“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”
Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.
About eighteen months ago, I moved from the UK to Australia. After spending almost the entirety of my 20s in London, I felt lost as soon as I left the place. Our 20s are typically the years we spend looking for ourselves. London is where I went through that process. Along the way, my identity super-glued itself to where I lived; by the time I turned 30, I lost all flexibility: London became the only place I could feel uniquely myself. It was no surprise that my departure triggered a crisis of the self; suddenly, I felt porous, as if I could either morph into a different, unrecognisable person, or even disappear completely. During the early months, I did walk around as though I had actually evaporated–melted into air. To will myself back, I turned to my favourite works of art; books, records, paintings, and photographs. They became the most potent ways to connect with who I am.
“Tangled Up In Blue,” by Bob Dylan, is possibly my favourite ever song (it’s neck and neck with another; “The Golden Age of Aviation,” by The Lucksmiths). It’s a genius abstract narrative of a decaying relationship told with a blend of first and third person. From verse to verse, Dylan’s leaps of perspective–from his to his wife’s–remind me how important it is to nurture my elasticity; to stay in touch with who I am, but not to hold on to a fixed, unmovable idea of the self.
When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.
Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.
It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.
Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.
Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:
“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”
My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.
A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.
The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.
When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.
I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:
“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”
I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.
Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.
We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.
Feeling slightly uninspired and unsure of what to read next, I’ve been spending the last few days re-reading bits from books I delved into many years ago. I underline and earmark all of my books to death, so it’s easy to notice what I was particularly moved by. Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up,” is truly tremendous. Here, Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this is a true inside look into not only the often lonely life of a comedian, but also a primer on what it’s like to operate as a creative.
While I do tend to re-write lines from books I’ve read, I had, in the fog of having babies and moving countries, forgotten so much of this book. I was especially moved his re-telling of painful childhood experiences, and the role they play in shaping our art:
“…My father muttered something to me, and I responded with a mumbled “What”. He shouted, “You heard me,” thundered up from his chair, pulled his belt out of its loops, and inflicted a beating that seemed never to end. I curled my arms around my body as he stood over me like a titan and delivered the blows. This was the only incident of its kind in our family. My father was never physically abusive toward my mother or sister and he was never again physically extreme with me. However, this beating and his worsening tendency to rages directed at my mother – which I heard in fright through the thin walls of our home – made me resolve, with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me, and for perhaps thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift.
The rest of my childhood, we hardly spoke; there was little he said to me that was not critical, and there was little I said back that was not terse or mumbled. When I graduated from high school, he offered to buy me a tuxedo. I refused because I had learned from him to reject all aid and assistance; he detested extravagance and pleaded with us not to give him gifts. I felt, through a convoluted logic, that in my refusal, I was being a good son. I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo, that I had let him be a dad. Having cut myself off from him, and by association the rest of the family, I was incurring psychological debts that would come due years later in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrongheaded quest for solitude.
I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”
From her seminal 1961 Vogue essay on self-respect (also found in her sublime collection of meditations, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem“), Joan Didion expounds upon the true meaning of knowing who you are (failures and all):
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.
To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
I adore this essay. Here, Zadie Smith sublimely – and funnily – describes the subtle difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure, she writes, is relatively easy to find, instant, and replicable. For Smith, a pleasurable experience is embodied in a pineapple popsicle from a stand on Washington Square, or the ecstasy she experiences people watching on the streets of New York City. Joy, on the other hand, is a more tangled experience in which, Smith says, one can find no pleasure at all, but still need in order to live. To make the point, she writes of her experience in having a child:
“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”
Joy is something you can lose and never regain (consider, as Smith does at the end of the essay, the loss of a partner or a child). It is painful, vulnerable and more often than not completely lacking in pleasure.
A stunning (as always) poem by Kate Tempest. Words below:
He’s in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window,
In every jealous whispered word,
in every ghost that will not rest.
He’s in every father with a favourite,
Every eye that stops to linger
On what someone else has got, and feels the tightening in their chest.
He’s in every young man growing boastful,
Every worn out elder, drunk all day;
muttering false prophecies and squandering their lot.
He’s there – in every mix-up that spirals far out of control – and never seems to end, even when its beginnings are forgot.
He’s in every girl who ever used her wits. Who ever did her best.
In every vain admirer,
Every passionate, ambitious social climber,
And in every misheard word that ever led to tempers fraying,
Every pawn that moves exactly as the player wants it to,
And still remains convinced that it’s not playing.
He’s in every star crossed lover, in every thought that ever set your teeth on edge, in every breathless hero, stepping closer to the ledge, his is the method in our madness, as pure as the driven snow – his is the hair standing on end, he saw that all that glittered was not gold. He knew we hadn’t slept a wink, and that our hearts were upon our sleeves, and that the beast with two backs had us all upon our knees as we fought fire with fire, he knew that too much of a good thing, can leave you up in arms, the pen is mightier than the sword, still his words seem to sing our names as they strike, and his is the milk of human kindness, warm enough to break the ice – his, the green eyed monster, in a pickle, still, discretion is the better part of valour, his letters with their arms around each others sholuders, swagger towards the ends of their sentences, pleased with what they’ve done, his words are the setting for our stories – he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language, he’s in our mouths, his words have tangled round our own and given rise to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel, we cant imagine how we’d feel without them.
