Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Books in My Life


I don’t ever remember not having books in my life. Each night at bedtime my mother read to my brother and me from Thornton Burgess, the Babar books, Wind in the Willows and the Peter Rabbit series. At the age of five, I taught myself to read. I had picked up the rudiments in kindergarten when I was four; by the time I was in first grade there was no stopping me. My Aunt Helene, who was an elementary school teacher, got me my first library card when I was six years old. This began a lifetime of browsing among what were once the amazing resources of the Sawyer Free Library.

The first books I got out of the library were the Oz series. Once I was in school studying geography and history, I became fascinated with Native American culture. I’d always known about the aboriginal presence in Gloucester and the legend that Vikings touched upon our shores, perhaps even wintering along the Annisquam and Little Rivers near West Gloucester. Elliott Rogers, a family friend who was a local historian and amateur naturalist, told me stories of the town’s settlement in 1623 by “planters” out of England’s West Country. My first sight of his collection of artifacts from the paleo and archaic periods of Indian inhabitation initiated a lifelong interest in these peoples, and I began to read everything I could find in the library about how Indians lived and what they made. The Holling C. Holling books, with their beautiful illustrations, opened windows to me not only on Eastern and Adena cultures but on the earliest inhabitants of the entire North American continent.

When we studied “Cave Men” in school, prehistory also held me. This led to a subsequent passion for the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks. I found books for young readers about Egyptian religion and the Peoloponesian wars, yearning for the time when I would turn fourteen and be allowed to use the adult section of the library. Meanwhile, teachers lent me more advanced texts or my mother or aunt would borrow what I wanted from the main library using their own cards.

This was when I fell in love with mythology and devoured the Bullfinch books recounting Greek and Roman myths and legends. At the same time, I read about the settlement of the American frontier, about pioneer life, always with an eye on how people survived, how they got their food and cooked it, how they built houses and raised crops. I became fascinated with process and the records of daily life among the various peoples of the earth.

Although I remember a wonderful thick, green, clothbound book of illustrated short stories Aunt Helene gave me when I was recuperating from an attack of the mumps, I can’t recall reading much fiction until sixth grade when we were assigned books in the Illustrated Classics series, including Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Stevenson’s Kidnapped. N. C. Wyeth’s dramatically colored illustrations established ur-images for me of Cooper’s characters, bringing woodsmen and Indians to life in a way that was only rivaled by images in the movies we saw each Saturday afternoon at the Strand and North Shore theaters on Main Street, beginning with the last years of the Second War.

In seventh grade a new interest in science, cultivated largely by my teacher Lovell Parsons, sent me not to science books at first but to science fiction. After reading my way through Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I began reading Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles along with some of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy novels of the time like L. Sprague De Camp’s Genus Homo and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Novels like these seemed to satisfy my need to understand how science entered our lives and my curiosity about social relations, especially sexual ones. I still read simplified versions of Einstein’s theory of relativity, devouring each monthly issue of Scientific American even though I barely understood the technical articles. But reading adult science fiction novels helped me find answers to the things I was beginning to ask myself like, where do we come from and what does life mean? Encountering what was then called “the love interest” in those novels provided analogues to the things I was feeling about my body and this helped me to understand what the crushes I was getting on girls meant.

By high school I was reading serious fiction, not simply the novels we had been assigned to read by Dickens or George Eliot, but all of Steinbeck I could get my hands on. I read an occasional best-seller like The Caine Mutiny; but mostly I stuck to the classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I didn’t discover these books by myself. As I’ve described in my memoir Siva Dancing, it was my chance meeting with a young woman painter after our family moved from the Boulevard to Rocky Neck in 1951 that opened the world of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to me, along with the novels of Thomas Wolfe that overwhelmed me with their torrents of feeling.

