Friday, January 27, 2012

Bookstore Logic

Just today I noticed a bookmark that I've apparently been carrying around for more than two years. I remember the day I visited the bookstore in Louisville and the book I bought, a guide to Los Angeles. I've used the book many times but don't recall seeing the bookmark, which includes a quote from Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist: "To carry a book in your pocket or in your bag, particularly in times of sadness, is to be in possession of another world, a world that can bring you happiness."

I've always been a reader. When I was a little girl, I didn't read books so much as immerse myself in them. It was an effortless, unselfconscious way to enter other worlds that immediately became my own, as if I were just another character, looking over the shoulders of the other characters or sitting quietly in a corner. The books I read up until the age of 12 or 13 live for me in a way that few books have since then. At some point I became a more critical reader, which sounds like a good thing but in reality meant that stories lost some of their immediacy for me. It became harder to get lost in them as I became more aware of things like style, literary value, etc. The Nancy Drew books I loved at age 8 then became "formulaic," and I was no longer enchanted by the "silliness" of Dr. Seuss.

I had crossed an invisible border, leaving a magic world and stepping into a more pedestrian reality in which books still called to me, but more softly. My imagination still craved the luminous realm of fairy tales, of King Arthur and Robin Hood and the Little Golden Books, but I could no longer get there. I don't know if this happens to other people or not. Once in a while, a book would still sweep me into its world, a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Hobbit or some of the novels of Mary Stewart. On the whole, though, as reading became a more intellectual exercise, my capacity to feel its magic became less.

I actually remember telling a friend years ago that I was tired of reading about life and wanted to experience it directly instead of just in books. Be careful, oh, be careful, what you wish for! The god of libraries (Sesat? Thoth?) might have had a hand in what followed, possibly intending a corrective measure to curb my attempts to flee the library (which turns out to be bad form for a librarian). Let's just say I learned my lesson and am perfectly content now to spend the entire winter curled up with a good book, sipping hot chocolate and eating plates of cookies.

One thing that has somehow never waned is the irresistible lure of a bookstore. I remember sadly the days when all we had were chain stores at the mall, which carried bestsellers and paperback classics but not a lot else. Since then I've developed a pretty high bar for what a bookstore should be, and there are actually some stores that meet it. One criterion is that it should be possible to just walk in and feel yourself attracted to titles at every hand, without having to scour the shelves. (I know some people enjoy rummaging around to uncover gems, but I don't want bookfinding to be like work -- it should be like play).

This is a true story: I was in Northern California six years ago, touring the wine country of Sonoma County and environs. I found myself passing through a small town, no more than an eyeblink, which somehow appealed to me, even though I was on my way to somewhere else. I drove for another 45 minutes or so through an idyllic landscape but kept thinking about the little town I had seen. For some reason, I turned around and drove back, stopping to get chai at a little cafe, and then moving down the street to visit the town's little bookstore.

There was a table in the middle of the store loaded with books on a variety of topics, in no particular order. I picked up a book with an interesting title and opened it at random. The first word my eye fell on was the word "maze." Not surprising that I would notice this, since I'd been interested in mazes for a while. I picked up another book, on a different topic than the first one; again I opened it at random, and again, the first word I saw was "maze." A third book; again, at random, again, the word "maze."

I wasn't even thinking about myth studies at that point, but I knew enough about Jung to recognize synchronicity. I had always bemoaned the fact that that type of thing never happened to me, and now, shazam!, here it was. Of course, three is a magic number in fairy tales, and looking back, I see this incident as the opening by which I fell into the rabbit hole of a whole series of adventures, good and bad. At the time, I wasn't sure how to interpret this bookstore experience, but I kept wondering about it, until six months later, I was in graduate school, the last place I thought I'd be. I wrote about mazes and labyrinths several times, but resisted choosing it for my dissertation, not really accepting that the topic had already chosen me.

