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Lost in a Good Book. Or Not.


I love this gif of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, which showed up on my Tumblr under the headline: “When I’m really into a book and oblivious to everything else.” It made me think of two things, which will be the two subjects of this blog post, and those are:

1) There’s more than one way to be an avid reader, and

2) Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?

First things first.

There’s more than one way to be an avid reader.

People often talk about being “lost in a book” to the degree that they’re oblivious to the world around them, which to me sometimes gives the impression that if you’re not absorbed in reading to the degree that your house could be bombed and you’d fail to glance up from the page, you’re not a truly dedicated reader.

True confession: I have never been this kind of reader. I love books; I love to read, but I don’t get “lost” in books in this way. When I’m reading, I’m easily distracted by anything else that happens in the room or even in the next room. There are a lot of situations where I can’t and won’t read: I can’t read in a car or any moving vehicle; I find it hard to read outdoors unless conditions are absolutely perfect because I’m easily distracted by uncomfortable seating, wind, bugs, or sunlight striking the page at the wrong angle. Unlike Belle in this scene, I also cannot read while walking — that level of concentration on a book would be impossible for me. (In fact, it’s impossible for almost everyone who isn’t a cartoon character. In real life you very rarely see people reading while walking, which seems obvious, until you get to my point #2).

But that’s OK. It’s still pretty clear, if you look at how much I read and how much I love it, that I am a Compulsive Overreader. Just like I said in my last video that you don’t have to read the same books everyone else thinks are great if they’re not for you, you also don’t have to read in the same way that someone else reads, or someone else says you should read. Being oblivious to the world is not a prerequisite for being an avid reader.

Thinking about this reminds me of a funny story, though it’s not nearly as funny as some people think it is …

Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?

As almost everyone knows by now, what we think we remember may not be what actually happened. Two people can have different memories of the exact same event. Memories can be conflated and changed as a story gets retold over time.

One day when I was about eleven or twelve, I was at summer camp. I was always awkward and introverted at summer camp — introverted in my special, fun way where I get to sound really loudmouthed and confident while actually not feeling comfortable with anyone. And I wasn’t a good swimmer and I couldn’t water-ski at all, so the waterfront recreation time at camp was particularly tortuous for me. On this particular day I was amusing myself, very mildly, by trying to jump from one rock to another in the shallow water near the dock. Predictably, since my athletic skills were as poor as my social skills, I soon slipped and fell, fully clothed, into the water, eliciting some unkind laughter and a little sympathy as I dragged my sodden self back up to my cabin to change.

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Fifty: My Manifesto

In case you missed the declaration of what really ought to be a national observance, I’m turning fifty this year.

This still seems a little incredible to me, despite the fact that I’ve accumulated several years of doing things (been married 20 years, started teaching 29 years ago, have a 17-year-old and an almost-fifteen-year-old, lived in my house for 20 years). These things should add up to me being 50, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that I’m not still a teenager myself. I look at Chris and think, “That’s my son? How can he be seventeen? was just seventeen, like, two weeks ago!”

Despite this, I’m not traumatized by turning 50. On the one hand it feels incredible and on the other hand it feels perfectly natural, like it’s exactly the thing you should be doing after having been alive for 49 years. Why would people try to resist such a natural process?

While turning 50 is not something to be fought or resisted, it does seem like a natural occasion for thought and reflection. I could have posted this in January at the turn of the year, or I could wait till September and post it when my actual birthday rolls around … but instead, I’m posting it on this cold February day, because it’s what’s on my mind today.

Two events, more than any others, have led to the attitude I have today as enter the year of my fiftieth birthday. Those are the deaths of my friend Jamie in 2011 and my friend Linda in 2013.

Jamie was in his early 40s when he died; Linda had just turned 50. Neither of them ever had the luxury of getting to whine and moan about middle age and getting older. Both of them left partners they loved, young children they had hoped to raise to maturity, and dreams they still wanted to fulfill. Neither of them got to experience their 50s, not to mention their 60s, 70s, or 80s. They both died of cancer: one of a type that we knew from the start had a bad prognosis, the other from a type that was supposed to be easily treatable. Because life is just so brutally unpredictable and bloody unfair.

Terrible things happen to lovely people, and I don’t pretend to know why. I do know that I will not turn 50 without thinking of Jamie and of Linda, and of the things they never got to do, see and experience.

I know that in my 50s I will probably lose more friends of my own generation, and I will be angry all over again at the unfairness of it.

I know there’s a chance I could be one of the people who dies in my 50s, because, see above about life being unfair and unpredictable.

I can’t promise that I will never complain about gray hair, aching joints, wrinkles, menopause or any of the other inconveniences I’m sure I will encounter in my 50s. But I can promise you that every time I do complain, I will stop myself short and be grateful I am getting the chance to experience those things.