Virginia Whittingham was a contemporary artist, barely out of school herself. I met her at the counter of my father’s luncheonette and S. S. Pierce grocery store, where I began to work during the summer between Central Grammar and Gloucester High School. When she learned that I loved to read, expressing an amazement that I was trying at that time to get through Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, Virginia wrote out a list of novels she thought I might enjoy. It included Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, all of which I eventually read with immense pleasure and interest. Virginia’s list also included American novelists like Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe. Perhaps today it might not be possible to understand the impact on a thirteen year old boy of these texts. Quite literally they changed my way not only of looking at the world but of being in it. Reading the novels Virginia had suggested made me the person I am today, and though I never saw or heard from her again (if she’s still alive I suspect she would be in her eighties) I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to her for taking the time, those many years ago, to write out a simple lists of books for a boy to read, books that changed his life. With her long, ash-blond hair, Virginia was stunningly beautiful, and a fine painter. Discussing art with her throughout an entire summer started me on another lifetime fascination with the visual. Naturally I had a crush on her, but I’ve already written about that.

The novels I began to read that summer before high school and the ones I continued to read throughout my secondary education were crucial to me; but there is another source of my reading that is equally significant. That was the Book Find Club. I first joined the club in 1951, when I saw a membership offer advertised in Scientific American. It was the usual book club offer—if you bought one book and joined the club you got another book or two free. To me, who was just beginning to collect books, this seemed like manna from heaven. Also, the titles of the books intrigued me. Many were scientific; in fact, I began my membership with W. P. D. Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas and George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution, both from Yale University Press. But the club also offered literary titles along with its list of political, sociological and philosophical books, all of them new.

It was through the Book Find Club, which I was later to learn had been investigated by the House Un-American Activities committee for offering its members “subversive” books, that I began to branch out in my reading. Henry Steele Commager’s attack on McCarthyism, Freedom, Loyalty and Dissent, was probably my first foray into political analysis. I also read C. Wright Mills’ White Collar, along with Emanuel Velikowsky’s Worlds in Collision (the renegade psychiatrist’s assertion that life on this planet sprung from living matter brought to earth by crashing asteroids, discredited until recently, may well be proven true by the discovery of microorganisms in asteroids found in Antarctica and suspected to be from Mars.)

This may seem like heady reading for an adolescent; but I had nearly ten years of practice behind me when I first opened the pages of these attractively designed books, which arrived regularly each month. I was responsible for scarcely more than $1.98 in costs if I didn’t return the announcement card in time. But I wanted the books—I could certainly afford them out of the small salary my father paid me each week. I wanted them to read and I wanted them to stand side by side in the antique Victorian bookcase my mother had bought for me at an estate auction. I was beginning to love books for themselves as much as for what they contained.

Other books of significance that I got from the club were Carlton Coon’s The Story of Man and C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars. Although I would later reject Coon’s racist anthropology, his was the first book that gave me a systematic sense of how we came “up from the ape,” in the words of another Book Find author, Ernest Hooten. Ceram’s book, however, opened up an entirely new avenue of interest for me in archaeology and ancient languages, combining my prior fascination with Egyptian and Greek origins with a glimpse into Central American cultures that I knew little about. Ever since, archaeology has been one of my chief loves.

I’ve said that the club also offered more purely literary texts, including autobiographies like Sean O’Casey’s Sunset and Evening Star. It was through the club that I discovered the stories of J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that these two books were among the first literary fiction by living authors I read beyond Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Reading Salinger helped me see that I, too, could write about growing up, using the language that people employed in daily life and not the formal rhetoric we were subjected to in the reading we did for our English classes.

There must have been some dissonance for me then, perhaps a conflict between the demands of the classroom and its more traditional texts and the reading I did on my own that took me right into the heart of my own times—the politics, the literature, the sociology and science. In retrospect, I think I managed the separation because I had always considered my own private reading to be more important than what was assigned to us in school. I did my assignments, and I was a pretty good and competent student; but my real life was always in my own books and in the pursuit of those interests that were never satisfied by any school.

Still, I don’t mean merely to list the books I read in high school that had such an influence on me. What I want to do before I speak about my college reading is to note that encountering these books helped me to establish and explore the social and intellectual themes I continue to pursue today; they helped to lay the foundation of the life of my mind. I’ve never stopped reading in ancient history and archaeology or in science, particularly neuro biology and physics; I still read in politics and political science, even in sociology, although much less than I did in the 1960s. All this was made possible though a simple advertisement in Scientific American that led me to the Book Find Club and those books that helped me move from adolescence into the adult world of ideas.