I now know a word I didn't know before, which is numinous, the quality of divinity or magic that shines through certain events, places, and things, revealing a pulsating significance where something very ordinary appeared only a moment ago. A good bookstore deals in the numinous, as does a good library. That's why it's important to be within reach of one or the other, and preferably both, if you are, say, thinking about relocating. I spent an afternoon and two frustrating evenings in Los Angeles looking for the one (there are several good used bookstores, but you also need one that deals in new books). I approached the last bookstore on my list feeling nervous, since I hadn't yet seen anything at all like what I had in mind. Would I end up having to move to Northern California (or Portland? or Seattle?) just to be near a good bookstore?

Fortunately, this bookshop turned out to be just the right size. Browsing yielded a good number of interesting titles. In one corner was a little boy surrounded by a pile of books, whose mother was threatening to leave without him (when last seen, he was still reading). There were thoughtful staff picks. I chose a book to buy, then changed my mind, picking up the one next to it, and thought to myself, this store could be the difference between my moving here or not moving here.

I didn't get to start the book until last night. I was finishing another book I had become engrossed in, a book about, of all things, a bookstore and a writer. (I had found it at Powell's, the Paradiso of bookstores, in Portland.) I picked up the new book last night, intending to read a little before going to bed. I liked the way it started, with a musing on the power of scent to hold memories; its setting in Provence; the romance combined with a touch of Gothic; the lyricism of the writing. Then, at the bottom of page 11, at the beginning of chapter 3, I came across the words: "Dom and I met in a maze." You're kidding me.

It was Bilbo who said, "the Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead, the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can . . ." 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deconstructing Raylan

One time a friend made fun of me for going to San Francisco for a bluegrass festival. When you're from the Bluegrass State, it is pretty funny to fly to the Bay Area to watch people play the banjo. I was thinking about that last night while chilling in my L.A. hotel room, watching the program Justified. I've heard a lot about the show but had never seen it because I don't have cable at home (this is not a matter of Kentucky being primitive, just a choice on my part). Justified is a fictitious account of the life and times of a U.S. marshal in Eastern Kentucky and is peppered with references to Frankfort, Lexington, and other familiar places.

I know that people from the region are often sensitive to the way they are depicted in the media, but I haven't heard any complaints about Justified. That surprises me a little since the show is full of nasty, violent people involved in drugs, moonshine, murder, feuding, and other shenanigans. In the course of just two episodes, the handsome young marshal, Raylan Givens, was shot, hung up in a tree and beaten, thrown through a glass wall, and forced to play a deadly gun game with a criminal while his (girlfriend?/ex-wife?) gave the countdown. It's enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to be a marshal, but Raylan seems to take it all in stride, with a gleam in his eye and a soft-spoken but ready quip for every occasion.

People from Kentucky are used to being stereotyped, and some of the characters in the program don't stray too far from the tradition of stock characters that stand in for "hillbillies." On the other hand, they seemed fairly creditable to me as realistic people, if you consider the fairly narrow swath of Kentuckians who are definite hard-core criminals. I didn't see many people in the show who reminded me of people I know, but Justified really covers a different demographic. 

For me, one thing that did interfere with the realism was the accents. People from Kentucky definitely have them, but they aren't like the ones in the show. Hollywood can get the most exotic Eurasian accent down to a science, but for some reason they can't do Kentucky. You'd think they would ask George Clooney or Johnny Depp for pointers on verisimilitude, but no -- Hollywood Kentuckians always have a carefully exaggerated, slightly belabored sound, like the young, bespectacled bluegrass band I once heard in a San Francisco coffeehouse, playing folk tunes with the earnest quality of a string quartet.

I was expecting to like Justified, but my reaction to it was complicated by my dislike of violence. The entire premise of the program is violence, and in that it resembles all the other television crime shows, no matter the setting. One thing that's different about Justified is that the main character, Raylan, is depicted as somewhat enmeshed in the culture of violence, since he is working in his own hometown and has long-standing connections there. He is not an outsider but an insider.

