Reading and eating go together. One nourishes the body; the other nourishes the soul. I like to read good literature and eat good food. The books I choose have passages I will underline and read aloud, passages that require me to take a closer or a different look at life. I don’t want to waste precious reading time on material that doesn’t matter and won’t be memorable.
Likewise, I eat healthy fruits and vegetables and whole grains. But…I also like chocolate chip cookies and ice cream and pizza. And I didn’t always read only the good stuff. As a teen I tended to read what was popular at the time.
Summer 1966. I was anticipating starting college in the fall. I would lie in the sun, cover my body with baby oil (no sun screen back then), and read paperbacks from the drug store.
At the top of everyone’s list? Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Everyone had read it, was reading it, or was about to read it. At first, I thought the “dolls” in the title likely referred to pretty Southern California girls partaking in all sorts of wild escapades — a great escape from the very not-so-wild world of Southern Appalachia. I was wrong. The “dolls” were sleeping pills. The wild escapades were more tragic than exciting. And the characters (rumored to be based on real-life celebrities) were neither likable nor memorable.
There were, however, many books worth consuming at the time. Even if they were sometimes difficult to consume. I tried to grasp the story in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but there wasn’t a story to grasp. And yet this new way of writing a novel was intriguing. Nabokov was a butterfly collector and provided great technical details about his specimen. Pale Fire is also a collection of sorts. It was like opening an old cigar box someone had stored in the attic and finding fragments of a life. An acorn, a smooth stone, a cardinal feather, a shard of colored glass. No story, but bits and pieces to admire for their own sake.
Another…Heartland by Wilson Harris. A confrontation between technology and nature, logic and magic, in the jungles of South America. Ordinary prose devices are used to tell the story to a point, but when it comes to conveying the mysteries of the jungle and the mysteries of man’s unconscious mind, the few fragmentary poems are far more effective. Another different way of writing a novel.
Other good stuff from the mid-sixties — Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World, and Muriel Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate. And, of course, Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman. The chief character in Percy’s book is a young Southerner who feels like a misfit in New York City. He chooses to view life through a telescope, which he sets up in Central Park and eavesdrops on others. But plot is not the most important element here either. It’s about character development and the way people speak and define themselves geographically and historically. (I could identify. I grew up in Appalachia where folks take pride in defining themselves geographically and historically.)
For me the most fascinating aspect of good literature is often the way a book or poem or short story is written. I like prose that is poetic. I prefer character development over plot. If I pick up a book and flip through and discover that ordinary prose devices are not the norm, I’ll give it a second look.
I’m not sure how I got from reading the classics, Heidi and Huckleberry Finn in elementary school, to Valley of the Dolls as a teen. I guess it was akin to wanting Bass Weejun loafers and Ambush perfume. The teen years are fitting-in years, and there is a real need to be doing what everyone else is doing at the time. Then I grew up. Along the way, I discovered the joy of being different, and I re-discovered literature.