Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

The History of Reading, Mine (Art reflects culture? Yes.)

Last night at Left Bank Books (since 1969 St. Louis' most famous and stable independent book store...blessedly in my neighborhood) Meg Wolitzer gave us an engaging look into her world view, writing process, and the rich language of The Ten-Year Nap which begins: "ALL AROUND THE COUNTRY, the women were waking up..." You can read more of "The Ten Year Nap" in the search inside function on her book product page on Amazon. Buy it, trust me, and get your library to buy it.

As she spoke, she stimulated my thoughts about the purpose of literature, especially fiction ("Perhaps it will become an esoteric pocket of culture, like opera is now.") My anachronistic childhood which shaped my reading tastes ("What we read as children, shapes our reading taste for years to come.) And much more. (Quotes approximated. All errors the fault of my dim-witted memory.)

Growing up in a house built by my great grandfather in the 1860s, with rooms filled lawyer glass-fronted book cases filled with novels written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, my reading taste was shaped for life.

Almost as soon as I learned to read, I read these books. I thrilled to to the novels of Gene Stratton-Porter (August 17, 1863 – December 6, 1924):: Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost...and so many more.

My all-time favorite book is Daddy-Long-Legs, a children's novel written in 1912 by Jean Webster which has been the basis for numerous films. But, trust me...read the original, a novel written in letters.

While I had previously thought that one of the first novels in English literature was Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, a novel in letters. That made sense to me because it was a time when letters held a place of honor in society. Therefore, to write the novel in epistolary form seemed right. That conclusion reflected my theory about art reflecting culture. By now, of course, we've seen novels written in email form, as email becomes more common than beautiful handwritten notes sent via snail mail.

Yet, upon doing a little internet research, I found these entries vied for the invention of the novel: The Tale of Genji written in 1010 by Shikibu Murasaki, lady-in-waiting to the empress of Japan which tells of Prince Genji's life and loves and has an underlying Buddhist philosophy.

Or, what about Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur written around 1470, published 1485?

In that case, Henry Fielding's 1749 The History of Tom Jones widely considered one of the greatest comic novels in the English would place a distant contender for the first novel ever written, even in English.

Pardon this digression.

When I went to college and majored in English literature for both my bachelors and masters degrees, I was informed that the books of my childhood were sentimental and shallow. I tended, with grief, to accept that at the time...but, now I know better. Those books have heart and guided me through my life.

Of course, later, I came to love the classics I studied. I came to love West African literature. I came to love Lorca, Barthes, Borges, Kafka, and Gabriel García Márquez...Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and so much more.

But, down there, deep in my heart, those books read in childhood still light and lighten my life. Popular and received wisdom is not always right...at least not when it demands that you deny and ignore your own internal wisdom.

That's my village wisdom for the day.

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  1. During the endlessly long summer holidays in a house in suburbia, with few fields in sight, there was little else to do except read. But since we had no money for the purchase of books, and the library was a few miles away, I depended solely upon the tastes of my grandfather who used to travel around our small island buying up the libraries of the big, old country houses. Which meant that, like you, my reading was somewhat eclectic and most certainly catholic (in the original sense of the word!). My favourite books were naturalist books, and the tales of vets. Funny thing is that even though I still love nature reading, my dirty secret is that I am almost terrified of the real natural world. Maybe too much time spent lying curled up in the living room with my head buried deep within the pages of a book?!!

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