the mother tongue of my imagination

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.

18 thoughts on “the mother tongue of my imagination

  1. Amateur Reader says:

    My goal is to be an approachable snob. Or maybe an unapproachable non-snob. Whichever.

    Ultimately, your reading has to be for you. Your writing, too. If it is working well for you, it will turn out to be of value to others as well. How many others, who knows.

    I should replace every “you” with “me,” because that’s what I actually mean. But it’s true, I think.

    • Carolyn says:

      Well I’ve found you approachable, so something’s working. That’s good advice. I often find myself wanting people’s approval in what I do, unfortunately (sometimes it’s a good motivator to get me to read more, especially when keeping a book blog). Virginia Woolf and Proust speak to me so personally I find it hard to write about everything I’ve gotten from them, but I love feeling closeted away in my own private reading experiences with them.

  2. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    Thank you for sharing your book reading journey – it was heartfelt and thought provoking. Surely it doesn’t matter what we read as long as we read? Having maybe slightly frowned on people reading tabloid papers I now think ‘hurrah more people are reading and that’s what matters. ‘ I wonder what others may think of me spending time reading blogs when I could spend that time reading books?

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you. I’m not attempting to judge anyone else’s reading with this post, merely to state my own take on why I like to read what I read. As a library person (‘reference assistant’ is the official title!), I’m happy with whatever people read. I have noticed how much time I spend on book blogs talking about reading instead of actually reading… but then even hermity readers need a community!

  3. bookssnob says:

    This is a really interesting post. Like you I prefer older fiction to modern, just because that was what I grew up on. Conversely to you, I grew up in a very atheistic household that didn’t really care what I read, as long as I was reading something, but I always somehow found myself gravitating towards old fashioned stories. I am a born romantic, I think, and I loved reading stories about people in the Victorian times whose lives were so different to mine. Not much has changed really – I like classics and novels written before 1950ish because of the social history in them as much as the stories they tell. Modern novels just don’t have the same appeal to me.
    Also, I like books with an element of spirituality to them that explore religion and God, as I became a Christian as a young adult, and modern novels don’t tend to be as forthcoming in this area as older ones.
    I don’t think people should ever feel the need to defend their personal taste. People who have a problem with what other people choose to spend their time doing are clearly dissatisfied with themselves and just want to pick holes in other people’s characters and tastes to make themselves feel less inadequate. I like reading classics and older novels. It’s my choice. They are what I most enjoy reading, and I’m not going to apologise for it! I don’t push my preferences on others so I don’t expect others to push theirs on me!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you and I agree with the born romantic part! That must be part of the appeal of old books to me. I’m also fascinated by history and love to read older novels to get more of a sense of continuity with the past. I find history to be a huge unending gigantic story, the one that holds all the smaller ones inside of it, so as I read (right now a lot from the early 20th century, which I hadn’t focused on much before), I feel I can understand another small section of history and humanity better and link that in with the rest of what I know about the past. It’s wonderfully unending!

  4. Melissa says:

    This is a great post. I’ve had similar experiences with non-readers putting down my love of reading because it isn’t something they enjoy. I don’t push reading on others, but I don’t think it’s fair that they should look down on me for doing it.
    I love reading classics, not because I’m suppose to, I just love them. I’ve found that they are classics for a reason. I don’t love all of them, but I’ve found dozens that mean the world to me. I also read literary fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, historical novels, memoirs, biographies, nonfiction, etc. I don’t ignore any recommendation and classics are a big part of that.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Melissa, it’s nice to see you here. 🙂 You’re right, there is more of a mix to my reading too, it’s not just all classics all the time, but they are very dear to my heart and the type of books I aspire to read more of. I also used to read a lot of plays (I studied acting and playwrighting for a while), but don’t seem to do that anymore which I sometimes miss because they are great literature (and luckily short!) too. And poetry, I read more internationally there than anywhere else.

  5. Emily says:

    As a fellow librarian and bookshopian (?) I found this really interesting. I think people should read whatever they feel like and I don’t force myself to read anything. I love Virginia Woolf and Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy, you name it (except James Joyce – has ANYONE finished Ulysses?) but I’ve also read the Twilight series and if Hogwarts was a real school I’d have my name down for it (despite being a tad old).

    What annoys me in the library these days is not that people feel intimidated by all the serious literature, it’s the complete lack of serious literature! All we seem to have are sagas, production-line crime, and if I see one more book about vampires I may have to stake someone! We’re trying so hard NOT to intimidate people we’re leaving out all the good stuff. It’s just as bad to only offer lightweight stuff as to only have classics. We don’t even HAVE a classics section anymore but we do have an entire bookcase for Mills and Boon and Little Black Dress.

