The Noble Reading Project, and Other Failures

Remind me never to take on another project that isn’t writing a novel or raising a child or teaching a class — e.g., nothing that commits me well into the future when there is no compensation and no obligation. I ventured into my goal of reading exclusively women of color in 2015 with the best of intentions, and launched into it early but still did not make it a year, let alone all of 2015.

I have to admit some of the piss was taken out of me by a spate of articles about men who’d done what I was doing. I read a few books I didn’t care for, and felt ashamed for not liking them. My motivation started to flag. My mind started to wander. I’ve always been a mercurial reader.

So this spring I read some of the much buzzed YA books of the year — Bone Gap, The Walls Around Us, and Read Between the Lines are all terrific, by women at the top of their game. I meant to blog about them all but failed there, too (and have nothing to add to the chorus of acclaim for them all). In a way, that was a refreshing vacation from my own taste. I don’t actually like YA, or claim not to, but these books refute the facile claims that YA is especially “dark” or “morally certain.” I think the only thing YA really claims to be is about the teen experience.

More recently, I became hooked on the novels of Mat Johnson, who is, well, a dude. While everybody talks about race and talks about how we need to talk about race, I find Johnson does so more deftly and with more wit and verve than anyone else, at least that I’ve read.

I made excuses to myself because at least all of the books I were reading were either by women or a person of color, but I also recently read some essays by Edward O. Wilson, who is a white dude scientist who studies ants. As I noted back when I began my journey, the worst representation of women of color is in nonfiction, particularly when you move into the sciences (memoir, social justice, and history have better selections). If you want to read about science, and are limited to women authors from non-European backgrounds, the pickings are very slim. I did come to this book through an interest in Wilson specifically, anyway, but holy cow, are all the science books by white people, and most of them men.

I expect somebody will comment that it doesn’t matter because an ant is an ant, regardless of writing about it, but I think about young people — whipping smart ones, with an interest in the natural world — walking into that section and feeling that they’re in the “wrong” section. It makes me wonder, with the call for children’s books by diverse authors, where is the call for quality nonfiction across the curriculum that tells all children, this entire world is yours to study?

Anyway, back to my reading… it is time to concede that I have wandered off the path and will continue to do so. I have to read The Empathy Exams for a class I’m teaching, and have a towering to-be-read pile with all kinds of books by all kinds of people. Many of them are people of color, many are women, and many are both, but I am hereby removing all rules and strictures from myself.

However, I think it was a good practice while it lasted. I’ve come to be less likely to go straight to the white/male books, but actively seek out other points of view. I’m sure my reading habits have been permanently changed from it.

I have become more aware of ways that representation is still a problem — it is one thing to scan a bookshelf for proof that books by women or people of color exist, quite another to have only those options. And there other things I now know. Books by African American authors have long wait lists at the library, apparently in high demand by readers who can’t afford to go buy the book, but also suggesting the library isn’t meeting demand because they underpurchase those books in the first place. The audiobook section is particularly thin and picked over when you’re looking for books by women of color; I think aside from Toni Morrison and a few other luminaries, few get the honor of an audiobook production. Even acclaimed books with glowing reviews in all the major publications might be picked up by only a few bookstores; books that I’m sure would be in end-cap displays if they had the same buzz and white authors on the back. And, as previously mentioned, nonfiction is an utter desert.

I would not be aware of any of this if I hadn’t forced myself to look only for books that meet those two criteria. I would have probably gestured at a few bestsellers and award winners by women of color as counter-proof that everything is hunky dory. “Look, Roxane Gay is here, and Claudia Rankine is there, so there must not be a problem!”

I have also come to regard books by privileged people with more healthy skepticism. I can still enjoy a literary tour de force, but have less patience with the art-for-arts-sake self-indulgence that used to be my primary pleasure. It’s not that there are two genres of literature, exclusively staffed by white men on the one count and women of color on the other, but I kinda think that maybe white male writers suffer from a pathological self-regard that leads to stylistic navel-gazing and expertise-on-all-things. And that in Danticat and Adichie, especially, I found a vital currency and immediacy, books about experience of living instead of the experience of reading a book, that made me feel their books were important, not just as books, but as historical artifacts. I don’t feel that way reading David Mitchell, however dazzling his artistry.

Anyway, I’m letting myself off the hook, but feel generally less stupid for having tried.

The Unreadable Sentence and Other Thoughts on Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte's WebNote: This post is full of spoilers. On the off chance you have never read Charlotte’s Web, stop everything and go read it, then come back.

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I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to my son, and was surprised how often I was choked up while reading it. I expected the final chapter to destroy me, but not so much in the middle chapters, even the quiet ones: Wilbur’s bucolic day-to-day existence and the charming banter of animals was as likely to make me swallow hard and take five (my son staring at me in confusion) as Wilbur learning his fate from the old sheep.

I think what gets to me is Charlotte’s and Wilbur’s platonic love. Maybe all great middle-grade books are essentially about friendship, but no friendship is more peculiar and perfect than Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s. All my childhood I waited for that little voice to whisper from the darkness that she was there for me, and would reveal herself in the morning.

