I read this post the other day, The Romance of Certain Old Books by D.G. Myers, and found myself wanting to underline phrases and sentences in his post, which, of course, I couldn’t.
He says, “I can’t be alone (can I?) in finding something romantic about the ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ books of the past.” (No, Dr. Myers, you’re not.)
And then he says, “Books could be time machines, but rarely are. They are sadly familiar to us, because they are canonical; that is, because we read them in the present, with the standards and expectations of the present, as towering figures of the present. To be borne into the past, boats beating against the current, the best books are those which are least familiar.”
I could spend the rest of the post quoting Mr. Myers, but it would be better if you read his post. If you still have time, come back and read this post to appease me.
It reminded me of some thoughts I’d once had (Going Small).
It also reminded me of this piece in The New Yorker, ”To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers about a woman’s life with a book, which, when she finds it, is relatively unknown. (I include this reference to prove that some times–or at least, at one time–I read intellectual pieces, and it makes me feel better.)
A tidbit of the story (which I must include because now that I’ve found it to give you the title and author, I ended up rereading it [and still loving it, though in a different way than my first few read-throughs, which is exactly what the story is about, so maybe there's something in that]; also, while digging through old journals to find this story, I discovered an unread journal with fiction in it by Larry Woiwode, so score):
The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt. The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding…A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist (emphasis mine).
And isn’t this exactly the best way to discover books, especially ones that become part of your life?
And then there’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is more along the lines of my reading material these days, when Morris “found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris.”
I think of days browsing my parents’ bookshelves as a teenager, finding books not assigned in school and unknown to my friends, books I fell in love with anyway. I think of the times I perused yard sales for a treasure. (This was before I had kids, which disallowed the act of perusing.) I think of the volumes passed down to me when my great aunt died, books all but forgotten to the rest of the world, books trapped by a certain time but finding a life and friends on my bookshelf.
(I think of the painting my great-grandfather painted, which hung above the hamper at the top of the steps at my grandparents’ house and which I loved, but which disappeared after my grandmother died and which is forever lost and neglected.)
I also think of my reading as of late–how I’ve fallen in love especially with international fiction, how I want to read something unfamiliar not because I want to escape my reality but because I want to broaden my reality. Because I want to give my imagination new realms.
Inevitably, this leads to a consideration of my own writing (because doesn’t everything lead back to me?). I look at this collection of short stories nesting on my computer. Who wants to read a story about a 68-year-old woman who learns how to play chess, I think, or an adopted teenaged girl who meets the ghost of her biological mother, or a woman who accidentally turns her boss into a frog during Hurricane Sandy?
These are not the types of stories populating Best American Short Stories. They are not the stories of the young and emerging. They’re not in L.A. or New York City. They’re not about dotcoms or ghettos.
I think about a novel I once wrote which almost went somewhere but then didn’t, and because I’m a different writer now than I was then, I no longer even want to publish this novel, but I can’t forget Marnie, the protagonist, and I wonder if she’ll be among the neglected and forgotten. (In my more hopeful moments, I imagine giving her a new story and setting her free, and I think, isn’t this a sort of redemption? But that’s a different thought for a different day. Really, it is. I should note it somewhere.)
I don’t mean this as a pity party. I only mean to say that perhaps, like some of the books in Morris Lessmore’s world, they are “lonely volumes whose tale was seldom told.” I mean to say that these are my stories, with all their peculiarity, and some days that’s enough, and maybe a little girl will happen upon them one day and see something, maybe familiar (if she once turned someone into a frog) or unfamiliar, and maybe for a moment, these characters who are so dear to me won’t be forgotten.