Saturday, July 11, 2009


We read. A lot, all of us---we’re constantly immersed in other places and other times and outlandish events and sweeping feats and heroism and silliness. Our bookshelves overflow---I look at the months' accumulation of paperbacks lying sidesaddle atop the neat, upstanding rows and immediately start stripping down the numbers---somehow my avarice for the page is eclipsed by the sheer mass of them. I can’t understand how that tipping of the scale from can’t-get-enough to need-the-clearing-of-spaces-no-matter-what comes to be. One day, we’re just all comfy and surrounded by all our dear things; the next, looking at the skewed and piled and over-running shelves brings on the urge to cull and remove.

The new-boughts go to the swap-it store, the others to Goodwill---only paperbacks, only read ones. I cannot bear to part with any of my beautiful picture books of gardens and kitchens and other folks’ houses in places I’ll never see, of dimensions and décor that I’ll never achieve. But they’re interesting and fun and restful, somehow, for an hour in the arbor with iced tea, or a sunny morning in the little upstairs alcove with its plants and windows and welcoming cuddle of soft chairs. Great towers of them huddle beneath the pillowed bench, a neat stack serves as resting place for a teacup and lamp, and they are as much furniture as words.

There are books that I return to, time after time---Austen and Christie and Doyle and Burke and the childhood favorites. I still have shelves of Stephen King, but haven't opened one in years---there's enough going on in life; there's no need to seek out an intentional "BOO!" to flutter our days.

For years I read Gone with the Wind every other Summer, and Dickens was saved for a Winter read; all that roast goose and chilblains and those high-necked coats with cravats big as life-vests---those NEED a nip in the air to be real.

And I always saved Faulkner’s books for Summertime---it set the stage somehow, calling for heat and the dust rising in little tornado-spirals over the cottonfields. To get the true flavor of his words, you need to sweat some, sleeving off your upper lip with a scrape against your arm before you turn the page. Way before I was of age to delve into the grim happenings of Yoknapatawpha, I would disappear into the backyard, up a tree, or hide out in my favorite spot inside our boxwoods, soaking in the dust and depravations, drinking in the sin.

I never met Mr. William, but I do remember visiting Mr. John, who was unpacking a bunch of his paintings, which had just come back from a show in Paris. They were all nailed into neat boxes made of pale lumber, and the smell of pine as he and my friend pulled out the nails and removed the screws equated to the turpentine that we used as a paint thinner. Somehow in my young mind, I expected the paintings to be dripping still, and perhaps smearable, as the men removed their resiny armor and set them against walls around the room.

And even then, I found the pictures to be rather kindergartenish, much like the fingerpaint stuff turned out by a Vacation Bible School class, with primitive round exaggerations of scarf-covered Mammyheads amongst the brilliant greens and white dobs of the cottonfields. I found them tacky and trite, even at that young age, and wished a better depiction of where I had always lived.

I stood a long time, however, before the one I remember as all black, though it couldn't have been. I finally sat down before it on the hardwood floor, and just became immersed in the representation of an older black man, lying in bed---presumably dead or dying, as his angelself rode a mule up a golden-lighted incline toward a glowing cross on a hill. You could almost hear the swells of Sweet Chariot.

But I haven't read Faulkner in years, though some days during the rush and scramble of everyone in and out and meals to cook and the garden beginning its whimpers for attention and watering and its fix of Miracle Gro, I get the distinct feeling that great manic puppeteers have been assigned to pull the strings to control our days, to yank us along in a Howdy-Doody quick-step, tripping us over air.

And I think mine's Benjy Compson.

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