But as I grow older, Charlotte is not the friend I aspire to have, but the friend I aspire to be. She reaches out to Wilbur when he is muddy and pathetic and hasn’t a friend in the world. Her friendship transforms Wilbur, just by holding up a mirror of her own admiration. Soon the whole barnyard is swept up by her enthusiasm. The old sheep and the geese and even the bratty lambs start treating Wilbur with more respect. In turn, Wilbur considers Charlotte’s myriad legs and plump gray body and bloodsucking lifestyle and pronounces her beautiful, an unshaken belief until the end.

It is Charlotte’s gesture of friendship upon which the entire book revolves. It is also the source of the inspiration for her own life-changing art.

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I was actually less weepy at the end than I expected, perhaps because the boy was so squirmy and distracting (while also steadfastly insisting I keep reading). He was so blank-faced when Charlotte died I had to make sure he understood what just happened (he did). He was impatient through the next passages, but delighted by the baby spiders, and so eager to announce we were finished he missed the lovely “true friend and good writer,” bit at the very end. It was hard to be emotional with such an impatient audience.

However, there is one sentence I was unable to read. I saw it, knew I couldn’t read it, and simply turned the page. It’s the last sentence in the second-to-last chapter, and may be the saddest line ever to appear in a book for children. I won’t even put it here. It’s no better typing it than reading it aloud.

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Perhaps the most curious aspect of Charlotte’s Web is that it never once mentions God, which leads to some confusion about the plot: why is Wilbur, and not Charlotte, the subject of praise and wonder? In an increasingly secular world, the disposition of rural folk to attribute the unknown to the hand of God is less and less obvious.

Mrs. Zuckerman more than once suggests that the spider is the real phenomenon, but her husband dismisses her. It’s just a plain old gray spider, he says. Mr. Zuckerman uses words like “wonder” and “miracle” to describe what happens, and consults his minister, who gives a sermon, but nobody uses the G word. I suspect that it is because White, or perhaps Ursula Nordstrom, felt that they were perilously close to mocking faith itself, or would be seen as doing so. They played it safe by alluding to miracles and wonders without naming their presumptive Source.

White was a skeptic, but a devout worshiper of nature, and his masterpiece is a statement of faith: we don’t need a celestial creator; the spider is miracle enough. White picks up the Emerson strand of enlightened animism that runs through the American canon (especially poetry). It’s a faith but not a religion, and captures my own faith better than any religious text.

The doctor serves as White’s mouthpiece, giving his lecture to Fern’s mother, in a scene I had completely forgotten and will probably forget again. (It has no children in it, and no animals. It made my son restless.)

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Charlotte’s Web is beloved by writers for its smooth rhythms and pastoral descriptions, its epic catalogs of the humdrum. Reading it aloud tuned my ears to its stylistic mastery. There’s a reason the award for best read-aloud books is named for White. The style subsumes the story at times, as White patiently reels off the signs of seasonal changes, for example, or gives an exhaustive, almost ostentatious, list of things to eat at a fair or the contents of a junk pile. A certain type of children’s book reviewer is inclined to say they are “too much for children,” these languorous passages, just as critics have opined since its publication that Charlotte’s Web is too sad for children, that the sadness is ill-matched with the humor, that White bungled by establishing Fern as a main character just to demote her in chapter three. White’s children’s books do have structural peculiarities, but so do Andersen’s fairy tales. They defy our critical apparatuses. Children gleefully read, love, and cry over the book anyway, decade after decade.

When authors appeal to all ages they are said to appeal to the childlike hearts of older readers, but I think White appeals to the old souls in children.

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Wilbur WritesCharlotte is also a writer, of sorts: literally spinning words that shine in the morning sunlight, transforming the lives of the ones she cares most about. And so I aspire to be a friend like Charlotte, and also a writer like Charlotte, with her tireless commitment to high-minded goals and no longing for personal reward. I more often feel like Wilbur, tying an old string to his tail and leaping off of a manure pile. Perhaps it is only by disappearing into the woodwork that a writer can see his or work work become, to those staring in wonder, divine.

“A Spider”

I have been reading Charlotte’s Web to my son. I began it on a bit of a whim, unsure if he was old enough, but he loves it — he was goofing off and naughty this evening, and promise of more chapters in the book about the pig turned him right around.

Anyway. Tonight, as Wilbur lay lonely and weeping in the rain, and as the voice of a friend called to him from the darkness, Byron sat up in bed and started guessing who it was. He thought it was the gander, which made no sense. He thought it was Fern. And when, in the next chapter, he saw who it was he said, in hush and awe:

A spider.

I cannot tell you how it was to re-experience that moment through him. I don’t even know if experienced it; I think when I read this book for the first time I knew it would be about a spider. Also, I wasn’t as bug crazy as he is — if anything, if I was surprised by the voice from the shadows belonging to a spider, I was disappointed. But not Byron. He was thrilled, amazed, and delighted.

A spider.