See – he’s less the tights and garters – more the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of your last embrace.
He’s in the laughter of the night before, the tightened jaw of the morning after,
He’s in us. Part and parcel of our Royals and our rascals.
He’s more than something taught in classrooms, in language that’s hard to understand,
he’s more than a feeling of inadequacy when we sit for our exams,
He’s in every wise woman, every pitiful villain,
Every great king, every sore loser, every fake tear,
His legacy exists in the life that lives in everything he’s written,
And me, I see him everywhere, he’s my Shakespeare.
I love reading with my two year old, Leo, all the time. Though as time has gone on, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find great, inspiring books with female characters who aren’t princesses who somehow fall in the safe, strong arms of a brave knight. Many of our favourite books are centred around male heroes (The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Iggy Peck, Architect, Where The Wild Things Are, Stuck), though over time I have found a few (too few) brilliant books with leading female characters. This is an actual issue:
“Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. … More insidiously, children’s books with female protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroine to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.”
While they haven’t been easy to find (certainly not as easy as finding great books with male protagonists), here are a few of our favourites:
The beautiful and heartening story of Rosie Revere – a shy, quiet girl by day who turns into a dazzling inventor of all sorts of machinery by night. She dreams of becoming an engineer, and, throughout the story, faces ridicule when she fails in her effort to build a cheese-powered helicopter (it crashes). Her great-great-aunt Rose though, herself an engineer who built airplanes during WWII, re-assures her that before her helicopter crashed, it flew:
“It crashed. That is true. But first it did just what it needed to do. Before it crashed, Rosie… before that… it flew! Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!”
This is a stunning tale that not only breaks gender stereotypes, but also drives forward a helpful and wise message about the value of failure.
From the collection Ordinary People Change the World comes “I Am Amelia Earhart,” the tremendously invigorating and courageous story of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviation pioneer who, amongst her many record breaking ventures, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This short biographical book starts with Earhart’s childhood, during which her parents encouraged her to “wear dresses and play with dolls,” and discouraged her from “unladylike adventures.” She ignores them though, and moves on to build her own flying contraptions in her backyard. At twenty-three, she meets the aviation pioneer Frank Hawks, who takes her on her first flight. From then on, she decides she wants to fly on her own. In between odd and casual jobs, she buys herself a small airplane and begins training. Though her talent is earned, not given:
“But here’s my secret: I wasn’t a natural. I wasn’t the best pilot. I just worked harder than anyone else.”
The rest of the book chronicles Earhart’s record breaking career, during which she faced endless challenge from people who told her she’d never be able to achieve what she eventually did. Such a gorgeous, informative and entertaining read.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” extolled C.S. Lewis, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” This has never rung truer as I read (first to my son) and then re-read (to myself, countless times), Oliver Jeffers’ stunning and tender illustrated story of what happens when we drown our most painful emotions. In this beautiful book, a little girl loses her curiosity when she encloses her heart in a bottle after the loss of her father, who had, when alive, read to her all sorts of fantastic books about the wonders of the world. As an adult, she re-discovers her wonder when she meets a little girl, who knows how to get her heart out of the bottle. She faces her pain and her curiosity returns. This is a sublime book.
At the end of art class, Vashti sits at her desk staring at a blank sheet of paper, without any idea of what to draw. Her art teacher just asks her to make a mark – any mark – on the paper and observe where it leads. She makes one single dot, after which her teacher asks her to sign the paper. The next day, Vashti finds that her teacher has framed the piece of art, which inspires Vashti to become an artist. Towards the end, Vashti herself is faced with a little boy who doesn’t know how to draw. She asks him to make a mark and see where it takes him, like her previous teacher asked of her. He draws a squiggly line and Vashti asks him to “sign it.” A beautiful fable of self-discovery, serendipity and the creative spirit.
A story with such a big heart. Wordless (so a true picture book in the literal sense), “The Girl and the Bicycle” is a fable about a little girl who covets a new, shiny bicycle. She inspects her piggy bank to find that she doesn’t have enough money to purchase it, so she starts knocking on neighbours’ doors, offering to do their yard-work. Every neighbour other than an old lady rejects her offer. The old woman and the girl begin to work together, developing a heartening friendship along the way. When the girl earns enough money, she runs to back to the shop but finds that the bicycle is gone. She decides to buy her younger brother a tricycle instead. Many lessons are imbued in this story – the value of generosity being the most obvious – but it’s the type of book that reveals more and more with every reading of it.
P.S.: Know any great children’s books with female protagonists? Let me know!
P.P.S: Want to check out what I’m reading with my son? Have a look through his bookshelf.