Madeleine Robins

February 19, 2018

Did You See What I Did There?

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:53 AM

Olympic figure skating is one of those things. I never mean to watch, and then, somehow, there I am and five hours have passed and it’s late and my head is full of salchows and axels and spangles.  There are a lot of brilliant technicians out there on the ice, and they’re riveting to watch, but the ones I love are the performers. Anent this, I was directed to Jason Brown’s 2014 performance at the US National Championships. He’s not just good–he is a brilliant performer, and more than that, his joy in the doing is both infectious and endearing. The audience is on its feet at the end of the routine, and well they should be. And his face just shines, because he had fun and made something beautiful; in the compact between audience and performer, it’s a perfect transaction.

This doesn’t work as well for writing, I think. Does this mean, I want the author to disappear? Maybe. Perhaps. Sort of.  At least while I’m engaged with their words. I don’t mean this punitively: I want the author to be engaged in her own work. And as a writer I am not immune to the satisfaction of pulling off a phrase, or a scene, or a whole book, where you feel like you’ve done your best and better, maybe. But the writing/reading compact is a little different from the performing/watching compact, and when I’m reading one of the things I don’t want is to have someone (particularly the author) standing between me and the text.

I was reading something the other day–an op-ed piece, I think–when I came across a phrase that was so clearly beloved of its author that I immediately heard, clear as a bell, a voice in my head saying “Did you see what I did there?” It’s a boy’s voice, maybe the voice of a nine- or ten year-old, excited, desirous of praise, a little tentative about asking for that praise because the owner of that voice knows damned well that you’re not supposed to do that. But also nakedly proud and pleased and SOMEBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THIS NIFTY TRICK I JUST PULLED OFF. And while the trick wasnifty, the insistence that I stop engaging with the text and engage the author for a minute is irritating.

Maybe this is the basis for the “kill your darlings” dictum.  Mind you, in the case of this op-ed piece it was true: the phrase was a clever one. If I’d been let alone to admire it, I might well have applauded. But the author, having delivered his knock-out phrase, got a little sloppy and soggy thereafter, like a skater who pulls off a quad salchow in the first minute of her routine, after which everything it a little lackluster.

Sadly, Jason Brown isn’t competing at the Olympics this year (injuries hurt his chance to give the kind of performances he gave in 2014). But I watch figure skating anyway, when I stumble upon it

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December 31, 2017

Choosing to be Merry, _ammit

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 12:46 PM
Tags: ,

brokentreeThe _ key on my laptop is not working.

This has been a trying year. A year ago in November there was the election, about which, perhaps, the less spoken, the better.  48 hours after the election my lovely Uncle Carmine passed away; about a week later, my Father-in-law followe_. Also, my older girl’s appendix helpfully rupture_, with all the merriment that create_. She’s fine. Now.

There’s been all the interesting public trauma of life in the new regime. Then, two weeks ago, my Mother-in-Law passed away (I should a__ that I _islike “passed away” an_ would prefer to use _ie_, but my _ key, as I note above, is not working.

So it’s been a year full of occurrence, an_ anxiety, an_ loss, an_ … well, it’s just been busy. In the mi_st of all this I have been keeping the _oors open at the museum, trying to get some work _one on the book, an_ being as supportive as possible to those closest to all these losses (which would be my husband_ an his family, an_ my aunt). For this reason the holiday season feels like it’s more than usually scattered this year: presents, foo_ (oy, foo_: between us we have one vegan, two who are gluten-sensitive, three who are allergic to nuts–which are a staple of vegan cookery–an one who loathes chocolate. The whole thing makes me want to lie _own… or make chocolate croissants as a reaction formation). I should be _ecorating the Christmas tree. I should be making holi_ay cookies. I should be watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

I have come to the conclusion that this year is simply going to have to be an outlier as far as the tra_itional observances are concerne_. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a time of goo_ cheer. I spent this weekend with my aunt in LA. She is closing in on 92, an_ in the wake of her husban_’s _eath all the physical ailments an_ problems she _in’t have time to _eal with before have come rattling _own upon her. An_ yet, most of what we _o when I’m _own here is laugh. Tell stories. After years I think I finally have straight which set of silver originally belonged to whom (an_ why my gran_mother only owne_ a gran_ total of one piece of her china pattern). I tease her. She teases me. She is annoyed but funny about the in_ignities of aging. She’s sharp (an_ snarky) about the current political situation. She loves chocolate. It is a treat to be with her.