I can’t promise that I will live every moment of my 50s “to the fullest.” I will certainly try; I try to live my life that way anyway, but I’m keenly aware that there will be days when the home/work/home routine is a boring slog, and I’m frustrated, and I may fall into bed without expressing deep gratitude for the wonder of life. But I do promise that at least once a week I will say to God and the Universe — “This is amazing! Thank you for the fact that I’m still here to experience it all!”

I can’t promise to always be fearless, because there are things worth being afraid of. But I promise to try to let fear hold me back less, to take more risks and try more things, even if they involve terrifying activities like picking up the phone to talk to people. There are things I want to get done in the year I turn 50, and in the years that follow, that will require moderate doses of courage. I don’t want to leave those things undone, because I am so thankful I am still here to do them. So I will try to be brave, when I need to be brave.

I can’t promise that I will always eat right, exercise enough, and make all the healthy choices. But I do want to honour the memory of my friends whose lives were too short by taking the best care I can of this body that, amazingly, still works really really well. I won’t succumb to the illusion that if I do all the right things, I can guarantee my own safety, because I know how wrong that is. But I also won’t throw my hands up in despair and say, “Oh well, I’m getting old, might as well slide downhill.” Unless I am on a toboggan or at the top of a waterslide, in which case I will certainly surrender to the urge to slide downhill.

I will continue going on toboggans and waterslides.

To be honest: I am excited that (if all goes well for the next seven months) I will get to turn 50. I recognize that a lot of the reason I’m so sanguine about this milestone is that I have a lot of the things in my life that I wanted to have when I turned 50: good health, a husband who is my best friend and makes me laugh; two great kids who haven’t gotten into any major trouble so far; a job I thoroughly enjoy. I recognize that a lot of people’s sadness and frustration over reaching midlife stems from the fact that they didn’t get things they desperately wanted. I promise to try to remember that, to be compassionate and less judgemental, when I hear people express fear or regret about turning 50.

Because I lost two dear friends far too soon, I don’t want to take for granted the many friends I still have. I want to show them how grateful I am for their presence in my life.

Mostly, for my fiftieth year and beyond, I want to do what I always try to do anyway: to be present. To be here now.

Because I’m so, so grateful that I am here now.

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Getting it Wrong … or Right


I’m on record as loving Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall and the sequel Bring up the Bodies, and from what I’ve managed to see of the BBC miniseries based on the novels (it’s not been aired on this side of the Atlantic yet, so don’t ask, don’t tell), I’m loving that as well. The series has a brilliant script that echoes a lot of Mantel’s text, and inspired acting and directing that manages to bring to life a novel where so much happens inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell. On screen, you can’t hear what Cromwell is thinking as you can in Mantel’s book, but you can certainly read a lot of it in Mark Rylance’s eyes and every tilt of his head.

What made the original novel great, and the reason I loved it, is the same reason some people hate it — it took a character who has generally been perceived as one of the villains of the Tudor piece, Henry VIII’s sometime right-hand-man Cromwell, and made him the hero. Not the “hero” in the sense that the book ever tried to deny or whitewash the less-than-savoury things Cromwell did in his king’s service. Rather, because the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, with access to his thoughts and his private life, we see his own reasons and justification for the things he does (including his sincerely held Protestant faith). It’s a pretty certain bet that if Cromwell had written an account of his own life, he would have come across as heroic and worthy of sympathy: we are all, after all, the heroes of our own stories. I love it when a writer of historical fiction is able to get us into the head of a character we think we “know” through history and tell the story in a different way.

The first work of historical fiction I ever read and loved as an adult was Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, an epic, sprawling re-imagining of the story of Richard III, another character who is usually cast as one of the villains of English history. With Richard in Sunne, as with Cromwell in Wolf Hall, we see the story from the point of view of the character so frequently maligned, and a different interpretation is placed on events as we see them through his eyes.

Since then, I’ve read other novels set during the Wars of the Roses which took the more traditional view of Richard as the ruthless, ambitious villain, and been intrigued to see how the exact same historical event, well-documented in the sources, can be interpreted in a different light depending on how you view the motives of those involved. Another great example of this: I don’t always love Philippa Gregory’s novels, but what she did with Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen worked brilliantly for me, humanizing a character who nearly always comes across as despicable.

Villain or hero is, after all, all in the interpretation. Historians can argue, and do argue, for generations about the motives behind a particular act (who really killed the Princes in the Tower? Why did Cromwell rise and then fall so swiftly in Henry’s favour?) but only a novelist can help us re-image the story as it might have looked to the people living through it.

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