I'm familiar with the myths and legends of Kentucky as an insider who has always felt like an outsider. I spent seven of my growing-up years away from Kentucky and came back at the very awkward brink of adolescence, learning just how difficult it can be to fit oneself into the tightly knit social fabric of the culture. I have never felt that I succeeded completely in doing it, which may be why I have a hard time knowing where "home" actually is. Watching Raylan banter easily and comfortably with his boss, his acquaintances, and the bad guys (the latter two categories being somewhat indistinguishable), I did not see a kindred spirit, but rather a dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky boy (albeit an exceptionally good-looking one). Even though Raylan has returned to Kentucky after living in south Florida (just as I did), his natural way of dealing with the people and their habits is something I'm still working on myself.

There is a tradition that a Cherokee chief described Kentucky as a "dark and bloody ground" to Daniel Boone. The creators of Justified have taken that appellation seriously in their depiction of the state, or at least a particular part of it. The stories I hear of nepotism, corruption, and violence in Eastern Kentucky (and those portrayed in the show) grow out of the same culture that has produced a rich brew of folk music, literature, and other arts. I can't fault this show for emphasizing violence when all the other cop shows do the same thing. But what I would find interesting is a show that explores not only the folklore of this complicated place but the very real and difficult struggles of people just trying to fit in. Instead of Justified, call it Satisfied. Or maybe Dissatisfied.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ariadne Meets Arachne

So how do you pass the time when your dissertation draft is in someone else's hands and you're free to turn your attention to other things? We've been lucky with the weather this New Year, and there has been a succession of mild, sunny days, perfect for long walks in the afternoon under a cerulean sky. I have also watched a recorded course on Jung and spirituality; done some dusting; thrown away a bunch of accumulated receipts; made gingerbread cookies; watched Lord of the Rings all the way through; completed some paperwork; started and finished Death Comes to Pemberley, and ("Ta-da!") started a knitting project.

The knitting project may or may not be a good idea. I spent an hour reading through a "knitting for dummies" book and getting more and more intimidated. I was looking for the part that explained the difference between "knit" and "purl" and what all those little abbreviations in my "Vintage Pull-Through Scarf" kit mean. The yarn that came with my kit is a lustrous green merino wool with paler shades mixed in, 230 yards of it. When I bought the kit, I thought it would be self explanatory but found out that was not the case. It actually assumes you know what you're doing.

Attracted to the photo of the smartly knotted scarf on the package, I decided that this kit couldn't be too difficult to master, even for an absolute beginner. I mean, I'm getting a doctoral degree, right? How hard can it be? I have to say the whole knitting thing is a bit of unfinished business for me. I had an Irish grandmother who was constantly knitting sweaters (I have two of them) and who tried to encourage me from the age of 8 or so to pick up the craft. I think I received two of those little loom kits before I succeeded in completing a potholder, and I don't remember what became of the knitting kit, except that I never started it.

Part of the problem was that, although I loved dolls, play kitchens, and tea sets, the idea of actually doing something useful like knitting seemed less like play and more like being domesticated. It was more like work, the kind of thing that could result in someone expecting you to do it all the time. I remember I didn't want any part of it. Now that I know no one's expecting me to do it, I'm attracted to it. I like the idea of doing something complex with my hands that results in something tangible. It requires a different kind of intelligence than the one I'm used to.

It's off to a slow start so far. In my opinion, a book on knitting should start by telling you how to make a stitch, but mine started by pointing out all the difficulties inherent in knitting, all the mistakes you're likely to make, the deceptive nature of patterns, and the myriad types of yarn, including their drawbacks. In the midst of a discourse on the finer points of needles, I finally had to admit I was lost when I looked at mine and realized they might as well be chopsticks for all I could tell.

Leafing ahead, I finally found the place where the book gets down to defining terms and tells you how to make a slip stitch, which is apparently the entry point, the equivalent of "Speak Friend and Enter," for knitters. After attempting this very basic technique for several minutes without getting anywhere, I fortified myself with hot tea and gingerbread and sat down for another go. It seems to me that the instructions don't really match the diagram, but that might be my fault. A lifetime spent with your nose in books, studiously avoiding the domestic arts, may make you a little dumb when you try to shift gears.