Tomorrow I go back to San Francisco, where the _og an the family await. The Christmas tree will be _ecorate_. I may even make cookies (vegan, gluten-free, chocolate an_ nut free). There will be sa_ patches, an_ squabbles. But one thing I am pretty certain about: there will be laughter, an_ a goo_ _eal of it.

An_ then I’ll get my _ key fixe_. Happy holidays, an_ joyous feast of the sun’s return. _on’t forget to laugh.

December 13, 2017

Reading (In)Discriminately

Filed under: Memory,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:21 AM
Tags:

Nine CoachesOkay: raise your hands. When you were younger (say, teen- to young-adulthood) how many of you read pretty much everything? Finished even the rotten books because they were… well, they were books, and they were there?

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one. For me it was SF and fantasy, and historical, and historical romance, and gothics (aka “romantic suspense”–the books with young women in diaphanous gowns framed against brooding manses), and all the Great Books I could get, regardless of whether I fully understood them. Occasionally a best seller, because it was there, and I got twitchy when there was no printed matter to hand. What were your poisons?

Of that cohort, how many of you read that way now? I sure can’t. I might be working on a couple of different books at a time (right now its Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway and a book on women’s history called Who Cooked the Last Supper) but I don’t read as fast, or with the kind of intensity, that I did when I was a kid. And my reading seems to fall into three categories: new fiction (SF, mystery, occasional mainstream); research non-fiction (mostly history but sometimes medical history or single-topic writing–on the human heart, or sewage management through the ages), and re-reading. There are some things I re-read annually, for comfort and amusement: Jane Eyre, most of Jane Austen, the Peter Wimsey books; there are other books I re-read regularly: I cycle through Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and through the works of Dick Francis, and through some of the SF and fantasy I keep around. I’m not sure what touches off a sudden need to re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Proof, but I suspect it may be that they do something in the writing or structure that I unconsciously feel I need to look at. Or maybe they’re just what comes to hand. I’ve taken to replacing old, tattered copies of the frequently re-read with e-books, just so I don’t keep buying the same book over and over.

But what of the books I tore through–and frequently re-read–when I was a teen? I recently learned that Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which I read to tatters when I was in high school, were available and on sale as e-books. And in about a two week period I re-read eight of them, and I am here to tell you: Stewart was a fine writer. A little more given to botanical and landscape details than I remember, but really good. What took me aback is that there are phrases, whole scenes, that I remember with absolute clarity. But also: there are no dumb shoehorning of characters into doing things that make no sense. Also, the characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s) are well read and know things–I have always wanted to be well-read and to know things, so its nice to hang out with fictional characters who are and do. So I went looking for another writer I tore through at that time; like Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge holds up remarkably well. Her voice has certain tics, but overall she writes well-researched, sensible, effective historical romance. This somehow makes me feel better about my scorched earth reading habits.

Encouraged to find that some of my teen pleasures held up, I found another ebook I sort of remembered, The Trembling Hills, by Phyllis A. Whitney. It’s set in San Francisco leading up to and after the 1906 earthquake, which is pretty much all I could recall of the book. Since I now live in San Francisco I thought, well, why not. Okay, it’s not a terrible book (Whitney, in her day, was very successful, often on the NY Times bestseller list, published multiple-tens of books, none of this being a guarantor of quality). The setting is well done and well researched, which is nice now that I actually know what she’s describing. The characters are not as paper-thin as they originally seem to be: I spent the first third off the book wanting to smack the protagonist… and then she started to grow up a little, and gain a little complexity. When I finished the book I was not unsatisfied, but I doubt I’d ever want to re-read it.