In college I began the systematic study of literature. Many of the books that were assigned to us for class were also books that had a profound influence on me, although I continued to read on my own even more than I had done so previously. This was made possible because the Bowdoin College library was everything one sought in a library. I can’t recall ever being unable to find any book I wanted in that vast collection. Through an aggressive acquisition policy the library also kept up with contemporary British and American writing, so that I was able early on to read such Beat classics as Clellon Holmes’ Go and novels by the Angry Young Men of Britain like John Wain’s Hurry on Down and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. It was also at this time that I began eagerly to devour the initial volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet as each appeared. Sadly neglected today, their exquisite prose inspired many of us to become writers, indeed, to travel beyond the narrow literary and intellectual confines of America.

The first two books we read in Stephen Minot’s freshman composition course during the fall of 1955, Thoreau’s Walden and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, have remained books that I return to constantly. Reading Thoreau for the first time, beyond excerpts in our high school textbook on American literature, helped me to understand my own need for solitude and my deep connection with the natural world. Jewett, whom at first I disparaged because of her subtlety, became the first localist who caught my attention, nurturing my love for a Maine landscape I would respond to for the rest of my life and showing me how one might write about one’s home country.

While these books had some immediate meaning for me, it was later in life that I would find their resonance of deeper importance. But the books which had the greatest impact upon me were those I discovered for myself in the library and in the remarkable off-campus bookstore operated by Carl Appollonio, a Korean war veteran and history major, who had returned to college on the GI Bill. At Carl’s I literally found the books that were to have the profoundest intellectual influence on me, books by Walter Kaufmann and William Barrett about the Existentialists that changed the shape of my life and set me on a personal and philosophical journey that continues today.

I can’t begin to describe the impact on me of first reading Sartre’s Nausea in that early New Directions cloth bound edition, which I still possess. Other students were reading Camus in the classroom by then and I read The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall with absorption, later picking up his philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, which had just been issued in the Vintage paperback library. But it was Sartre’s grittier vision of alienation that I ultimately connected with, reading everything I could find in English by him and straining my elementary French to comprehend the original when no translations were available. This is not the place for a digression on Sartre’s philosophical and political influence on me. Let me simply indicate that of the handful of writers and thinkers who have shaped my own mind, Sartre is among the foremost and remains so today.

I should, however, add a note about the paperback explosion that happened just about the same time as I entered college. Although by high school I owned a few books in the Mentor paperback series, notably E.V. Rieu’s fine prose translation of The Odyssey and Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which I had picked off the magazine rack in my father’s store, I had not begun to purchase other inexpensive editions of classics that were becoming readily available then. What started me on the creation of my paperback library was my purchase during the summer between high school and college of C. Day Lewis’s wonderfully readable translation of The Aeneid in the Anchor Books series, which I had just studied in my fourth year Latin class.

I bought that book at a little bookshop in Rockport called The Mariner’s Bookstall. I mention it because, along with Brown’s Book Store in Gloucester it was the only bookstore I knew. And Mariner’s began to stock copies of most of the new paperback imprints that were then coming on the market, including Anchor Books and the Vintage series. To be able to buy a classic for as little as eight-five cents was a tremendous gift for young people like me, who were just getting started collecting and reading books. And once I was in college I doubt that a day went by during my first year or two when I wasn’t in Carl’s bookstore picking up yet another translation of Homer or Dante or deep in discussion with Carl or certain members of the group of local artists and intellectuals who lived in and around the college community. We talked about Sartre, of course, and Spengler; we read and discussed the new fiction that was beginning to come out of England, novels by John Wain and John Braine, by Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe.