His joy is my joy. And the joy carries with it a sense of gravity– knowing that this moment, like first steps and first words, is over in a heartbeat. Byron will never again reach chapter five not knowing that the voice belongs to Charlotte, a spider. He will never again, say in wonder: a spider.

Harry will get his letter from Hogwarts, and Ralph will ride his toy motorcycle, and who knows what else, but nothing will top that, ever.

 

 

 

Notice what this blog post is not doing

I was thrilled to learn that Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which I reviewed here.

https://kurtisscaletta.com/2014/09/19/brown-girl-dreaming/

Also, since she won a lifetime achievement award and won the night with her speech, here’s my review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Catwings series, a family favorite.

https://kurtisscaletta.com/2014/03/18/catwings/

I am not linking to my review of A Series of Unfortunate Events, because though I did write one once, many years ago, that guy didn’t win anything and isn’t the story and isn’t important. What matters (to me) is that two people I really admire got some recognition. We don’t need to concern ourselves with unfortunate events.

 

Brother, I’m Dying

I’ve been unexpectedly drawn to memoir lately, and it would be hard to find one easier to recommend than this family history by Edwidge Danticat. Besides being full of memorable stories, it sort of (for me) revealed how such a thing might be done: as a series of vignettes, sequenced without rigid chronology, each with its own moral and purpose. Of these tales, her Uncle Joseph emerges as an heroic figure, with political and then religious zeal, courageous and loving, raising a number of children that aren’t strictly his, and (in one case) risking his life to rescue one from a precarious situation. When Edwidge is separated forever from her uncle to go join her parents in New York, it feels more like a rupture than a reunion. This generosity of spirit is similar to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Both memoirists let other people take the starring roles in their stories.

The book also reminds me in many ways of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Junot Diaz novel that traces Dominican family history to the days of Rafael Trujillo, just as Danticat traces her family history in Haiti back to the days of François Duvalier –both are stories of tyranny and diaspora, following the same arcs from Hispañola to New York sprawl.

But just as Haiti occupies the opposite half of an island from the Dominican Republic, this is an opposite kind of book. Diaz’s book is brutal, the characters driven by lust and possessiveness more than love, the narrative delivered with a dark and dry humor that reminds me more of Philip Roth than other Latin American writers. Danticat’s is about family bonds, and the love that drives their stories is real and uncompromising, the stories told with fearless sentiment.

Is the difference here between fiction and memoir? Male and female writers? It’s easy to see such dichotomies. But I find in Danticat what I’ve been missing in a lot of masculine fiction: unashamed hope and generosity. At some time in literary history sentimentality fell out of favor, and cold brutality held up as a timeless aesthetic standard rather than a fad. Danticat works from a different standard, one where she hopes to inspire and give strength to her readers, rather than win the acclaim of critics. That she won that acclaim anyway is testament to her finely honed storytelling skills.

My Reading List (and 2015 Ban)

A while back there was a meme on Facebook to list ten books that “stayed with you.” I didn’t do it — at least not seriously — because I’ve done so many things like that in the past, but it emerged that men were listing lists of books by men, where women tended to have more balanced lists. Even more, it emerged that white readers had lists of mostly white authors. My non-existent list would be at least half women (because I tend to list children’s books, and that field has always been well-represented by women, as is any endeavor that involves caring about kids), but it would be mostly or entirely white. And it’s not because I don’t care for books by people of color, it’s because I haven’t read enough of them to give me an ample supply to choose from. Song of Solomon is one of my favorite novels and might make the list, depending on where my head goes that day, but the number of other novels I’ve read by African American women is shamefully scant. I have so many books by white guys to choose from and deliberate over.

At the same time, my reading life has been somewhat uninspired. I can read David Mitchell or Donna Tartt and like what they’ve done and appreciate it in an academic way, but I have to admit those books don’t quite urge me on the way books used to. What would it be like to allow myself zero books by men, zero  books by white people for a year, I wondered? Besides challenging my assumptions and de-skewing my perspectives, could it simply refresh my excitement for reading by introducing me to a lot of great books I didn’t know about, or didn’t give a chance, because I thought naively, “that’s not for me”?

So I crowd-sourced a reading list of (mostly) recent books (all) by women of color.

I thought at first this would be a year-long experiment. Now I realize a year isn’t enough to give these authors, but a year (or so) of the ban on white guys is necessary.

Here it is: My Reading List.

The Worst Criticism

This week I found a website called “The Worst Cat,” which made me giggle for an hour. The trope is simple: an extended critique of what the author/blogger calls “the worst cat ever” which is obviously a baby hippo. Obvious, that is, to everyone but the author/blogger.

The Worst Cats It could be taken as a meta-commentary on criticism itself, succinctly capturing the argument Charles Baxter makes at length in one of my favorite essays. How many reviewers critique a book, movie, television show, etc., on how well it fits into the box they’ve made for it, its ability to measure up to their pre-conceived notions? In Baxter’s terms, you could say the author/blogger  here doesn’t engage with the formal properties of a baby hippo; he or she has not contextualized the hippo with mind to its intended audience or purpose.

Or maybe it’s just funny. I dunno.