There is a whole bookshelf of dusty, crumbling paperbacks in my basement that I should probably reevaluate based on this new information. Even at 15 I knew I never wanted to re-read Barbara Cartland, but there’s a vast territory between Cartland and Georgette Heyer; perhaps it’s time I did a little discriminate pruning.

November 1, 2017

Like Penelope

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

Family 1,2,3,4_0006When my peers were taking piano lessons, I was taking weaving lessons. My family placed a premium on the arts and the more esoteric crafts, and when my parents realized that we had a professional weaver living down the road from our weekend house in the country, my fate was sealed. Not that I protested: even as a kid I loved knowing how things got made.

My teacher was a stately octogenarian named Hazel Warren, whom my father had the temerity to call “Hazel-baby.” I called her Mrs. Warren, because, well, I was ten. Hazel Warren was a craftswoman of extraordinary skill–and a fondness for Eisenhower-era colors (mustard yellow, lima bean green, Wedgewood blue). Every Saturday morning for three years I spent two hours with her, learning to weave on a four-frame floor loom.

Mrs. Warren’s weaving studio–a small barn attached to the farmhouse where she and her dapper husband Harry lived–held perhaps half a dozen floor looms, lengths of woven fabric, skeins of cotton and wool. There was a sign over the door with a winged shuttle (in that way that you don’t register the what of something for years, I was well past my weaving-lesson years when I realized what that image was). I don’t remember much about the actual tuition; what I recall is the quality of sunlight on those Saturday mornings, and reaching my toes down to work the treadles that moved the different frames up and down, and (when I got the pattern wrong) having to figure out where I’d gone wrong and undo the weaving. Mrs. Warren was soft spoken and patient, but inexorable. If you messed up, you fixed it. No kissing-it-up-to-God and forging onward.

On one memorable occasion she taught me how to string the loom (up to that point I had been all weaving and no set up). It involved an unbelievable amount of arithmetic, and confused me. In the end it got done: the actual work was long and painstaking–thousands of feet of cotton thread, all threaded through the tiny eyes of the frames–but not technically difficult. Except for the arithmetic. Fifty years later, if forced at gunpoint to set up a loom, I could probably figure it out (except for the math).

Among my peers, if the subject ever came up, I suspect this was just another reason I was weird. But I made placemats (everyone makes placemats), and a set of five ties (I gave one to my eighth grade teacher, on whom I had a bit of a crush), and I don’t know what all else.  Curiously, when we moved up to Massachusetts from New York full time, I had stopped weaving–perhaps we couldn’t afford the lessons, or maybe Mrs. Warren had got out of the business.

But weaving wasn’t done with us. When I was in high school my mother bought a four-frame loom and had it strung with a spring-green wool, with the intention to weave curtains for the living room.  Bear in mind that the entire west face of the Barn was windows, each about seven feet high and five feet across. Weaving fabric for curtains for all of them would have been a breathtaking amount of work, even for someone who had been weaving for years. And it was my mother’s first project. I think, over the next five or six years, Mom managed to weave about two yards of 48″ wide fabric. Ultimately the wool began to crack and break (wool left wound on a loom for long enough is subject to the slings and arrows of climate and light, with predictable results). I cut the two yards of fabric off the loom and it became a shawl of sorts, and a dress-up item when my daughters were of dress-up age.

And the loom? It stood, unthreaded, in the front hall of the Barn, for another twenty years, until I sold the place. At which point I disassembled the loom, packed it carefully, and had it shipped out west to California. It is still upstairs–I checked the other day. Perhaps, when I am no longer working a day job, I will bring it down and reassemble it–that in itself may be an interesting task) and find someone to help me string it, and I’ll try weaving again. I remember it, as an activity, with great fondness.

