There are a few things I’ve been thinking about for a while since I’ve started book blogging, so I thought I’d address them and then maybe get around to why I love Proust in the bargain.
This post by Nymeth at things mean a lot is one of the things that has been making me think for weeks now and wondering how to write about it. She writes about how non-readers may become defensive around readers, saying they just don’t have the time to read and that if you read, you really must not have a life. I haven’t had too much of a problem with that, perhaps because I’ve worked in a bookstore and a library in the past few years and was in university before that (with other muckier jobs in between), but what I do notice and worry about is this:
I worry people (online or in real life) may find me an unapproachable snob because I like reading the classics. I had one slightly defensive comment on my blog a while back, about how people who only read the classics and dismiss every other kind of book can be ‘snooty’ and need to branch out into ‘new and better’ reading experiences. I have often wondered since if other people feel this way about my blog in particular or just in general. I know the classics can seem intimidating and some people write about them in a very forbidding academic highblown style and so I try to write about the classics here in a balanced and approachable way, I hope.
I have had experiences with the literary hipsters from working in an indie bookstore and while I shared an interest in some of the same books, I found that it often became one big subtle competition over who had read the most and by which difficult big deal make you look smart authors. Also, reading for fun didn’t really seem to be in their vocabulary. (Unless Catcher in the Rye is fun? ;)) On the other hand, I also had a bookstore friend who was a fan of historical romances who seemed to want me to change my taste to become just like hers and seemed to get defensive that I was a picky reader.
So this is a sensitive topic. All kinds of judgments seem to be made about what kinds of books you read and what that means about you. As I have said before, the kinds of readers I most admire are those who read high and low literature, not being afraid of either. To me the classics have endured for a reason and can offer life changing experiences when you take the time to hang out with the great minds of the past. But making room for pleasure, release, escape, relaxation in your reading, that is also important. There are times when I’ve become burnt out from so much ‘all the right literature’ (in order to further impress ‘all the right people’ I admit!) that I would take a month to gorge myself on as many mystery novels as I could get through. I’ve also dabbled in teen fantasy, chick lit, sci-fi and horror. I can’t say I’ve became a devotee of any of those genres (yet, though I keep meaning to read more science fiction) but I feel my understanding of people, books and the world increases the more widely I read.
So with all those things said, I keep feeling that I need to defend or at least explain why I love the classics and why, for me, they are more accessible than contemporary ‘literary fiction’.
A lot of this has to do with my upbringing. I grew up on a farm in central Alberta, Canada among conservative christians. (I do not label myself as a ‘christian’ anymore but did for a long time) The books that were available to me were old fashioned, to say the least. Swiss Family Robinson was my favourite, but I was also given the box sets of Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and the Narnia books. I liked the Narnia books the best, feeling a slight resentment that I was expected to be like Anne or Laura in the other books when I didn’t closely relate to them on some mysterious deep girl bonding level. We also didn’t have a tv until I was about ten. So I played outside, I made up stories in my head and I read anything I could find (including such classics as The Cross and the Switchblade!)
As soon as we moved to a city, I went to the library or bookmobile every week, coming home with piles of Nancy Drew yellow hardcovers and anything else interesting off the paperback spinners like the Boxcar Children (the actual bookshelves full of the more approved children’s literature seemed too intimidating to my eleven year old self!) I went to private christian schools and remained pretty sheltered overall, my teachers read us books like The Secret Garden and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and we went to church more than once a week.
In junior high, at another new school in a bigger city, I took solace in my school library, which was full of old classics like everything Louisa May Alcott ever wrote and christian historical fiction like The House of Winslow series, following a noble christian family through American history. I also read the Saddle Club books (and had a set of horse crazy friends) and some of the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.
In high school my family moved again and I was suddenly and without much warning thrown into public school. It was a shock to go to a much larger school and one full of cultural references I’d never heard of. I had only gone to a movie theatre twice in my life at that point and had no idea what most of the people around me were talking about as they debated which movie to see in class. In the end I came to love that school and my friends there far more than the close minded autocrats of many of my previous schools who’d kept so much knowledge of the world and my own culture from me (obviously my parents who had also been raised in very sheltered environments and the churches we went to played a part in keeping me so culturally inept).
By the end of high school I was sneaking out of the house to go to movies and borrow teen magazines and Beatles cds from the library, desperate at last to educate myself on all the pop culture I’d been missing out on. I tried to learn as much about movies as I could, simply to have something to relate to people about. I knew I’d always be introverted but I thought if I at least knew something more current than Narnia, I’d be more likely to make a few friends.
Eventually I made my way to university (after a year of homeschooling when my family moved yet again, a year of bible college and a year of acting school…) My advanced English class in high school had given me a desire to study English literature in university some day and I had back of my mind inklings that I wanted to be a writer, if only I dared to try. University was such an enlightening and wonderful time for me. I finally found great literature I could relate to (Lord of the Flies in high school didn’t quite do that for me) in Virginia Woolf, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare and others and finally began to define myself as a feminist, which led to no longer wanting to be part of a sexist religion that puts women firmly under men.
In the midst of a very strict religious upbringing, my love of books gave me a sense of self, showed me people who had a self that hadn’t been completely given over to endless christian self sacrifice. Books and literature were what saved me from the mind numbing conformity my church and family wanted to impose on me and the world. They gave me a curiosity about stories and about the world, to look further, to know more.
At the same time, I remain a person ill at ease in my own culture. I still feel like an outsider because of my closed upbringing and have difficulty relating to a lot of literature set after the 1950s. I’ve read the entire Bible twice through as a teenager, I grew up on a lot of old books, I simply feel more comfortable with old fashioned language and style, odd as that may sound. Also, as someone who wants to be a writer, I continue to feel a desperate need to catch up on all the great literature I missed living in the christian cave. I see the great writers of the past as my ‘tribe’, people like George Eliot who struggled with religion vs art herself, I relate to the struggles and stories of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte more than to the media numbed consumerist ennui of the present.
Perhaps now you’ll all be telling me I need to branch out to some new and more current reading experiences! But in the midst of all of my mental and physical moving about as I grew up (losing my beloved childhood home on our farm in the process), I also feel that the old books are my home:
…such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them.
(The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot, quote found here as I haven’t read it yet).
Literature feels like the one thing that is mine, that defines me (especially growing up around a younger and more talented sister, all I could continue to repeat under my breath was ‘as long as she doesn’t like books I don’t care what else she’s good at’) and I will always want to know more about it.
Well this is long and personal and all I can say further about why I love Proust and In Search of Lost Time is that he is nostalgic as I am and daydreamy, a nature lover, and someone who’s imagination always does one better than real life where he is often disappointed when reality finally comes. He’s poetic and sensitive and obviously not for everyone (just like Ulysses by James Joyce isn’t something I can ever see myself finishing) but I love that he was completely himself, stopping to admire a flower even if people thought he was odd and writing such a huge book about his own thoughts and feelings and past and…. I’m going to stop now because this is long and my head hurts. That’s me and Proust in Paris.