Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Il dolce libri

Today, I read one of the most exuberant and charming lines I think I have ever read in a book:
"What a happy woman I am, living in a garden, with books, babies, birds and
flowers and plenty of leisure to enjoy them."

That bit of loveliness was taken from the semi-autobiographical novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden, written by Elizabeth von Arnim, who was actually the Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin, although she was born Mary Annette Beauchamp and nicknamed "May" by her family. Keeping all that in mind, you might understand why, in her first book and nineteen other novels, she simply published them with no name at all. All that dickering around with names would have left the poor exhausted woman with no time to write.

At any rate, that simple sentence, once read, rung in my head like a little golden bell, striking the kind of note that enchants and soothes my mind all at once. Or maybe that sentence was like a morsel of something so delicious, it had to be savored very slowly, each word a different level of flavor, layered together in a taste so complete, it was as good as a meal in itself, a meal for the eyes and the mind.

There are certain phrases in books that do that to me and make for a gorgeous bit of reading. It doesn't always have to come from a novel; I have found phrases that make me feel happy in the Divine Office, in Julia's cookbooks, in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Vianney. As far as serious writers go, I've found lines in J.D. Salinger (but not in The Catcher in the Rye, which is a book I simply do not like) and Shirley Jackson, although I've also found them in books by Maeve Binchy and J. K. Rowling. Agatha Christie treated me to several in her fabulous autobiography.

And then there were those childhood friends down in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee and Truman Capote; both of them have penned phrases that can wrench you so deep with beautiful pain that you almost have to lay your head down on the pages for a moment, just willing yourself to breathe, do Lord.

And of course, there are also children's books that have sublime bits, like Antoine de St. Exupery's Le Petit Prince and Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit. And Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- how I love that book. I know this may seem unkind, but it's hard for me to imagine that the same woman who wrote about the twee Cedric, the chirpy, curly-haired twit in Little Lord Fauntleroy, was the same person who sternly wrote in Racketty-Packetty House, "[Fairies] never call or leave their cards at a dolls' house where the dolls are proud or bad tempered. They are very particular. If you are conceited or ill-tempered yourself, you will never know a fairy as long as you live" and named the dolls things like Victoria Leopoldina and Aurelia Matilda. I can't resist it. It's so much fun, it makes me shiver every time I pick the book up.

Meelyn, who, don't get me wrong, can stick her face in front of a TV with the best of them, once said to me at around six years old, "What do people do who don't like to read?"

I've never really been around people who didn't like reading. My husband didn't read much for pleasure when we first got married because he said he had to read all day at work and was sick of it. But he gradually succumbed and now gets very nervous when he's down to the last thirty pages of his current book. He likes to have a new book sitting on his bedside table, ready and waiting for him.

My parents both read almost constantly, my mother carrying on with different books in different parts of the house: one by her seat in the family room, one in the living room by the fireplace, one at her bedside, one in the kitchen. I find this behavior slightly fickle and tell her that some day, those books will all find out about each other and cast off their bookmarks all at once.

My two grandmothers, the dearest companions of my childhood, both read a lot: When my Nanny died and my mother and I were wretchedly clearning her belongings out of her apartment, we were able to smile as we hauled about six boxes crammed with Harlequin romances out of her bedroom closet. My other grandmother, Ma, read everything she could get her hands on and then passed it on to me, although she begged me not to tell my mother that she'd let me read Shelley Winters's autobiography when I was about twelve, which not only included numerous uses of the eff word, but also detailed descriptions of Ms. Winters's smoldering affairs with several of Hollywood's Leading Men, including a snippet of information about Errol Flynn that intrigues me to this day. Ma hadn't been playing close attention when I asked her, "Can I borrow this book about this Shelley person?" She said yes, absentmindedly, and then her conscience smote her about two weeks later when I had long since finished the book, and she happened to remember just how racy it was.

So I don't know what people do who don't like to read. "Maybe they play a lot of solitaire," I said doubtfully to Meelyn. "Or crochet nine-patch afghans? Or join square-dancing clubs?"

I am so happy that I found a new beloved book today.

1 comment:

Kayte said...

Or swim....LOL. I, too, cannot imagine not loving to read. I rarely turn on the tv outside of Big Ten Basketball Season and the NCAA playoffs. I think I have the tv off from after the Final Four the first week in April until the fall when it comes around again...occasionally a little Big Ten Football in there until they start bouncing the basketballs for practice on October 15th.