October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

Filed under: Being a Woman,Family — madeleinerobins @ 11:11 AM
Tags: ,

The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

Bride and home

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

September 25, 2017

Preorder Welcome to Dystopia

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:57 PM

 

“The Road South,’ written by me with Becca Caccavo (aka younger daughter), will be appearing in Welcome to Dystopia in early 2018. It’s Bec’s first fiction sale, my first collaboration, edited by the estimable Gordon Van Gelder, and including many names far more illustrious than mine (like Ron Goulart, Eileen Gunn, Janis Ian, Yoon Ha Lee, Lisa Mason, Barry N. Malzberg, David Marusek, Mary Anne Mohanraj, James Morrow, Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Harry Turtledove, Ray Vukcevich, Ted White, Paul Witcover, and Jane Yolen).

And it’s available for preorder.

I’ve been looking at the galleys: it’s full of good stuff!

 

September 22, 2017

No, I Won’t Put You In My Book

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:05 PM

CarefulMy daughters gave me this t-shirt a few years ago. I don’t wear a lot of t-shirts–particularly t-shirts with slogans on them–but I keep it for exercising and for those times when a t-shirt is required. However, as regards my own work I fundamentally disagree with its message.

I have a lot of friends who tuckerize, or even kill off people who have hurt them in their fiction. Sometimes they auction off  naming for a character for charity. Sometimes a friend just works his/her way into a story. I found myself a member of the NYPD a few years ago, which was kind of interesting. (more…)

September 6, 2017

Finland and Estonia in Bits and Pieces

Filed under: Conventions,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:38 AM
Tags: , ,
2017-08-04 17.50.32

The Helsinki rail station.

Others have written reports about the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki. Yes, it was swell–and better attended than they expected, to the extent that you often could not get in to events you wanted to see because other people were already in the room (they take occupancy rules seriously at the Helsinki convention center). I had, as earlier noted, never had a driving interest in traveling to Northern Europe, which is why I was so delighted to find that I loved it. Herewith, a handful of reasons.

