Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Living through books

As of today, our household has both internet and New York Times delivery. The sabbatical can commence!

Being without internet is a hindrance to research (and not only because it's a hindrance to procrastination-from-research, itself a crucial feature of my every scholarly endeavor), but it turns out to be conducive to reviewing page proofs and indexing one's book. So that's what I've been doing here in our newly set-up office in front of a new window with a new view: re-reading these old old words.

One of my professors once talked about the ways we live with long books, reading them in time with our own lives so the two narratives get tangled up. She mentioned that, for her, Tristram Shandy was inseparable from the spring her sister was dying of cancer.

We've all had a version of that experience, I think--with certain books as with certain albums or songs, which become imprinted with a particular moment or stage of life. Sometimes a later experience overwrites an earlier one and sometimes several can co-exist; many of the texts I teach are a palimpsest of memories of places and spaces and thoughts. (But mostly spaces.)

None of those text-based memories compares to reading my own prose, however, all 90,000-odd words of it, written and rewritten over ten years, as a grad student and a lecturer and a junior professor, at different desks and tables in five different states. There are sentences I vividly recall writing in a lawn chair in my parents' backyard, in a hotel room in Saratoga Springs, on sofas I no longer own and in the apartments of people I no longer date. There are parts of this book that I know in the careless but profound way that I know my own skin.

And there are parts I don't remember writing. Usually those are the more recent bits: portions of the introduction, or sentences here and there linking a local claim to a larger argument. Some of them feel merely functional--a bolt, a screw, a hasty paint job or a well-positioned piece of duct tape. Others strike me as frightfully clever. But they don't feel like anything I wrote.

Actually, in some ways, none of it feels like anything I wrote. I'm not that person with the green sofa or the white one, the person in that city with those shoes, the person who felt those things or thought those thoughts.

I'm glad to have those selves captured and bound up in this book. But once I'm done, I may never read it again.


Comrade Physioprof said...

Awesome! I can't imagine writing a whole book.

rachel said...

ooh this is EXACTLY how i felt when i was finishing my book this spring. I was also, strangely (and because I had procrastinated) in the city and library where the book began, which made the living through it feel both dated and very familiar. i had the opposite experience, though -- the new work felt familiar, but there were old sentences in there written by a total stranger. they worked, and it all smoothed together, but the past was truly a foreign country.

Renaissance Girl said...

Yes, all of this. Have you read Joan Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook"?

undine said...

Lovely post. I know what you mean about having certain sentences tagged with a name, a place, an atmosphere.

Veralinda said...

Did I ever tell you not only that (A) I am always longing to hit the "like" button for your posts? and that (B) yours is the ONLY blog I read religiously?

Flavia said...


Many of my old/original sentences feel like they were written by a stranger--but it's a stranger whose words I have, for some reason, memorized. As I was saying on Twitter the other day, I really do feel like our published works are like an external hard-drive: things that no longer exist in our brain or feel like they belong to us, offloaded somewhere for safe storage.


Yes! In fact, I recall your asking me that about some other (years-ago) post. Which I take as a sign of my own pathological obsessions and repetitions more than yours.


Thanks! For me it's really places. I have a very visual memory, so it's the spaces the words first conjure up, and then, secondarily, a snapshot feeling of being there and who I was then.


Aw, you're sweet. Thanks much. (And/but luckily for you, your religious observances aren't too frequent or too demanding.)

Dr. Koshary said...

Fabulous post! I should add that I'm feeling all of this right now, as I proofread my own book before shipping it to the press. I'm particularly wowed by your dead-right observation about remembering the couches of yore whereupon I wrote bits and pieces of this text.