Come to think of it, this business of knitting could be another way of tangling myself up in knots and intricate paths (once you start thinking about labyrinths they just keep coming at you). There is a story in Greek mythology about Arachne, the girl so skilled in weaving that she became conceited and was turned into a spider by Athena, the goddess of the arts and crafts. I don't anticipate attracting any dangerous notice with my own knitting; I'll be too busy learning the difference between K2tog, SSK, and K1fb, how to tell the Wrong Side from the Right Side, and what gauge means. Come to think of it, watching that Great Learning Course on The Divine Comedy might be a little less taxing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Faint Sounds of Victory

The draft has left the building.

Last week I got the full draft of my dissertation boxed up and out of here, which was a big milestone. Although I face revisions over the next few months, I can now truthfully say the worst is behind me. When I started the blog two years ago, I said I wanted to have fun with the dissertation, and that I doubted anything good would come of it if I didn't have fun.

So, was it fun?

Well . . . parts of it were sort of fun, but not fun like a day at the beach or at King's Island. It was more like the fun you experience at the end of a run, when you feel good about what you just did but don't really want to go back and do it again.

When I was in the middle of my coursework, I sometimes imagined that writing the dissertation would be a luxury since I would "just" be concentrating on one project instead of juggling a class schedule and a job. The truth of the matter is that being in school was easier in some ways, namely because of the built-in deadlines, the regular trips to our beautiful campus, and the camaraderie of classmates. The end of that sustained contact with my cohort left me in a lonely spot, isolated at home with my books, like a female version of St. Jerome with a Starbucks card and a laptop.

In such a situation, it's easy to doubt yourself and wonder if you'll ever find a way to pull together all the disparate information you've been gathering into some kind of coherent whole, much less write the elegant and persuasive manuscript of your dreams. The more you read, the more you feel you need to read. You imagine someone poking holes in all your arguments and wonder if you'll be able to get through the defense without resort to smelling salts. 

I hear stories from friends about life events derailing their research, and I'm grateful that at least I've got it all down on paper. A year ago, I was exhausted after writing the first two chapters. I just had to let it stew for a while while I traveled and cleared my head, thinking of the best way to get from Madison to St. Louis, or where to eat dinner my first night in Seattle, or whether to stay in a bed and breakfast or a hotel in New Orleans. Then, when I did start writing again, I had to fight my way tooth and nail out of the bog of Chapter 3, an epic struggle that makes me think I now understand how Jacob felt after wrestling the angel.

Was it that intimidatingly masterful book on the labyrinth and the Middle Ages that threw me? The remoteness of the period? My relative lack of expertise in medieval studies? Looking back now, I think it may have been a needling feeling that there was something I needed to unearth, a basic way in which I disagreed with some of the conclusions I was reading, which hadn't come to the surface yet. Eventually, it was an immense relief just to recognize that I disagreed with one of my experts and could stand my ground on it.

The fun parts of the dissertation came fleetingly, when an idea would occur to me in midstream, like the way The Woman in White showed up in Chapter 5 and Bruce Springsteen materialized in Chapter 7. I mean, seriously, who would have ever thought of Bruce Springsteen ending up in someone's dissertation on labyrinths? (He's in there because of Tunnel of Love.) I also had the pleasure of not only writing about A Midsummer Night's Dream but finding research that supported my decision to put it in Chapter 4.

When I finished the proposal, someone asked me if I didn't feel a sense of accomplishment. I said that I couldn't really relax because I knew how much more I needed to do to improve it. I have a similar feeling now, knowing where the shortcomings are and the places that could use a bit more work. It's hard to know when to stop with such a big project, but eventually you run up against that ticking clock, and it forces you, willy-nilly, to let go.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a parent, watching that little one toddle off to school for the first time, convinced that he's way too young to be out there in the world. As you watch, considering calling him back for one more hug, he disappears into the building without a backward glance, and the door closes behind him. You're left on the sidewalk, waving vacantly at an empty schoolyard, wondering how in the world you got there so soon.