I’m by no means on my deathbed, but I’ve been operating at a lot less than 100%, that’s for sure. Reading, as I noted, has become somewhat spotty, less directed: while I had in mind a goodly chunk of Milton & Joyce criticism to down over the past week, instead I lazed my way thru pages of Ron Johnson, Alan Halsey, WS Graham, Dhalgren, Claire Tomalin’s Pepys, & a big sheaf of children’s (“young person’s”) books. J, mind you, is something of a connoisseur of the stuff, & even if we didn’t have kids she’d still own every single book she ever acquired during her childhood, & be adding to her collection continually. (Having kids just gives her the excuse to get it all out of boxes & up on shelves.)
[I have to put in a plug here: we all know that Maurice Sendak is a major American artist & that Richard Scarry is a genius – tho I’m inclined to view Dr. Seuss as somewhat overrated, the Max Ernst of children’s draughtsmen – wonderful ideas, but never executed with quite enough care to make them convincing. But what about PD Eastman? I’m not sure I’ve ever met an Eastman book that I didn’t love – Go, Dog, Go!, Are You My Mother?, Sam and the Firefly, Fish Out of Water. Anyway – enough of the stuff that one reads to please the under-5 crowd…]
PL Travers’s Mary Poppins, I can report, is so much better than the Disney film (& this coming from someone who’s only in the last decade gotten over a certifiable Julie Andrews crush) that it’s not funny. Ms P herself is sterner, stranger – less a nanny that a force of nature, an elemental. Much overlap in some of the episodes here with the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in Wind in the Willows.
The 3 Natalie Babbitt books I read – The Search for Delicious, Kneeknock Rise, & Tuck Everlasting – are all beautifully written, fitting subjects for some non-Derridean project on “hauntology” – that is, I find them very hard to get out of my head now that they’ve worked their way in. Not so much the characters, which seem little more than sturdy stock figures, but the situations: the family confronted with the equivocal gift of immortality in Tuck; the village with the secret in Kneeknock; the kingdom disintegrating over semantics in Delicious.
Travers & Babbitt are able, within the compass of books that are at least ostensibly pitched at young readers, to get at some of the deepest things that trouble the reflections of middle-aged readers: aging, death, the ultimate evanescence of human life; the foundations of human community and love; faith and its grounds or lack thereof. They’re doing the sorts of things Phillip Pullman does in His Dark Materials, & which JK Rowling fails so miserably at in Harry Potter.
Absolutely immersive books, tho, that gave me that classic old experience of reading straight thru, losing all track of time, being irritated when I got to the end. Which casts my mind back to that 3- or 4-way discussion bouncing among blogs last week – what seems the dim, pre-penicillin past – over the strenuous pleasures of anti-absorptive poetry. What’s so misguided about setting the energetic pleasure of reading Lyn Hejinian against the rather “easier” pleasure of reading classic fiction – Travers, Babbitt, Pullman, Dickens, Austen, whoever – is that is really is comparing two very different experiences. And without trying to rewrite Wayne Booth & a zillion other fiction critics on how some of the most interesting fiction puts us thru moral & ethical paces in the very process of immersing us in a “vivid, continuous dream,” I’d submit that poetry, by its very formality, by the fact that it’s written in lines (or ostentatiously written not in lines) or in even more complex forms, has already renounced the “suck you in” immersivity that prose fiction can command. So the discussion on pleasure & difficulty we might want to have – & which I might want to contribute to, if I ever reclaim enough lung capacity to think straight – ought to take place on the ground of poetry alone. Fiction (thanks heavens for it!) only muddies the water.
Next time: Deathbed Reading: What to Read in Denver When You’re Almost Dead.