from The Vagabond's Bookshelf: A Memoir of Rereading [a temporary title; do you hate it?]Dawn PotterMy kind may exist only in books. At least, books are the only place where we seem to meet. We are more than merely readers; we are obsessive readers. And we go further yet: we are obsessive rereaders--not because we are scholars or teachers but because the book itself has become necessary to us, like a cigarette habit.
And like a cigarette habit, our obsession with certain books can be a public sign that some aspect of life has slipped from our control. We are in the clutch of books and, at moments of stress or need, we behave badly about them. Rising from the page, my fellows speak to me ruefully about their adoration; like me, they are the first to wince at their own behavior. Coleridge, for instance, recalling his early passion for a handful of books, allows his small self no quarter.
My father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling: in consequence I was very miserable. . . . So I became fretful and timorous, and a tell-tale; and . . . read incessantly. My father’s sister kept an everything shop at Crediton, and there I read through all the gilt-covered little books that could be had at that time, and likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, etc., etc., etc., etc. And I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly; and in a flood of them I was accustomed to race up and down the churchyard, and act over all I had been reading, on the docks, the nettles, and the rank grass. At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarles; and then I found the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings), that I was haunted by specters, whenever I was in the dark: and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay, and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced, and burnt them. [letter to Thomas Poole, October 9, 1797]
Such loving, hopeful parents! Confronted by an incorrigible rereader, what else could they have done? I say this with only slight irony. Even I, an obsessive reader myself, am constantly frustrated by the readers around me. When I ask my twelve-year-old son to help me rake leaves, and he, in response, glances up from his book, smiles sweetly, and tells me, “But Mom, I’m yearning for knowledge,” I feel that pricking, eye-narrowing frustration that must have eventually driven Coleridge’s father to hurl his son’s fairy stories into the fire. Parents dream of raising strong, lithe children who hit home runs and race across green meadows, not pallid hunchbacks coiled speechlessly over a page. The image of little blacking-factory Dickens huddled in an unheated garret and poring over Roderick Random is not charming. It’s pathetic. And if we can barely stand to recall ourselves as pathetic, how can we wish it for our children?
Monday, November 30, 2009
Information about the 2010 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching is now up on the Frost Place website. Conference director Baron Wormser tells me that his trip to the NCTE convention in Philly was successful, although the teeny-tiny Frost Place table was comically dwarfed by the textbook-hawking ogres who surrounded him.
Today I'm once again alone in the house, after an intense week of baking a different dessert every night. As a pleasant change, I plan to bake nothing. Instead, I will first mail off a completed editing project and then go back to writing the opening chapter of my rereading memoir.
As you can see, I've once again come to terms with my lack of critical acumen. And because I am striving to be true to that self, I will do what I rarely allow myself do: I'm posting a first-draft scribble from the chapter. Feel free to criticize.