A Lesson in the Art of Reading

I learned to read  because of envy.  Some little girl in my pre-kindergarten class walked in one day, waving a Little Golden book like it was a fan. During show-and-tell she read aloud to the class.  The teachers all went nuts.  How smart she was, how sweet she was and wasn’t she wonderful to entertain the other children?  Phooey. A show-off in a pinafore is what she was and I wasn’t interested in being her audience.  I buckled down to understanding the Little Bear books Mom had been reading aloud and soon there were two readers in my Pre-Kindergarten. With a little help from Dr. Seuss, I left Blondie behind in the dust. Since then, I’ve read most things with ease.

The thing is, even a talent for reading won’t make every book easy and some worthwhile works require effort.  I found that out in high school when we were assigned Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and all those Russian characters were confusing me.  That is also where I learned the single greatest reading trick.  When you sit down to read a challenging work, have something close you can write on.

Let me go back to “The Cherry Orchard”

This play may be instantly comprehensible to people who grew up in Russia but it can drive American teenagers crazy.  Almost every character has at least three names and they were usually referred to by at least two of them.  We couldn’t even pronounce the lines, much less make sense of the plot.  So our teacher had us create a page for each character and write everything we learned about them on their particular page. (Always short of notebook paper, I put 3 or 4 on a page).  At any rate, as I learned things about the characters, I added data to the collections of notes, drawing arrows from one entry to another as I memorized the relationships between them.  (Lyubov mother to> Anya is an example).  It was slow going at first, since I was writing down everything, but pretty soon I was writing down my impressions as well (Is Yasha fooling around with Lyubov?  He’d better not, he’s dating Dunyasha!)  and the characters were coming to life.  Fairly soon I could remember all the characters and I didn’t need to rely on the notepad.

That practice served me well a few years ago when J. K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy.   After her like-able and easy to read Potter series, The Casual Vacancy was an unwelcome surprise to those who secretly expected all of her books to be charming.  Instead there was a huge cast of unpleasant people trying to manipulate each other.  A lot of readers gave up.  Me, I’m stubborn so I got out the old steno pad and started making notes.  By a third of the way through I could see where the author was going  (she has a huge social conscience) and I didn’t need the pad any more.  Now when I can’t keep focused on the text, out comes the  pencil and paper.

A lot of people think reading should be easy, and popular literature follows that mantra, but some really good books require effort. If you want to try something a bit more sophisticated but you’re having trouble keeping up with the characters, break out the pencil and paper.  Give big characters a page of their own where you can write about them, allow extras to share a page.  Write down what you know, and draw arrows or underline until you understand what’s going on.  And if you see my English teacher, Mr. Schultz, tell him the old technique still works.

The Right of Privacy and Harper Lee

I visited Monroeville, once.  In the summer of 1990, I, my husband and a friend were driving home from the beach when one of us spied the interstate exit that leads to the home of Harper Lee.  My friend had (finally) read To Kill a Mockingbird, she was still overwhelmed by the power of the story and she wanted to see Miss Lee’s home town.  My husband knows how much I care about the book and he thought it would be a treat, so he steered us onto the highway.  Once we hit the center of town, the two of them started plying me with questions so they could pick out landmarks from the novel.   How far was the Finch house from the school?  Was the Radley house on the same or opposite side of the street?  My husband suggested (I think he was joking) that, with a bit of research, we’d be able to locate Miss Lee’s new address and he would take us to her door.  I began to feel very uncomfortable.  Not only do I get tongue tied around famous authors, (I displayed something like Tourette’s syndrome in front of Dr. Seuss) I couldn’t get past the feeling we were trespassers here, arriving only to gawk.  A late summer thunderstorm started and I wanted to leave but the two of them kept driving on, looking for clues and making suggestions.  Hail came down and a corner of my mind suggested this was God’s (or Truman Capote’s) way of telling us to “Get the Hell Out.”  When tree limbs started to fall, we turned the car around and finally went back to the interstate.  The rain stopped outside of the town.
I’ve been wishing that weather would come down again on those currently trying to mind Miss Lee’s business.  Years ago, she was just another woman who wanted to write and the world pretty much ignored her.   Aided by friends, an agent, and editors, she developed a novel of transcendent beauty.  When the book was done, Miss Lee lived up to her contractual promises surrounding the book’s publication and its adaptation into a motion picture.  Since then all she has asked for is the same private life most of us enjoy.  In this final area she’s had less success, due mainly to the bad manners of others.
Initially, there were demands that she write still more books, from people who didn’t understand what the first book had cost her.  Then, there was the small but steady army of trespassers who believed their enthusiasm for her work outweighed her need for privacy.  Mixed between these were the sycophants who professed admiration to her face and then exploited her acquaintanceship for fame and fortune.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a town selling itself with her characters or a reporter whose alleged health issues mend once she moves into the house next door.  (If this is true, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins hospital need to relocate to Monroeville, Alabama.  The town is obviously a modern-day Lourdes.) In my opinion, it comes down to this: any person who makes money from Harper Lee’s life or her work without her documented permission is a parasite and probably a thief.  
All of this was bad enough but things went to hell this year.  The announcement that her first story Go Set A Watchman would be published should have had literary enthusiasts hugging themselves with delight.  Instead, people started worrying that “Watchman” wouldn’t match the quality as  “Mockingbird.”   Then pundits started suggested that publishing Watchman might not be Miss Lee’s idea at all.  The account of the lawyer who located the work (the same attorney who has successfully protected Miss Lee’s rights since her sister’s retirement) is reviewed with extreme skepticism.  (Anyone who believes papers can’t stack up in the back of a law office has never worked in one.)  Now the state of Alabama has gotten involved because a physician, who did not examine Miss Lee, reported a rumor she was seen curled up in bed and uncommunicative after the death of her sister.  This really sets my teeth on edge.  Miss Lee loses her sister, the last member of her closest family and they’re surprised she’s in bed and depressed??  What did they expect, a party?  A river of avarice, curiosity and innuendo has robbed this woman (described as “a national treasure”) of her privacy and everyday enjoyment of life.   If this is how we treat the people we cherish, God help those that we hate.
I think something needs to be clarified: Miss Lee is not her work.  She is no one’s “treasure” to be owned or bandied about.  She is a human being with rights and privileges, including the right to be left alone.  If she doesn’t want to be interviewed, promoted, hash-tagged or dragged out for the public consumption, that is her prerogative.  If her work has inspired or moved you to the point of communication, send her a letter but don’t expect a reply.  The whole point of a thank-you letter is to express your feelings, not promote a correspondence.  If you really appreciate her work, apply the principles of TKAM to your life and be nice to other people.  Fight for the disadvantaged and be sensitive to their needs.  But have some consideration for the author’s wishes and (unless you have clear and convincing, first-hand evidence of maltreatment) leave the poor woman alone.
Miss Lee’s work has a public life and people can treasure or criticize that at will.  If people are worried about the quality of her upcoming book, they don’t have to buy or read it. Since “Watchman” is an early draft, it is unlikely to show the same level of skill as TKAM but it will aid literature students who will see how one story can be molded from another.  No new book can tarnish or impair the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird.  TKAM stands as it has stood for the last fifty years, a clear story about the good and evil in humanity and life in a small, Southern town.  
Although this rant is about separating the art from the artist, it is tempting to give Miss Lee the last word. In TKAM’s climactic chapter, Heck Tate refuses to publicize the service of a recluse because, “All the ladies in Maycomb, including my wife’d be knockin’ on his door bringing angel food cakes.  To my way of thinking…draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight – to me, that’s a sin.”
People have been banging on Miss Lee’s door for years now, bringing nosiness, cupidity and gossip.  I hope the finding of the state’s investigation will allow her to close it again to all save those that she wants to see.  If not, Monroeville needs to bring back the rain and get set for one hell of a storm.

