground level, preparing what was to be hoisted aloft. Kate realised that she was standing still, staring; had been for some minutes. The men took no notice of her.

The fact that they didn't suddenly made her angry. She walked away out of sight, and there, took off her jacket--Maureen's--showing her fitting dark dress. She tied her hair dramatically with a scarf. Then she strolled back in front of the workmen, hips conscious of themselves. A storm of whistles, calls, invitations. Out of sight the other way, she made her small transformation and walked back again: the men glanced at her, did not see her. She was trembling with rage: it was a rage, it seemed to her, that she had been suppressing for a lifetime. And it was a front for worse, a misery that she did not want to answer, for it was saying again and again: This is what you have been doing for years and years and years.

She made the transit again, as a sex object, and saw that a girl dressed like a Dutch doll stood on a corner opposite, watching. Full yellow skirts, a tight red jacket, hair in yellow curls, a bright pink patch on either cheek, wide blue eyes.

Kate arrived beside Maureen and said, "And that's what it is all worth."
(There are versions of this scene elsewhere in her novels--I think that some similar reflections can be found in If the Old Could, though I don't have a copy here to check.)

There are obvious reasons why Lessing's novels would resonate with an eager and serious teenage reader, not least because it is at age twelve or thirteen (if you are female) that the true horror bursts in on you of the fact that for some years to come you are not going to be able to walk down the street without attracting the most unwanted and humiliating forms of attention. (Joyce Carol Oates is good on this also, and is more interested than Lessing in the psychology of the teenage girl as opposed to the aging woman--I was reading a lot of Oates in those days also...)

I was a more serious reader as a teenager, in many ways, than I will ever be again. That's not to say I don't still have phases of extreme and intensive reading of various kinds: I certainly do, it's one of my favorite things both about work and about life. But starting at about age twelve or thirteen I had what I can only describe as a vocation for novel-reading.

(I had always of course been an obsessive novel reader, from earliest childhood, really I cannot remember not knowing how to read, and at ten or eleven I was certainly already spending almost all of my babysitting money on not particularly edifying volumes published by Del Rey and other similar mass-market publishers--Anne McCaffrey! Piers Anthony!--and languishing over the complete works of Dick Francis. The name Waldenbooks still makes me nostalgic, and B. Dalton--do you remember when you had to go to the mall and to those stores in order to buy books?!?)

(And here is a sort of mini-essay about one teacher who opened up a whole world of reading for me in third grade.)

But around when I was twelve the world of serious fiction kind of opened up to me in a way that was less magical than my childhood reading experiences but more ethically compelling. How else do you learn about the world and about language?!? Experience is so frustratingly limited when one is a Young Person, it is one of the very annoying things about being a child, so novel-reading is particularly indispensable at this stage of life, and if you are very certain that you want to write a lot of novels yourself when you grow up then there is an added fillip of interest.

I went to a good school, but of course school is quite hopeless when it comes to these things, they just do not imagine that you are really serious about what you want to do reading-wise! And this is where the library comes in.

Maybe the single strongest influence on my teenage-fiction reading was the Anthony Burgess volume titled 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1945, which I often have cause to mention and which I clung to as my bible, I diligently read everything he recommended although in retrospect there are some distinctly peculiar aspects to his choices!

But another influence was the Friends Free Library, attached to the school I attended but in many respects independent of it, and a sort of home to me and a strong educational influence also in its own right. That's where I found the Lessing novel I quoted above.

(Strict accuracy compels me to note here that I was also an avid user of the public library--in fact I remember also being very struck by Lessing's novel The Good Terrorist, which I see was first published in 1985--I had it from the new books shelf of the public library, I would have been fourteen or so and this was the sort of thing I read voraciously...)

But yes, the Friends Free Library--there was a small but high-quality adult fiction section on the balcony upstairs, and when I had pretty much read everything in the children's room about a million times I moved on up there and started to systematically work through it, and it was extremely beneficial for my education.

