There are two kinds of people in the world: those who don’t bother to keep books they’ve already read, and the rest of us. Keeping old books: it’s a kind of glorious madness, to be sure.
For the past three weeks I’ve been packing and shipping my books from Florida to Maine, as a sign of genuine commitment to my new home state. Culling and packing. Wiping off dust and cat hair, neatly stacking them in boxes at the post office (fighting off those envious citizens unabashedly coveting my personal stash of clear packing-tape rolls) and hefting said boxes onto the counters. My last box weighed 48 pounds. There are 14 boxes piled up so far in my mudroom up north.
Media mail rate, je t’adore. You are maybe the last vestige of civilization.
Why? Why save beloved old paperback copies of Member of the Wedding, the Complete Stories of Katherine Mansfield, the slender volume of poems by Rupert Brooke that I brought to Reed College along with my Black Watch plaid Bermuda shorts and apple green Hermes portable typewriter (which I also still have)?
Because every one of these volumes is a time capsule preserving experiences and emotions. Who I was when I read it, how I changed as I read it, who I might become if I read it again. (And I do, I do re-read. So much pleasure in that, when you’re not breathlessly reading for plot revelations.)
And as I neared the end of my Herculean task, a treasure was unearthed from one of the smaller bookshelves: The Doves’ Nest and other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield. A slim black hardcover; first published, June 1923 and reprinted most recently in 1942 by Constable & Co, Ltd, London. And on the flyleaf I have inscribed: Swansea, Dec.29, 1970. Well do I remember that little bookshop in Wales; apparently it was quite famous but we discovered it by accident. It was there that I also bought Specimen Days by Walt Whitman and learned for the first time of his time of service as a volunteer nurse to wounded Civil War soldiers in hospitals in Washington, D.C.
So many years ago, Katherine and Walt mingling in my memory, along with images of the towering purple and white rhododendrons blooming and looming over the canal towpaths my travel partner and I were traversing as we hiked in Wales. Before I was a mother—before, before, before. The Doves’ Nest was carefully saved from that two-year period of living in London where I was determined to put my decision to devote myself to writing to the test: no friends, new country, dampness, cold, utility strikes, IRA bombings—and all day to write, to call my own bluff. It reminds me that I made the right decision, to plan my life around books and writing, no matter the costs or rewards.
I opened the slender black-cloth volume of Mansfield to one of my favorite stories, The Doll’s House. It’s perhaps my favorite of any writer.
Virginia Woolf famously said of Katherine Mansfield, “I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.” Here’s an excerpt that is chilling in its brilliance, from The Doll’s House; upper class girls bullying their working-class fellow students in a school in New Zealand:
“Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?” shrilled Lena.
Dead silence. But instead of answering, Lil only gave her silly, shamefaced smile. She didn’t seem to mind the question at all. What a sell for Lena!
Lena couldn’t stand that. She put her hands on her hips; she shot forward. “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” she hissed spitefully.
This was such a marvellous thing to have said that the little girls rushed away in a body, deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy. Someone found a long rope, and they began skipping. And never did they skip so high, run in and out so fast, or do such daring things as on that morning.
I have read The Doll’s House many times and its impact never dims. The ending will leave you numb with wonder over Mansfield’s control of craft and deep empathy. Go find the story and give yourself a treat as we rumble into 2023, where class struggle is in full flower in America.
On January 14th I was lucky enough to attend a keynote reading and Q & A at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise conference featuring the best-selling novelist Elizabeth Strout. In person, she is utterly unpretentious, witty and disarmingly open. Questioned with rather laser-like intensity by Andre Dubus III after her reading of the opening pages of Lucy By the Sea, Strout was unfailingly self-possessed and guileless. Remarking on her late-in-life fame, she commented that she’s been writing since she was 4 and finally recognized by the publishing world at 43. “An overnight success,” she remarked drily. Asked if it bothers her that readers tend to want to conflate her with protagonists such as her character Lucy Barton, she placidly answered that it doesn’t really matter to her one way or another. A wise writer, who knows that the whims and assumptions of readers cannot be controlled.
She credits her English-professor-mother with helping to inspire her insatiable curiosity about people— a necessity for all writers, she thinks. Ms. Strout remembers her mother commenting on a pedestrian seen through a shop window—“There’s one woman who’s not in a hurry to get home to her husband!” and as a child of 8, wondering, “How did my mother know this? How could she tell?” The mystery of human behavior and how to capture its myriad variations on the page seems to be the primary source of Strout’s creative energy, which only seems to be gathering force as she continues to grace us with her subtle and deeply felt work. I for one will race to read her next, and her next. (A friend asked recently where to start if one was new to her work, and I answered without hesitation: Amy and Isabelle.)
I’d like to share a quote from a New York Times review by Brandon Taylor of a short story collection by the Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto entitled Dead-End Stories.
His words filled me with gratitude that someone was brave enough to express thoughts I’ve been having a lot lately:
“The spiky fictions of Anglophone literature of the past decade—staked on the idea of passivity as agency within a violent, dystopian, capitalist hellscape—are cutting and observant; but sometimes they leave the reader wondering: when can books be warm again?
[Yoshimoto’s] stories made me believe again that it was possible to write honestly, vigorously, morally, about the material reality of characters; to write toward human warmth as a reaffirmation of the bonds that tie us together. This is a supremely hopeful book, one that feels important because it shows that happiness, while not always easy, is still a subject worthy of art.”
Amen and thank you, Brandon Taylor! It’s a subject I want to return to in more detail in the future; I’m just so grateful that it’s on the table for discussion!
Banana Yoshimoto, your book is next on my list.
Photo contributed by the author.