Thanks that are long overdue

Kids take a lot of things for granted.  It’s part of being a kid, to accept the world and its people as part of how life should be.   That’s a terrible thing for kids who live with pain or deprivation but for a lot of us that meant a childhood where we took bicycles, birthday parties, vacations and our family’s love and devotion as part of our just due. We rarely said thank you.  For example, I never thanked my folks for showing me why some stories are classics.  Still, I haven’t forgotten our time with Treasure Island.

I don’t know if Treasure Island is still one of the required books of childhood.  There are so many other stories now and Disney has such an imprimatur on the pirate world these days that Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic may get lost in the shuffle.  My folks had both grown up with the tale and I suspect they were a bit excited about sharing “their” story with me when I turned ten.  Perhaps I was a bit young, but I already had my nose in a book all the time so why not give me one they loved?  None of us expected I couldn’t get “into” it.

But I couldn’t, not past Section I, as I told my mom three months later when she caught me re-reading The Borrowers.  Mom didn’t fuss at me (as I feared) or remind me that I shouldn’t ignore an expensive present.   She walked away and the next evening told me that she and Dad had a new project: they would read Treasure Island out loud over the next several nights, one chapter per parent per evening.  All I had to do was sit and listen.  

How well I remember those evenings, Dad lying on the couch and mom in a chair while I perched in the rocker, listening.  Dad read with enthusiasm, enjoying the author’s writing style but my Mom touched greatness as a reader.  She had all the talent of an actress and a gift for mimicry so I recognized each character by their voice tone and accent whenever she read.  Squire Trelawney’s remarks had the drawl of aristocracy and Dr. Livesey used the Estuary English accent of an educated but self-made man.  The pirates, of course, all used cockney or West Country accents and Jim’s voice had the higher tone of a boy.  It was a wonderful performance.

My parents read every night, sailing through the dry area narrative where I’d stopped and into the sea-voyage, my excitement growing with each reading.  I asked mom to return the book to me so I could “read ahead” but my wise mother said no and hid the volume, knowing the wait would increase my desire for the story.  I took to wearing my winter boots for each reading, because they were the closest things in my closet to pirate garb and begged for extra chapters when we stopped at a cliff-hanger.  I hated it when the book ended.

I think we all enjoyed that wonderful experiment although we never repeated it.  My interest in reading rarely flagged after that and, though readers, my folks seldom liked the same books.  But when a loved one says some classic tale isn’t keeping their interest, I’ll volunteer to read it aloud.   My parents are gone now and it’s the only way I can thank them for those evenings of pirates and treasure. 

And now my month of steady blogging is done.  Have you liked it? What books did I miss that you like, which brought back memories for you, which books followed you home?   Having a blog is rather like throwing bottled messages into the sea and I’m curious to know where (or if) my letters wash ashore.  For everyone who has fished out a bottle by reading this blog, thank you.  I appreciate your trips to the beach.