On Coming to Things Late
I’ve been reading all my life, averaging a couple of books a week, I would say. A mix of poetry, essays, novels. And there are the books I obsessively read, those by Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen. I’m a big fan of re-reading, too. When you pick up a book that you know you once loved, but have come close to forgetting it, the re-read is sweet. I’m almost ready to re-read Houskeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Usually at Christmas I’ll re-read a classic, by Austen or the Brontes or George Eliot.
And yet it’s possible to miss things entirely. To have huge gaps in one’s reading.
A book that I’ve been told often by friends that I’d love, and have never read, until lately, is A Prayer for Owen Meany. What is it that holds you aloof from a book that you’re quite sure you’ll love? I don’t know, I really don’t. But suddenly it calls, and it opens up a lot of good stuff inside of you, almost as though it was waiting for you to find it exactly then. And then, the next lovely thing is remembering that there are a lot of other books by the same author.
Reading APFOM so soon after reading the Springsteen book, Born to Run, was kind of amusing, given that Owen Meany’s voice is recognizable by the all-caps, and Springsteen employs them from time to time. (One reviewer likens them to a dad-voice, but I can’t help thinking of Owen Meany, now).
In APFOM, Owen responds to the character John saying that he’s “just a reader.”
“DON’T SOUND SO ASHAMED…READING IS A GIFT”.
”I learned it from you,” I told him.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT – IT’S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT – IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”
Compare this passage to one in the Springsteen book, not in all-caps, but still:
“My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.”
Life is a gift, it’s joy, it’s an exercise in courage, and it’s certainly always one foot in the light, one in the darkness, one step forward, two steps back.
I’ve come to John Irving late, I’ve come to Springsteen late. And I’m obsessively listening to the music. It’s like I invented Bruce Springsteen. I’ve downloaded nearly all the albums, and I’m watching concerts and interviews and you name it. It’s in my car, on the treadmill, and on my recently played list.
I’m that way with books, reading The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector, over and over. And I’m like that way with music. Finding one album or artist and just playing it and playing it. I can trace this back to the time I drove a Volkswagen Fox, and my cassette tape of Beggar’s Banquet by the Stones got stuck inside the player. It would have cost a lot to have it extricated, and anyway after a while it just became one with the car. In fact, I sold it with the cassette still stuck in it. When I gave anyone a ride, they always wanted to hear Beggar’s Banquet, too.
That aside, I think the moral of the story for writers or makers is that your audience will find you in their own time, at their own right time. And when they do, there is never enough. So don’t stop making things. What would I not give for more work by Woolf or Austen or Lispector? So, just keep making and writing please. Have some faith that someone out there is waiting for it. They are. I am.