Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book love

There are many types of love, they say. A girl can love her cat, for example, and also love her mother. But those loves are very different (hopefully). I can love chocolate, the ocean air, the scent of almonds, the color green, travel, and my old fourth grade teacher. All are different loves because they're for very different reasons.

And the same goes for books I think. (Or maybe I should say, the same goes for stories. Because books are supposedly in transition from being bound papers covered in ink to being bits and bytes. But that's for another rant on another blog.) I love the Harry Potter series, but not like I love The Little Prince. My childhood favorite, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom--I love it too, but for even different reasons. These differing affections are a result more of my response to the overall stories (in general, how they made me feel) than to a specific genre, subject matter, protagonist, or theme.

For example, I love Harry's story (I would say Harry Potter's story, but is there really any other Harry I could mean?) because I couldn't put it down. I couldn't put it down because I grew to care about what happened to its players and to hope for a satisfying end for them and because that grand good vs evil storyline with a healthy blend of grays between its blacks and whites and with wit and culture mixed in pulled me happily through seven books and left me with a wanting sigh at the end. The writing style hooked me and told a good (if formulaic) story to boot. So there are books I hold dear simply for their ability to keep me entertained.

There are also books that have touched my heart on a deeper level. The Little Prince is one of my best examples. It's not an uplifting story. It's very sad, but redeeming in a way and has the ability to quietly pat me on the back and say, "It's alright. We all go through deeply sad moments, but there is a kind of beauty in them and we come out stronger with a few scars." And so I've made a connection and therefore don't feel so alone in the world, and for that, my dear Little Prince will always have a piece of my heart. The Narnia series does the same for me. And The Secret Garden. Christy also. Peter Pan goes without saying (he lives in many categories of love and is the crown atop all the books I've owned and ever will own and really deserves a special category, perhaps something like a soulmate would have).

Then there are books I love out of respect. They really seem to say something--something I'd have said myself if I'd been skilled enough. They're often a product of some extreme period in history and make me frustrated as I read but nevertheless stick with me like a thorn, nagging me to take action in a vague way that always ends up requiring courage. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Awakening. The Scarlet Letter. The Great Divorce. A Separate Peace.

There's a very powerful book love, probably the only one I'd fight to the death for, which has caused many a book to land on that special top shelf in the living room, never to be touched but by me. They are the books that are bound in nostalgia and deep connection. No one is allowed to dislike them in my presence and remain a true friend! None can critique them without sounding ridiculous to me. But then, no one really loves them like I do. (You see how dangerous and blinding nostalgia can be.) They are books like There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. And James and the Giant Peach (you should have heard my scathing review of the movie when it came out). And The Wind in the Willows. A Wrinkle in Time. Peter Pan (don't even say the title in front of me unless in a tone of reverence). Through the Looking-GlassWhen We Were Very Young. Hamlet.

There's also a less visceral category of books I've come to cherish just because they seem to do it all--tell a good story in an excellent style for the subject matter, keep me reading and interested, say something worth saying in the end, and stick with me long after I've closed the book. They win the award for best in show. Like HolesTreasure Island, and Jane Eyre.

I have more of a fondness than a love for some books. Usually it's because of the illustrations and the story working together to bring about a general feeling of niceness about the world. Pretty much anything by Oliver Jeffers lives in this category. Anything by Milne, even though (especially because) his niceness is mingled with melancholy. Beatrix Potter is like this as well.

There are many other levels of affection I could mention, like books I love because I just do: Alice in Wonderland. Or books I love because I like imagining I live in another time and place: Pride and Prejudice. Or ones that seem to need loving: The Sun Also Rises.

I could go on and on. But what I'm really trying to do is make a point, which should be sharp, so I'll get to it. Books are like people, loved on different levels for countless different reasons. This idea, though probably not original or profound, has changed the way I look at writing a story and reading one. As to writing one, it lends a freedom, a limitless possibility of expression--and freedom in writing is critical because if a girl sits on her couch tapping away at her laptop in hopes of writing a story to be liked by all for all time (this used to be the secret hope of a writer I know intimately), she will eventually be crushed under the pressure. But having freedom to write the story that's in her and write it honestly will result in that story being loved by someone somewhere for reasons the writer may not understand, just as her favorite stories are often mysteriously cherished in her heart. And in the end, a story would probably rather be deeply loved by one than marginally appreciated by all. As to reading, this revelation has given me a broader scope for what a book can be. The critic within me must accept the written word on an infinite number of levels and love it for its innumerable manifestations. After all, not every book (indeed, no other book) can be Peter Pan.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In the interest of libraries

When I was little, we didn't live far from where the small public library sat at the big bend in the road on the main street in town. On Saturdays, my mom and I would take the short trip to switch out read books for unread ones. Mom would disappear leaving me to one of my few moments of complete freedom to search and discover whatever I wanted. When the right adventures were gathered into a stack, I'd put my selections on the counter with the help of a wooden footstool and watch as the librarian stamped the little card in the back with the date the books were to be returned. I felt so grown up being trusted to choose what I liked best and having my own library card. It was the beginning of independence! Just a taste of the freedoms to come!