I worked at the library for several summers, it was a godsend as I was not a babysitting enthusiast and it's hard to find a job otherwise when you're that age and with not-good public transportation! Parts of the job I wasn't crazy about--often there wasn't quite enough work to do, so that the hours passed rather slowly, and a not-favorite task was showing the films to the little kids who came for the weekly session of movie-watching. Not bad in itself, but very hot and crowded (it was a ceiling-fan rather than air-conditioning-type situation) and also what you will remember if you ever used one yourself, those old projectors were absolutely awful--constantly grinding to a halt, producing shouts of outrage from the masses of children & leading on my part to frantic sprocket-realigning and attempts to get the wretched animated film back on track...

One task, though, that I was given in some especially quiet month, was like a ridiculous dream come true. I was supposed to put a bookplate in each of the books in the adult fiction collection--but really there was no time pressure, there was not enough work to do, nobody was really paying attention and it would not do to finish too quickly--and I am a fast reader, so I kind of just read the beginning of every single book so that I would know what to come back and read properly later on!

(The other thing I did regularly at that library was serve as a member of the committee that read all the new books for the children's collection before they went onto the shelves. Everyone else on the committee, pretty much, was a grandmother who liked little children's picture books, so I got all the young-adult fiction, and this is actually why I've read a lot of stuff published in the 80s that otherwise I would have been too old to have found once I was no longer so regularly haunting the children's room--Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy, Cynthia Voigt...)My childhood did not happen perhaps as long ago as this photograph implies--I could not find a suitable one from the 1970s or 1980s, and frankly this is more like what I remember than the bright modern shot you see here! There was a visual dreariness or drabness that actually highlighted the magical aspect of what was on the inside of all of those dull-looking books--I remember often thinking at the time of what a delightful and well-kept secret it was that unprepossessing musty volumes should be so very interesting on the inside. To this day I find conversations about book-jackets mildly perplexing, I am so much a library-user that though I do now and again buy a book on impulse because of its cover, my relationship with books is almost wholly unmediated by anything actually appealing about the artifact of the book itself! For instance what you may not know if you are not a university library user is that none of those books have their jackets, it's all library bindings--most democratic!

It having dawned on me just now that this is one of those topics on which I could dwell for an impossibly long time, I will break off now without offering any thoughts in conclusion, except to say that I am now a more frivolous reader in many respects. Once I got to college, I finally had the means to figure out the serious intellectually stimulating stuff that I wanted to read, and now my serious reading centers fairly heavily on the eighteenth century, and that's fine. I do not feel an internal pressure to keep up with major works of fiction that often to me now have too much the flavor of worthiness. But I am grateful to my teenage self for putting in those hours with books like Gravity's Rainbow and Giles Goat-Boy so that my present-day self can be lazy and read chiefly for pleasure! (NB that was pleasure when I was fifteen, but would not be so much now!)


  1. Did you have Weisenburger at hand? I first read GR at eighteen, I think, and I wouldn't have gotten far without it.

  2. No, this was several years before that book existed! But also really I didn't have access to that stuff, either in terms of finding out about it or getting hold of a copy. However, I do believe that novels can be to a great extent used as reading guides to other novels--so that reading a ton of Anthony Burgess, both his essays and his novels (which are frequently sort of sub-Joycean), well primed me to read a lot of rather more difficult modernist and postmodernist fiction... I was just a good grapper, is the fact of the matter--I remember having a huge argument my sr year of high school while visiting Telluride House at Cornell, an argumentative place, about whether I would be qualified to read Ulysses by myself and how I would approach it, and I think in the end I totally argued the other person down, at least in my memory of it!

  3. We're reissuing GOOD TERRORIST here, now.

    Here is an excellent profile of Lessing by JCO that I think will especially interest you, Jenny.


  4. With Pynchon, I'm not sure if the difficulty is in technique but in context. Differential equations, behaviorism, the complicated history of IG Farben, the Hereros, V2 engineering, Rilke, cabala--it's a lot to expect from a fifteen year old, even a particularly precocious one.

  5. Oh, yes, I take your point--but fortunately my father is an engineer, and so the knowledge I picked up by osmosis was all scientific/engineerish--partly, I'm sure, why that novel appealed to me so much... (Rilke and cabala, not so much!)

  6. I found a copy of Burgess's 99 Novels book at the Strand a few weeks ago and bought it because you've recommended it so many times. My cousin worked at B. Dalton when I was growing up, and I was sure that he had the best job ever.