  • Auspicious beginning: let me tell you that Finnair is a pleasure to fly with: comfortable seats, flight attendants who did not look as though they were down to their last nerve, real (and tasty) food in decent quantity. The thing that pleased me most, however, was something done for another passenger. I was one row behind the bulk head, my friend Pat was directly in front of me, and also on the bulk head row was a lovely woman with a highly personable baby.  Finnair does something I’ve never seen any other airline do: it has a contraption whereby they hang a bassinet off the bulkhead, so that instead of holding your child for ten hours, you can put the baby down, sing her to sleep, and get some sleep of your own. Baby slept, mom slept, nearby people slept… brilliant.
  • The Ladies’ Room at the Helsinki airport has birdsong piped in. After a 10-hour flight it was unexpected balm to the soul.
  • We stayed in a prison our first night there: very comfortable, excellent breakfast, and you can go visit the remaining cells (one for a group, one an isolation cell, both calculated to remind you of just how fortunate your life is). Also, I saw a hare the size of a respectable beagle charging across a park when we went out to dinner.
  • Next time I go to Tallinn I will take the Tallink ferry both ways. We took Viking over, and it was like being on a sea-going version of Reno: not as flashy as Vegas, but full of smoke, drinking, and people obsessively playing casino video games. Not my scene. The cloud formations from the deck were amazing, though.
  • Living in Tallinn, even for just a few days, is like walking around in a Grimm fairy tale. It’s not just the architecture, or the great stone walls that circle the old city, or the cobblestones, or the carefully maintained shops that sell reindeer pelts and handbound books… it’s everything. And yet it’s a thoroughly modern city (WiFi everywhere–we’re not savages, you know). Suffice it to say that we had a bronze chimney sweep outside our apartment door (the apartment itself was charming and comfortable, and retained a touch of the vibe I think of as cold-war Third Man… something about the halls, the stairs, the lace curtains and deeply recessed windows). I recommend Tallinn highly.
  • If you go to Tallinn, may I suggest a farm-to-table restaurant called Farm? Here’s the front window. I had the game cutlets (basically red-deer meatballs), and we split the Spiced Baltic Char Ice Cream on a Stick with various vegetal relishes as starter. A wonderful, wonderful restaurant–I think we sent everyone at Worldcon there.
  • I also dined at Olde Hansa, which purports to be a medieval merchant’s house, serving a medieval merchant’s feast. It managed avoid being twee and Medieval Times-ish, and the music and food were unexpectedly good. On this trip I ate venison, elk, bear-and-boar sausage, moose, and reindeer. My vegan daughter is doubtless horrified, but I found them all tasty.
  • We took a day trip along the Estonian coast with a guide named Yvgeny to the city of Narva–right across the river from Russia. Seriously right across the river: the Estonian and Russian fortresses are lined up so they probably lobbed stones at each other. We visited Toolse Castle, a fortress on the Estonian coast (one of many fortresses built along the coast to protect the country from invaders by sea,of which it appears there were lots). The Estonians seem to have been in a long series of occupations for a millennium or so, the last being by the Soviets. So here is what Yvegeny characterized as “the most Soviet Monument ever.” He’s not wrong.
  • I was sad that I did not get to see the Oldest Continuously Operating Apothecary in Europe–it is closed on Sunday, which was the only day I managed to get there. We found an excellent place for breakfast in Tallinn, but did not go there on our last day because Viking Ferry cancelled our ferry and we all had to get to the terminal–and then to another terminal–and negotiate a new passage back to Helsinki on Tallink. They did not foil us! We got back and checked in to our new home and so there, Viking!
  • Our place in Helsinki was half an hour from the convention, a delightful top-floor apartment with a terrace and sauna. For the purpose of conventioning, I have to say I prefer to be closer to the con… if you have to go back to change your shoes or get dressed up, it’s awfully tempting to just stay there, have a glass of wine in the livingroom, admiring the sky (especially after a really spectacular thunder storm). The neighborhood reminded me a little of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for many years, so I felt right at home.
  • The Helsinki public transportation system is clean, goes everywhere, and (thanks to the munificence of the city and the convention) we had complementary travel for the week, which was wonderful. The system does have its share of “you know this if you’re a local” issues: the Number Two tram magically turns into the Number Three tram at some point just past the harbor, which caused some merriment and confusion. But these are the adventures that make a place yours.

I could go on and on… about the Estonian stone lion whose claim to fame is that he is said to resemble Vladimir Putin.

Or the strange “goat” than hung out in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn and would bleat a thank you if you gave him a coin.

 

 

 

Or–good lord, the arts center in Helsinki on the way from the rail station to our apartment, which had a giant statue of a pike–the fish, not the weapon–looming over the picnickers and joggers. Would have put me right off my rye-bread-and-butter (the rye bread–dark and molassesy–is magnificent) had I been picnicking under it, but I am not so hardy a soul as a Finn.

The convention was lovely, but really, I want to go back to Finland and Estonia again. Why did I never realize this before?

August 15, 2017

All My Bags Are Packed

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:28 PM

No, actually, they’re not. On Thursday evening I’m heading off to Finland (and Estonia! Don’t forget Estonia!) for 10 days for the World Science Fiction Convention, otherwise known as Worldcon. Worldcon is held in a different place every year–last year it was in the midwest, this year, Helsinki. And for the first time in forever, I have not been planning obsessively, I don’t have a complex matrix of schedule and place and so on. And it occurred to me this morning that I’m not really sure why that is. Could be the chaos of my work life at present; could be that I’m still reeling from my daughter’s 3-month trip to Europe this spring (as I write this she’s on her way back to college and I will hear fewer daily reports on the excitement of it all); could be that I never imagined myself going to the Baltics.

