Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
001. How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself—the task of a lifetime—becomes the answer.
002. How could I “live” when there was so much to be read that ten lives could not be enough? And what is it, anyway, this “living”? Have I ever done it? If it is merely [Henry] James’ euphemism for knowing passion, well, I pass.
003. I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. Can I go back to my books now?
004. And this shrinking from the difficult, the inharmonious, and the subtle is precisely what irks me in readers who complain that a book is “too depressing” or “too demanding,” too long or complicated. No way to explain that a book’s merit has nothing to do with its degree of good cheer, or that a “depressing” book can give exquisite pleasure.
005. Life is designed to thwart ecstasy; whether we do it for ourselves or something does it for us is a minor issue.
006. I envied my older sister her interruptibility. While I looked up immediately from my book when my name was called, she had the uncanny ability not to hear. I would test her as she read. It was like addressing a stone, expect that with a stone, if we are imaginative enough, we can infer some kind of response, albeit in stone language. My sister appeared to be present, but she was in the book. This is a great and useful gift. The stunned petitioner retreats, daunted by an invisible power that can drown out the world.
When questioned, my sister said that she really did not hear when she was spoken to. Years later I observed the power in my older daughter. Did she too fail to hear? No, she said, of course she heard, she just didn’t answer. And clearly it was not the same, in her mind, as out-and-out rudeness. Feeling herself elsewhere, she acted accordingly.
007. When my mother spoke of couples who were “keeping company” or getting engaged, she would say, “Of course she likes him,” or, ‘She seems to like him,” never that they loved each other, far less that they could be “in love,” a phrase that seemed to denote a silly, weak-minded condition, embarrassing to own up to, bordering on the irresponsible or disreputable, and certainly not to be bruited about. Romantic love, from what I could gather, was for far less decent and intelligent people than we, who should know better. … just as we were not supposed to write the word “God” but “G-d” instead, which offended me aesthetically, a distraction in the flow of reading, besides calling attention to a figure already receiving more than adequate attention.
008. [About “The Little Princess” the character in the book says:] “It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” [Schwartz says:] I had suspected that the life within was every bit as real as the life without, but no one had ever before reassured me.
Despite Sara’s passionate rage against Miss Minchin’s injustice, she knows it would be useless to protest. ‘her heart grew proud and sore, but she never told anyone what she felt.” I, on the contrary, was given to struggling and fretting aloud to no avail. I envied Sara’s silence; I grasped its force; I wanted it. Such silence comes out of a keen sense of reality and of power. For the only way to appose a greater power is with inner might.
I don’t answer very often. I never answer when I can help it. When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word—just look at them and think … When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage… There’s nothing as strong as rage except what makes you hold it in—that’s stronger.
I heard a great deal of rage—vocal and terrifying—when i was small; int hat way my household was not what I could call ordinary. And I thought rage must be powerful. It was certainly loud. I have spent the rest of my life learning that loudness is not a show of strength, and that the spirit i kept alive by trust in the inner voice and by holding firmly to the unnamed thing that Sara found at age eleven: the stronger thing that makes you hold rage in.
Nowadays, when the exhaustive—and exhausting—expression of feelings is considered the mark of emotional health, Sara’s reserve is plainly subversive. The patronizing labels it might be given leap readily to mind. No matter. Sara’s behaviour, then and now, revives older labels like honour and dignity (not to mention pride), which will outlast our faddish ones. Even Miss Minchin is unsettled by Sara’s demeanour after being reduced to poverty and consigned to the cold attic:
If she had cried and sobbed and seemed frightened, Miss Minchin might almost have had more patience with her. She was a woman who liked to domineer and feel her power, and as she looked at Sara’s pale little steadfast face and heard her proud little voice, she quite felt as if her might was being set at naught.
Precisely: Miss Minchin’s might is being set at naught by a will firmer than her own. Giving vent to every feeling may provide quick comfort, but true self-possession—keeping your own mind free, in the words of Mr Cha himself, the Buddhist who set off these recollections—has more lasting rewards. As Sara knows, the power that must perpetually assert itself is no power at all. True power is confident and has no need of display.
009. And it appears that the critical thing these others were able to do was identify and localize a subject that for me remained undefined and elusive—until i read their books and saw it clear and elegant. In the light, writing seems less a craft than a quality of mind and discernment, a rarefied focusing. Or sometimes the other writers have lit on the perfect form, which obviates any struggling for subject—Proust’s ruminating novel or Herbert Morris’s meditative poems like n intimate conversation, both unabashed about their length, or, in the short department, Robert Walser’s idiosyncratic essays like messages found in bottles, comically wry and desperate. Then I think, Had I only know you could do it that way…and writing seems a function of inventiveness and nerve.
010. Unwilling, it seems, to risk a new thought or feeling—like the people who won’t read books in the first place, or yank them off the library shelves to protect the innocent.
011. For in the end, even if all my books were to vanish, i would still have them somewhere, if I had read them attentively enough. Maybe the words on the page are not even the true book, in the end, only a gateway to the book the recreates itself in the mind and lasts as long as we do.
012. I am not among the happy few who can readily distinguish want from ought. We are taught from our first breath to want what tohers think we should want. They dress up “ought” in the insidious garb of want, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so that life’s greatest task becomes the unmasking of false desire to reveal the bleak bare-toothed ought, and the unearthing of true desire.
013. current books are modishly sleek inside and out, low-fat, low-cholesterol, sort of like Lite beer—not bad on a hot day yet hardly the thing for a seasoned drinker.
014. The pressure to read the living is moral as well a social. We must know our own times, understand what is happening around us. But I know my own times. I am in them. I have only to walk down Broadway or Main Street to see what is happening. It is the times of the dead I do not know. The dead are exciting precisely because they are not us. They are what we will never know except through their books. Their trivia are our exotica. As writers, transmitters, the dead can be more alive than some of the living.
015. Part of context is what other writers are doing with the same context.
016. For inevitably, every living writing is a part of every other, all f us bumping up against each other like passengers in a loaded bus. Some feel and smell better than others, and we may wish certain ones would just disembark, but for the moment they must be taken account of. When there is a pothole in the road, we are all jolted.
017. I like to cling to the John Cage-ish principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too; to impose order is to strain against the nature of things. Randomness continuing for long enough will yield its own pattern or allow pattern to emerge organically, inscrutably, from within—or so I hope. On the other hand, how comforting to have a plan. It harks back to the satisfaction of pleasing authority and earning a gold star.
018. Swift divided writers into spiders and bees, the one buzzing from flower to flower gathering their diverse sweetnesses to transform into uniform honey, the other gazing inward, spinning elaborate, sticky webs our of the dirty stuff of the self.
019. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.
020. In the thick of experience, snatches of bookish wisdom do not serve. If no girl was ever ruined by a book, none was ever saved by one either. (Even less useful is looking to fictional characters. The best of them travel in confusion and come to a bad end: this is what makes their lives worth inventing. It is we, the readers, who have the counseling role. Do this, do that, we tell them. Don’t forget to mail that letter, don’t get on that plane. Divorce him, marry her, look over your shoulder for heaven’s sake. But to no avail.)
021. We “kill” time to leap over its body to a future even, if only dinner. But after dinner we find, like Macbeth, that we must kill some more, till the next event. Plainly the events are just a more dramatic means of killing. what we are waiting for, killing time to arrive at, is death, the only event that can release us from the burden of living time. Killing time is to live what Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading is to reading, sprinting as opposed to leisurely walking, where you appreciate the scenery. The goal is to get it over with, to no longer have to to day. (Speed-reading is not actually reading at all but eye exercises.)
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz