Oddly, I posted this photo as my Facebook profile shot yesterday. It was taken to commemorate my lunch date with Carlos Fuentes, the brilliant, charming, and beautiful Mexican novelist who gave us The Death of Artemio Cruz, Aura, The Good Conscience, The Hydra Head, and more. I was thinking about him, and posted it.
He died today. (I feel fairly certain the two events are unrelated, though one never knows for sure, does one?) “For Patti, in the joy of meeting her,” he wrote in one of the books I shyly asked if he would sign.
May you rest in peace, Carlos Fuentes, you and all those words of yours and that name that sounds so beautiful when said aloud and your charming self. It was my honor to sit with you that afternoon in 1997 when you were just a pup at 68 and I was, yes, 37.
Here is the essay I wrote about reading, and about Carlos Fuentes, in 2006:
“We read to know we are not alone.” – C.S. Lewis
The Bermuda Triangle that has sucked up into its awful vortex my favorite fountain pen, my copy of Getting Things Done (ironic, isn’t it?), and my beautiful Canon Elph PowerShot SD600 digital camera has continued to grow in scope and intensity and greediness and sheer audacity. My winter coat, the right shoe to my favorite Merrell clogs from the Old North State Clothing Company, and the TV remote control are now gone. I haven’t seen my special highlighter in a week, the recipe for Gay’s mother’s pimento cheese is AWOL, and there have been no sightings of my button collection in quite some time. I lost my right stem yesterday, but found it this morning in a place even I couldn’t have imagined, which made me feel really terrible and small for secretly believing that the UPS man had stolen it from the front porch. I’ve hidden my favorite Moleskine and Zebra .7mm Cadoozles Fun Pencil to save them from the Centrifugal Fury.
My friend Rosemary insists that the camera and remote are in our family room; if they are, they are hiding quite assiduously. Losing the camera was devastating. I might have mentioned that once or twice or twelve times. But losing that remote control is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Except for missing “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and all those lovely animated Burl Ives-induced Frosty the Snowman movies, that tremendously cute if ornery Dr. House, the wonderful animated kids’ show, Charlie and Lola, and Kyra Sedgewick’s glorious Southern accent in “The Closer,” we are happier without it. Oh sure, at first we sat pecking at the cable box like barnyard chickens on crack, desperately trying to change channels without a knob, but then we realized we could just turn the TV off and move on to other things, like recreating the penultimate scene in Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” in macaroni, or, something more low-carb, like reading books.
When I was a child, I begged to be allowed to read in bed and was told that I could, until time for lights out. Then, to thwart my parents’ wishes that I be well-rested rather than well-read, I would sneak and read under my covers, sitting up so my head formed the apex of a blankie tent, illuminated from within like a brilliant blaze was consuming the covers, using a flashlight to continue romping through Mrs Piggle Wiggle’s latest adventure—perhaps the one on the farm!—until all hours of the night. I’m sure it fooled them when they peered in and could see only the miraculous glowing bed tent; finally, the Long Arm of the Law caught up with me.
“You’ll ruin your eyes,” my mother would wail. “You’ll ruin your eyes.” Given that I was already practically legally blind and wearing really ugly bifocals by the time I was 9, I reasoned with her: “I wouldn’t have to risk their further ruin if you would listen to logic and let me read until I weep with exhaustion.” My initial attempts at lawyerly reasoning were futile. No go. Lights out.
I had learned to read at four, well before starting school because my brother was in first grade and already reading; I refused to be left behind. I was also desperate to learn how to write my name—theonly thing standing between me and my own library card was being able to write my whole name myself. Having scaled that hurdle, finally, there were years of Pippi and Encyclopedia Brown and all those little biographies of famous people to look forward to!
Mama took me to the library every week without fail, holding like the Holy Grail my little orange library card with the metal ID number on it, tucking and retucking it intently inside its beautiful little green paper slipcase. I still have that card. I even have my original application for it, written in a gorgeous 5-year-old handwriting, crooked and exaggerated, those two “t’s” towering above the “a” like redwood overlords, a large donut for a dot over the “i.” I’m sure the card and application are here somewhere. Perhaps they’re with my clog.