Sadly, I can hardly remember which books I checked out besides one series, which I devoured. I suspect I remember the series because there were so many volumes, but whatever the reason, I have distinct memories of walking three shelves back from the front door down an aisle on the right where a row of white spines sat just low enough for me to reach:

Choose Your Own Adventure. To me, these books were amazing. They could be read multiple times through with a million different plot lines and endings. Yes, they're cheesy and ridiculous and gimmicky, but in kid language, that just means they're really entertaining. I almost always chose the wrong ending. In fact, I don't know if I ever had a happy ending without cheating. But it didn't matter because just like when it came to checking out books, the choice was mine.
I have an entire room in my brain dedicated to memories from elementary school, many of which happened in the school library. There was the after school reading club called Junior Great Books and the Scholastic fairs where I never had enough money to buy all I wanted and the Christmas store where I got my mom those tiny glass angels with bells in their skirts and those few minutes we were allowed to check out books to take home each week. All wonderful memories! But looking back, I find my favorite moments to be those when we gathered in the reading circle. Inside the library to the right of the door was a high wall which hid a tiny amphitheater of carpeted steps where our class would file in and sit down in front of the librarian who sat in a chair at the bottom of the steps and read aloud from a book she'd chosen for us. And guess what. We actually listened. Because the books were really good and she was really good at reading them. I loved hearing her read. In those few minutes, I was taken away from history and spelling and geography and red smiley face stamps and science projects and minute-math quizzes and annoying boys and everything else that made my brain hurt. I entered another world.

For some reason, of all the books she must have read to us, the book I have the most clear memories of hearing in the reading circle is one I called my favorite for many years after. I think that's because, like all books I end up loving, it was melancholy. It didn't matter to me that the author was a creative genius. What did I care? All I knew was, it was a very good story:

The second most memorable book was usually only read briefly if there was extra time before reading circle was finished. Thank goodness for our librarian's sense of humor because without it we may never have heard the irreverent poetry or seen the slightly disturbing illustrations of a man called Shel:

I was recently reminded of these memories (and many more grownup library experiences) after hearing about libraries being threatened with closure in the UK. It's been such a big issue that Pullman put a word in (he makes a terrific speech) along with lots of other famous and unfamous folks. Save the libraries, they're saying. And I'd say the same thing if our libraries were at risk because, as you've seen, I have lovely and tender memories of going to the library as a child. But as wonderful as those thoughts are, I wonder, if it were my library being threatened, would I actually go check out a book?

See, there's a small gas station not too far from our house. They sell hotdogs and produce and gas, and the place looks like some guy's garage from the outside. Recently, while passing this neighborhood icon, someone started a conversation about how they're to build a fancy new gas station, a BP or something, a few hundred yards away. When I heard this news, I made a passionate speech about how awful it was that the big guys were coming in and would push out the neighborhood store. I said many things I won't take back but can't quite remember now. Just know that it was all very high and mighty.

The only problem is, I've never actually been to the neighborhood store. Never. In six whole years. So why do I care? If I don't support the local store, why do I make a huge speech about it? You know why. Because of nostalgia and ideals and fighting the man and blah blah blah. But talk doesn't mean anything or do anything. Action does. If I really cared, I'd at least stop and buy a pack of gum, wouldn't I?

I'm not saying people shouldn't get on the bandwagon when the time is right or that people aren't allowed to decide they love something once it's threatened with death. That's perfectly human. Good for us for having the right to come to realizations and change our minds and act. I'm just saying, do act. Act before it's down to the wire if you can, but if you can't, then at least act in the final hour. Because libraries are really and truly worth fighting for. They're just sitting there waiting to serve you, to bring you adventure and knowledge. They quite literally exist to broaden your mind. For free! Think how rare that is! Libraries provide moments of discovery and individualism and revelation and freedom. There aren't a lot of places that do that for us and there aren't a lot of those moments given to us freely in life. So, go. Check out a book. Join a reading group. Take your kids to story time. Volunteer to shelve books or sweep the entryway. Research. Read. Imagine. Be free.
"All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted . . . what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what's going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book . . . And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?" ~ Philip Pullman

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A story is born

The novel I've been working on for my thesis has monopolized my storytelling brain cells for most of the past year and a half. Only two times have I stopped to think up new story ideas. One was in November for NaNoWriMo, but that doesn't count because it was more of an exercise in discipline and commitment than anything else. The other was this past summer at school where I started six or so stories to fulfill class assignments. I never picked any of them up again because I had to focus on getting my thesis edited and submitted to my advisors. So I haven't really put hard work into a story since I started the thesis.

That's because thinking up an idea is one thing. One very tiny thing. Following through on that idea is an enormous process: brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, writing, editing, burning a copy of the manuscript in a huge tower of gasoline fueled flames while laughing wildly and dancing around it in underwear, editing some more, and so on. That's a huge chunk of my life spent attempting to mold an idea into an almost living thing that conveys an aspect of life in a moving way. Therefore, I must care about it deeply, and therefore, it doesn't happen often.

Recently, my time opened up. The major writing and editing stage of the thesis is mostly over, and I don't have to start working till fall, so I'm finally free to consider new story possibilities. This coincided with an opportunity to make a submission with very little risk involved, so I pulled out some of those stories I started in the summer. All I have to do is send in a good strong chapter to my regional SCBWI folks to try to win free tuition to the fall conference in Charlotte. In order to choose the right chapter to submit, it might seem obvious to ask: Which will capture that mysterious-and-all-powerful-editor-type-judge? Which chapter is a winner? A prize winner? Which is sure to captivate and stun and move its possibly tired and irritable audience? (I've met that editor before--she was not impressed with me--I have the scar [also known as the painfully polite rejection letter] to prove it.)

Those are the questions a winner would ask, right? Lucky for me, I hate winning things. All that attention, the attempt at humility and avoiding smugness, the fame and glory and honor. Fleeting! What matters is: Which story do I believe in? Which chapter seems to promise a million possibilities? Which one gives me that feeling of excitement that makes me want to drop everything and start writing? That will, in the end, be the best story I could write. I haven't felt this way about an idea since the thesis. But I'm happy to say that one of those chapters, just six little pages, is now shining for me.

It's the one. It's my next story.

I mean, sure it'd be great to win, to be recognized for writing well, to possibly be seen by an editor who has the power and connections to turn a chapter into a book deal. But what a lovely and lasting feeling, having a new story to tell.