    BTW, your childhood reading looks a lot like mine. But thank goodness my library when I was a kid had classics like Anne of Green Gables. Good luck finding it now among mountains of ‘Astrosaurs’ and Daisy Meadows’ endless flipping fairies.

    This is almost as long as your post! Sorry. I find librarians have a lot of pent up rage. It comes of being quiet all day 🙂

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Emily, so nice of you to come by! I don’t like James Joyce much either but would definitely be joining you at Hogwarts!

      My library has a classics paperback spinner, which is mostly used by kids who are desperate for a copy of Animal Farm for their essay that’s due tomorrow and all the copies on the shelf are checked out… (sigh) Someone came into the library once and asked me where the James Patterson section was! I had to explain the concept of limited copies, all checked out at the moment. Luckily libraries aren’t being paid to promote anything over everything else, yet…

      I have to agree with you about the pent up rage, sadly! But I like long comments. 🙂

  6. Nicola says:

    What a thoughtful and intelligent post. Occasionally I meet a fellow Austenite in ‘real life’ but the internet is a lifeline to those of us who like to hang out with other literary types!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you for reading! In the library where I work there are about five Austenites (and possibly more undeclared…??), not including myself — it’s this collection of quiet girls all going into literary pursuits that seems to do it! So apparently I’m just insatiable about needing more book talk. 😉

  7. Christina says:

    I enjoyed your post a lot; it’s always interesting to see why people read what they read!

    I tend to agree with you about the classics being better than modern “literary” fiction. Contemporary books tend to be avant-garde in their style and focus on trying to do something unique with format, chronology, point of view, or what have you. I’m generally not impressed with books that are all about the concept; I find them pretentious. For me, a novel should first and foremost have a good story, and a lot of modern novels seem to do without plot altogether!

    Of course, this is just my extremely biased opinion. 🙂 And I quite enjoy a lot of genre fiction (mystery, fantasy, even romance) because it tends to focus on the story.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Christina, it’s nice to see you here! I find most literary fiction leaves me cold, partly because it’s too obviously writer’s workshopped and show-offy at the sentence level, but without a strong interesting character to pull me into the story. The still living authors that work for me (A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Helen Humphreys) have good writing but also characters that immediately start talking and doing. Perhaps that’s the influence of Victorian novels on my preferences, but there it is. I think A.S. Byatt’s Possession is innovative in how she tells the story, using letters, poems, diaries, and two time periods, but it’s also accessible while being scholarly, it’s not snobby. You’re right I think, a good story does matter.

  8. Violet says:

    I can relate to much of what you wrote. I grew up in relative social isolation on a farm, with animals and books for company. People think I am weird because I don’t have a TV, but I grew up without one, and it seems weird to me that people spend so much time watching TV. I would rather read.

    It took me 10 years to finish Ulysses. 🙂 And I love Proust, Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert, et al. However, I am a bit “hmmm” about the whole translation thing. Not sure I would want to read a new translation of Madame Bovary. I like Emma the way she is in my Penguin classics version. 🙂

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Violet, thanks for coming by. 🙂 I’ve gotten used to living in a city, especially having coffee shops and bookstores close by, but I miss living in the country, closer to nature and quiet and fewer people so much. I like watching the occasional movie, but could do quite well without tv, my husband watches it more than I would like!

      Wow, ten years! Did you find it worth it? Which translation do you have of Madame Bovary? I guess because I read Proust in several translations, first in the older Moncrieff version and then in the new one that Penguin just put out, with different translators for each volume, I’m always curious to see what different translators will do with it. At first I thought Proust should be read in the more old fashioned Edwardian Moncrieff translation, but then Lydia Davis’s newer more straight forward approach won me over. Although I do prefer Constance Garnett’s 19th century translation of Anna Karenina! Really, I’ll just stop now. 🙂

  9. Eva says:

    I have always loved classics too, and this year I’ve been actively reading even more of then than usual, which has made my reading even more satisfying. And yet, I hesitate to write a post on that, because I worry about backlash/people thinking I’m saying other lit styles are less ‘worthy’/etc. I wish I could somehow magically wave a wand, and make the whole idea that ALL classic authors are intimidating go away. For example, I adore Wilkie Collins and Jane Austen…while both are classic authors, they have a really accessible style and are focused as much on plot as anything else. And I’m always trying to convince non-classic readers to give htem a go. 🙂

    That being said, I read a lot of modern lit too…especially international stuff. So for me, it’s all about finding a balance! 🙂

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