When I got old enough to work, I finally got a job there. Just imagine the absolute thrill of riding that Bookmobile, taking books to the unwashed masses!
The tallest three humans in this house are Big Readers, Emma most of all. She reads so much—in daylight, under a blankie tent with a flashlight—that she puts me and Mr Brilliant to shame. Tess is making efforts, but at three years old, isn’t quite there yet; she can do a pretty convincing rendition of her book about Gus the Troll who has a beautiful voice and isn’t especially good looking, but I think she’s faking it.
Emma learned to read in the first grade under the graceful tutelage of Miss Jones, a wonderful young woman from South Africa who was her first teacher at the Washington International School.
The reading primers they used were British, the Oxford Reading Tree series illustrated by a man named Alex Brychta, complete with main characters named Biff and Kipper. Emma was so enamored of reading and of the small spectacles that appeared in each of Brychta’s illustrations, tucked into a corner, but there in each picture. “Why does he have those eyeglasses in every picture?” she would ask. “I don’t know, Buddy,” John replied. “Why don’t we call the man who painted the pictures and ask?”
And so they did, big John and little six-year-old Emma looked up Alex Brychta, found his phone number in London, and gave him a little ringy-dingy.
He was shocked. When he regained his composure, he very nicely told Emma all about the eyeglasses. It was to be the first of many such interactions for Emma. In fact, she assumed as a result that one was intended to correspond with all authors and artists, and her next conquest was an extended and delightful correspondence with a writer named Twig George. In the second grade, Emma was assigned to do a report on George’s A Dolphin Named Bob, so she, of course, expected that she would interview the author. Don’t we all?
In that way, she is truly Mr Brilliant’s daughter, a man who called the White House Pastry Chef to find out how to make a gingerbread castle, who called Clyde Barrow’s sister, Kurt Gödel’s psychiatrist, the janitor who cleaned up the Rosenberg’s execution chamber, and countless others. He called Hans Bethe once, who – at age 95 – answered his own phone.
“Everybody talks,” he told me, “if you come up with an interesting enough question.” I was going to have lunch with Carlos Fuentes once and John learned through transcripts of past interviews that Fuentes had a beloved second grade teacher who was formative in his life. Her name was Miss Florence Painter. Many of us mortals might have stopped there, but not Mr Brilliant. No, he tracked down that teacher. She had died, but we talked to her relatives, a series of calls and conversations about Carlos as a child that led me to an extraordinary welcome from Fuentes and his own fascinating stories of his childhood. He was thrilled to hear his teacher’s name, all these years later.
We are a family of seekers, it turns out, empowered by Mr Brilliant to call anyone and everyone.
Last week, in the glorious wake of the Missing Remote, Emma and I devised a plan to read a book each week in 2007. John wanted in on the action, so the three of us are now compiling our lists. Even though it is true, as the crotchety but generally correct Edmund Wilson once said, that “no two persons ever read the same book,” every other week the three of us will read one book together and on alternate weeks, we’ll read books of our own choosing. Some of mine will be re-reads because, as Cliff Fadiman said: “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”
We will no doubt be putting some authors on four-way conference calls.
“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said. And so it is that when we moved from Washington, 7,000 pounds of books moved with us, and this after pruning our shelves.
They are ordered in a way that would cause any librarian to shudder: here, this shelf has books with one-word titles (my favorites!): Regret, Boredom, Crying. Jump, for example. The shelf below has unusual histories: the history of vacations, the history of old age, the history of the housewife, the history of reading, laughter as subversive history, a history of walking, the history of stupidity, the history of hosiery (that’s for you, Rosemary!). There’s a whole section on forgeries that was inspired by William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Two cases over are some of the favorites from Mr Brilliant’s ephemera collection of 90,000 obtuse pamphlets, a veritable history of the United States in paper, those naïve surreal pamphlets of bizarre histories of double weight twine, the use of luggage, school lunches, shelled nuts, the United Brethren of Pullman Porters, and tin stamping.