Slowly I amassed a library of books, many of which I still own. By the time I entered college I had stopped my membership in the Book Find Club, which soon ceased operating. Carl gave me a discount on whatever I bought from him. And what I bought was mostly paperback editions of books of such diverse subject matter as Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey and Zeller’s Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. Naturally I overspent my budget, which consisted of the money I earned during the summer and an “allowance” my parents sent me regularly to help with extra expenses. Needless to say those “extra expenses” were generally for books, for I had little else to buy at the time. By sophomore year I was earning pocket money playing piano during the weekend in a small dance band at the Officer’s Club of the Brunswick Navel Air Station and working at the library, where I continued to work through the rest of my college career, not only because of the pay but also because it gave me unlimited access to more books,

Looking back on my reading between 1955 and 1959, my undergraduate years, I can only say that it was not uncommon for me to read a book a day, many of them not required for any course I took. Certainly I read books that my professors in English, history and philosophy, or in the Greek, Latin, French and Italian literature I also studied, suggested as outside reading. Titles that come to mind would be Lionel Trilling’s book on Arnold or certain volumes in Toynbee’s great series (which I’ve never finished). I also read Clive Bell on the post-impressionists and Herbert Read’s ground breaking essays on Cubism and Surrealism in The Theory of Modern Art.

Then there were the poets we studied in class and those we read on our own—Rimbeau, Verlaine, cummings, Stevens and later the Beats. And the modernist novelists who came to mean so much to me: Joyce, Proust, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Celine. There were books like Arturo Barea’s memoirs of the Spanish Civil War and Hermann Broch’s the The Death of Virgil, books I came across in my wanderings through the library stacks on idle afternoons or late nights when the library was closed and I had its treasures all to myself. These are books I pick out of my memory or as I walk past one of my book cases and catch sight of the actual volume I bought in those years, books like The Recognitions

by William Gaddis or John Rechy’s City of Night. They also include Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, LeComte du Nouy’s Human Destiny and Denis de Rougment’s Love in the Western World, books that our teachers disparaged but that some of us read with interest and excitement. To this day certain eccentric writers or visionary thinkers, like Leo Stein or Marshall McLuhan, not to speak of the great individualists like Henry Miller, continue to hold my interest. It is the rebel in me that attracts me to them and the fact that I take what I need from the books I read no matter what the received critical opinion or judgment might be.

Speaking of rebels, my political education began not with Marx but with John Dos Passos’ USA, which had been assigned to me in a seminar on American writers required for English majors. Reading Dos Passos I first became acquainted with native radicals like Randolph Bourne, whose essays on war and cultural renewal had a profound impact upon me. And my real induction into the most contemporary and avant-garde writing was through the pages of the Evergreen Review, where I discovered the works of Samuel Beckett and the philosopher E. M. Cioran and rediscovered Charles Olson, the poet who was living in my home town at the very moment I read his seminal essay, “Human Universe” in the review.

I should also mention the profound influence upon me of D. H. Lawrence, particularly during my last two years in college when I chose to write my senior thesis on Lawrence and myth, concentrating particularly on his Mexican novel, The Plumed Serpent. Introduced to Lawrence in Larry Hall’s course in modern literature, I began to read everything by him I could lay my hands on, even a splendid copy of the original 1928 Florence edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, housed in the rare book room of the library. But it was not the sexual in Lawrence that attracted me so much—after all, I had read Miller’s Tropics in the Obelisk Press editions friends had brought back from France. What I loved in Lawrence was his evocations of places in the world, his north of England, Italy and the American Southwest, which I would later travel to myself literally because of the way Lawrence had described New Mexico. I was also attracted to Lawrence’s life, to the way he and Frieda traveled like Gypsies from place to place, the way he appeared to write effortlessly at the kitchen table while dinner was being prepared, the way he seemed to penetrate the psychology of human relationships, which I had long puzzled over and began to write about myself in my first attempts at a novel. Lawrence seemed then to me the very model for the kind of writer I wished to be, itinerant and urbane like Hemingway, a linguist like Pound, an expatriate; for I had also read the major Lost Generation writers, Fitzgerald, McAlmon and their precursors in Paris like Gertrude Stein, and the option of living outside of one’s country and culture seemed a compelling one.

Lawrence, the working class intellectual, who was alienated both from his own class and from the culture he grew up in, along with the literary society that should have provided a sustaining environment, attracted me deeply, not only as a writer but as a person, restlessly moving from Nottinghamshire to Germany, from Italy to Ceylon, Australia and the American Southwest, ultimately dying in the South of France. The Lawrence who also interested me was the Lawrence who wrote, “At times one is forced essentially to be a hermit,” adding: “Yet here I am, nowhere, as it were, and infinitely an outsider.”