For some reason I fix on places with a sort of passion related to (surprise!) reading–England was my first love (if I haven’t told you about my first short story, dictated to my mother when I was 3, in which England played a role… well, now I have). But a lot of my fixations have to do with what I was reading: I went to Greece the first time, not because of the mythology but because of Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael and Moonspinners. I wandered all over Paris the first time I was there, looking for twelve little girls in two straight lines (Madeline) and hoping for Musketeers, or perhaps Edmond Dantès. I have not yet achieved some of my geographical ambitions–Ireland, Italy, Japan, India, South Africa–all of which have, via books I’ve read, a lock on my psyche.

For some reason the Baltic region has no such lock. I’m not sure I have a reading reference for the place. My images of Scandinavia are colored by Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Wallander, Denmark has Hans Christian Anderson to speak for it*, but Estonia? I got nothing. Add to this lack of fictive reference the fact that everyone keeps telling me “Oh, everyone speaks English!” Which is reassuring on the one hand, but a little disconcerting on the other. Why go someplace Other if it’s just like home? But of course, it won’t be. My traveling companions and I are going on a tour in Estonia of one castle and “highlights of Soviet architecture”; you get neither in the wilds of Northern California.

Here’s the thing I’ve been realizing as I wrote this: I’m going with no preconceived notions. No story to fit my surroundings to. Maybe (just maybe) I’ve been resisting planning too much for exactly that reason, because I don’t want to know too much before I get there. Other than my flight and ferry times and the hotels I’ll be in, because really, I’m too old to sleep at the train station.

Be warned: there are likely to be pictures. And stories. Just because I go somewhere without stories to back me up doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming up with some on my return.

_____

*it occurs to me that I imagine Sweden as sleek and modern, and Denmark as quaint and rustic. I suspect neither imagining is strictly accurate.

August 2, 2017

Reading for Fun and Points

Filed under: Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:16 AM
Tags: ,

ClassicsSherwood Smith wrote on Saturday in the BVC blog about revisiting classics that were foisted on you as a teen and discovering that they were really pretty good (as always with Sherwood’s posts, she writes about many different things in one essay, but this is one part of what she’s talking about). I read a bunch of “classics”assigned in high school, as, I suspect, we all did, and some of them I cordially loathed. But I also had a fairly ambitious program of reading outside what was required at school, which was based on a simple criterion: if it was “classic,” or old, if I felt I should read it, I read it. Or wedged my way through it, regardless of actual comprehension. The only book that ground me to a halt was War and Peace. I read Candide, which I loved, and Manon Lescaut, which I liked, and Wuthering Heights, which made me want to slap every single character in it, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is much, much longer than any film version had led me to believe.

Granted, at that age I was reading everything. Science Fiction from the spinner racks at the drug store; gothic romances, ditto; suspense and historicals from the library; and all sorts of books from my parents’ mixed bag collection of thrillers, best sellers, and classics. I homed in on the classics, i.e., anything I felt that I ought to read.

Did I enjoy them? Some of them, very much. Others I made it through the way I would eat liver for dinner: slowly and unhappily. So why do it? Because I really coveted markers of smartness. Throughout high school I racked up a body count of Great Books, a sort of intellectual check off list that I thought somehow improved my educational resume. I really really wanted to be smart, see, and if reading Crime and Punishmentwould help, then Crime and Punishment I would read.

Some of the books read I made my way through once and never attempted again  (that run at War and Peace gave me such an aversion to Tolstoy that I never went back) and others I’ve read more than once–in the case of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, more or less annually. With books that I loved then, in most cases I have loved them later, but find layers of richness that escaped me on that first read.

As for the rest of them? I think Sherwood was absolutely right that many of the books I read I was not ready for. I needed to be older to appreciate Dickens’s ability to sketch instantly recognizable characters. I needed to be older–and to know more history–to really get Eliot and Henry James and Dostoevsky. But you couldn’t tell me that when I was 15. I know now that I did myself a disservice in collecting great books like Pokemon. And–which I did not understand then–what’s a Great Book changes over time, the list keeps growing, and you will never catch them all.

In my next life I will leave some things to later. I will also be readier to understand that a few years can change my appreciation of a book. At least, I hope so.

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