Two shelves over to the left are the death books, a not insignificant grouping, then – of course – there’s the solitude section, which is near the section dedicated to Anne Lamott, the one focused on Jonathan Spence, Charles Hampden-Turner‘s shelf, and the shelf memorializing Carol Shields. There’s a section of poetry by an obscure American poet named Billy Collins—perhaps you’ve heard of him? And here’s the Tortured-French-Fiction-About-Art-and-Artists-Section, adjacent to the encyclopedias of hell, of heaven, and of everything in between those two points.
Amidst this Dewey Decimal nightmare, we’re creating a list of 52 books to read in 2007, 26 of which we all agree on and 26 wild cards to suit our own mood. To create my list, I’m looking at my own Massive Library of Unread Books and also at other people’s book lists. Ralph Waldo Emerson has written, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” And ask I shall: what 3 books do you suggest I add to my reading challenge list for 2007?
I’m an avid Jorge Luis Borges reader; he is a man who spent a lot of time in libraries in his career. “Like all men of the library,” he wrote, “I have traveled in my youth, I have wandered in search of a book.” Borges worked as a cataloguer at the Miguel Cane branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. The job didn’t interest him and he usually disappeared into the basement to read, write, and translate. The never-ending process of cataloguing inspired one of Borges’s most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel” (1941), in which the faithful catalog of the Library is supplemented with “thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog.”
In 1955 Borges became Director of the National Library. “I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness,” Borges noted alluding to his now almost complete blindness. As he wrote in “The Secret Miracle”: “A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: ‘What are you looking for?’ Hladik answered: ‘I am looking for God.’ The librarian said to him: ‘God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.’”
Still, he imagined that “Paradise will be a kind of library.” In an odd and Populist way (back to TV!), and to connect alpha and omega dots that rarely, if ever, are connected, Borges is like a character played by actor Burgess Meredith in a 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode called “Time Enough at Last.” In it, Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a bank teller thoroughly obsessed with reading, much to the dismay of his boss at work and his wife at home. Bemis suddenly finds himself the last man on Earth after surviving a nuclear attack (like Borges sneaking into the library basement, Bemis had snuck into the bank vault to read over his lunch break and emerged to find himself alone in a destroyed world.)
When he sits in a pile of rubble that used to be the library, (somehow the books have survived the vast conflagration), he is distraught until he realizes that now he can read all the time! Overjoyed, he makes piles and piles of books to read for the years to come—until he drops his significantly thick eyeglasses and they shatter, smashing his only lenses and leaving him unable to read.
If Paradise is a library, hell is a library with shattered eyeglasses—or, in Borges’ case, being in an infinite library while blind.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
When I first traveled to Stockholm on a business trip, I had one thing in mind: ditch the fascinating and no doubt life-altering conference on modern human resources measurement systems and find the Holy Grail. Go to the place where Astrid Lundgren lives and stand in front of her house. Lundgren was, of course, the creator of my childhood she-ro, Pippi Longstocking. By the time I was in Stockholm, she was very old and not to be bothered. And so I just stood there, looking at her house.
Throw your TV remote away and be a book fool. Read, write in the margins, talk to people about the books you read. Create interesting questions. Find Miss Florence Painter, your favorite writer’s second grade teacher. Talk to her.
Call writers. Support the book publishing industry and independent bookstores. Renew your library card. If you have children or access to children, create traditions for them that center on your public library. Always carry a book, a pen, and an index card. Always.
And tell me: what 3 books do you suggest I add to my reading challenge list for 2007?
Victor Hugo said that “to learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” There are so desperately many people in the U.S. who cannot read. Can we help spark a fire for them?
Teach someone to read. Give them a whole world.
Just one short year ago, here’s what I was pondering: Listen to fishies