My deep study of Lawrence in my solitary room on 83 Federal Street, during my final year in college, prepared me for the senior thesis I was expected to submit as partial fulfillment of the graduation requirements for an English major. I chose The Plumed Serpent, not one of Lawrence’s most successful or highly acclaimed novels, but one which interested me because of its mythic substructure. For as a student of Dante I was also interested in myth and symbol and the creation of anagogic structures of belief

By, then, I was already pointed toward Europe. Lawrence’s travel books on Italy and Sardinia delighted me. I also read Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli and Words Are Stones in translation and Paura della Liberta`, his book about the myth of fascism and the fear of the terrible responsibility of freedom that attracts people to authoritarian regimes, in the original. Levi, a doctor, writer, painter and political activist, seemed yet another example of the urbane, multi-faceted European intellectuals I found so attractive. Levi’s descriptions of Italy during and after the war drew me to the country as a whole, just as reading Dante had drawn me in particular to the city of Florence.

I suspect the turn to Europe was already implicit the moment I read Sartre. I knew that my genetic and intellectual roots lay there. It was only a question of how to manage the trip with military service hanging over my head. An announcement posted in the library from the University of Florence offering courses in Dante and Renaissance culture and history in Italian to foreign students caught my attention. I applied and was accepted. So long as I continued to be a student I would be exempt from the draft.

Ironically, it was not in Italy but in my own neighborhood that I first learned about the single most important Italian writer of my life. During the summer before I left for Europe I befriended a young Italian graphic artist named Emiliano Sorrini, who had come to Gloucester to work with the painter Leonard Creo before moving on to New York, where he hoped to settle with his American wife. When Lenny introduced me to Emiliano it was with the hope that we could exchange language lessons with each other. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to practice my spoken Italian, and Emiliano whose English was already good proved to be a challenging student. Like many of the Italian artists I would later meet, Emiliano was also a reader—indeed, he was an intellectual with a deep understanding of the major political and cultural issues of the time. He had met Alberto Moravia and he knew Carlo Levi personally. But his favorite contemporary Italian writer was Cesare Pavese, of whom I knew nothing.

“If you love Moravia,” he told me, “you will die for Pavese.” And he advised me not to seek out translations in English, which he had been told were poor, but to wait until I arrived in Italy to buy and read Pavese in the original.

As soon as I arrived in Rome—even before I looked Lenny up in his studio on the Via del Babuino, I visited a nearby bookshop and bought my first Pavese novel, Il Compagno, initiating one of the profoundest literary and intellectual experiences of my life. Once I was settled at the Pensione Cordova on Via del Corso in Florence, I went out and on the strength of that first novel bought all of Pavese’s works in print, that is everything he had published.

Thus began another of those divided experiences for me. While I studied Dante, Medieval literature and Renaissance culture at the university by day, I read the poems, stories, essays, diaries and novels of Pavese by night. By the time I had arrived in Firenze, just at the time of my22nd birthday on November 15, 1959, my Italian reading comprehension was good. But after a few months of classroom lectures, almost nightly film going, conversations with fellow students and friends in the pensione, not to mention my daily readings of newspapers and magazines, I was able to read Italian practically without the help of a dictionary.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Kathleen Valentine said...

Oh, Peter, your blog posts are always so wonderful!!! I, too, was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books and have been a voracious reader all my life. So many of the books you mentioned are ones I loved. I fell in love with Hemingway when I was still in high school and had read nearly everything of his by college. To this day I still count his A Moveable Feast, among my favorite books. My brother and I used to crawlunder the bed in my grandmother's bedroom and read each other chapters and stories from my grandfather's books. He had bound sets of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, and Mark Twain. We read all of them. Recently my brother sent me some of my father's old books. Among them was his copy of Edwin Way Teal's Autumn Across America and I remember him reading that to us when we were little. Opening it and finding his underlines and scraps of paper saved for some unknown reason is such a sweet reminder of him.

Right now among the pile of books on my nightstand is Durell's Alexandria Quartet to be read again and a single volume collected works of Sarah Orne Jewett. Such treasures.

Wish I didn't have to work today and could open one of them now.

Thanks for a wonderful blog,

Kathleen