Hadn’t known about The Library House in Long Beach until a few women from my Jane Austen book discussion group met there for coffee a month back. It’s such a cool place I’ve gone back a couple of times.
This last visit, I was there with a few people from a couple of intersecting circles, the center being a friend celebrating her birthday. The conversation got around to books and reading. X looked around and pointed out that everyone there was over thirty, so cumulatively we represented an impressive number of reading years, and accumulated wisdom.
Or accumulated something, said Z.
After the speculation died down, X asked everybody there to offer a truism about books or reading, preferably not a quote, but if it had to be a quote, they had to support their reasons for offering it with examples.
Okay, here is where I have to start fitting my own words to theirs. I wasn’t taking notes, and I remember in image, not words. But here’s the gist.
X began, obviously having thought about it. She said, Narcissists’ books are full of flat characters (except for the author’s stand-in) because they are too full of themselves to be aware of other people except as set dressing in their own dramas.
That got some exclamations, the clearest being, “How do you know any given author is a narcissist?”
Person Y said it’s easier than ever now to determine that, all you have to do is go to Facebook, and if 99% of their posts are about themselves (the 1% maybe being bragging about how awesome their kid/spouse/lover is), you got yourself a narcissist.
“By that reasoning, everybody is a narcissist,” scoffed Z. “Facebook is all about your sharing whatever you think interesting. If you want to take a picture of your lunch and toot that it only contains twelve calories, Facebook is the place for it. I think your truism only works as a rule about bad writing. The author could be the nicest, most caring, deepest reaching social historian in L.A. She just doesn’t know how to put it into words.”
“Okay,” X said, with that crossed-arm look of someone who has just been dumped on, but is pretending that everything was in fun. She turned to me. “How about you, you’re a writer.”
Everybody turned to me. “Hey, I write to entertain people like me,” I sidestepped like a flapping chicken. “You want wisdom, you go to the smart people. Like Patricial Meyer Spacks said in her book about rereading, Imaginative writing can tell a deeper truth than that promulgated by the king of prose that sticks rigorously to demonstrable fact. (Actually, what I said was more like “Imaginative writing can tell a deeper truth than the prose that sticks to facts.”)
“Support that,” said X. “Why did you pick that quote?”
I burbled (with a few million “uh”s and “um”s and backtracks) about how rereading certain books showed me how they had shaped the course of my life, whereas others might have had a profound effect on the first read, then not so much afterward. But all these books had hit me with what I found true, whether it was emotional truth or spiritual truth. The point being that the sense of ‘truth’ transcended a mere accumulation of facts.
Because I value rereading so much when I stumbled across Spacks’ book, I nabbed it, and I’d been rereading her essay about Jane Austen recently.
We got onto the value of rereading, not only the expectation of past pleasure and surprise, but it can jump time, in effect, blending the experience of reading with memory of past readings. Layers and layers, which can bring out new truths from the text that one hadn’t seen.
The next person said with a challenging look at us, Every story has already been told.
She got the uproar she expected:
Every novel is different!
Familiar stories have an infinitude of versions!
The search for originality is overrated!
What is ‘original’ can be oldie-but-moldie for someone else!
I think the most interesting bit that came out of that discussion was the observation that for most of Europe the word for novel is “roman,” which comes from the old meaning of romance. English, naturally, had to be different—while borrowing their word from Italian! (novella, which means new)
And the last person, who may or may not have had time to think about her response, put this forward: If there is any universal theme to all of literature is that human beings matter.
From there we got into “matters to whom?” Would aliens have novels? Amazing how our memories intermix experience with our reading, so that the two not only mix, but can even blend.
Z wanted to know if anyone had ever mistaken a memory of a scene for something real. No one admitted to that, though a couple of us visual readers said we had trouble remembering actual places we had visited if we’d experienced them vividly in novels first. The imagined memory could distort the real memory. And many said that a film version of a book could be a stinker, yet the actor playing the familiar character would replace one’s old images.
Y, who had been quiet for a while, spoke up. “Talking about real memories of people and fictional characters who are just as real, and Facebook, and all the rest, suggests this one: All literature is gossip. And the novel will never die, because humans will never lose their interest in gossip.
How we learn by gossip, how we teach by gossip, how we control social situations by gossip, how it harms or even can heal, how ancient gossip is as fascinating as fresh, how we speculate through gossip, all got their due notice before the hour was up and everybody had to go off on their own pursuits.
So, if you’ve made it this far, what truisms would you like to throw out on a spring Saturday morning?