The life of my mind

by , under books and reading, friends, librarianship

Last evening, while walking on the treadmill, I finally watched a BookTV program I recorded in May. It was an episode of After Words, with guest interviewer Sara Nelson (author of the wonderful So Many Books, So Little Time) talking to Elaine Showalter about her new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. I’ve seen this book at TSCPL, and would love to read it, but it’s something like 600 pages long, and I just don’t see myself able to read a book of that length (except maybe a novel) anytime soon.

Thankfully, I was able to devote close to an hour to watching the program (half an hour on the treadmill, another 25 minutes till the end). It made me want to read the book, particularly because of the way Sara Nelson described it — I got the sense it was more “readable,” less theoretical than much literary criticism, that it reads more quickly and easily than one would expect, for a book that size. I was also pleased to hear Elaine Showalter say of the many books that she read during her research, that her primary question while reading was, “Am I enjoying this book?” She was trying to read them as a “normal” reader would, rather than as a scholar or literary critic.

I am really glad to be a librarian, and I think it’s the profession that makes the most sense for me, the best way to earn my “bread and butter,” so to speak. But as I told Becky a few months ago, when we went to visit the library at Fort Leavenworth, if I had my way, I’d just read and write every day — and I’d read more novels than anything else.

I was very lucky, last Sunday in Boston, to meet “in real life” a woman I’d only known online and by e-mail: a fellow librarian and book lover who is ALSO named Marie. (Her blog is called “sweetness, sweetness,” and I think that’s taken from a Sylvia Plath poem. We have a lot in common!) We spent a while chatting at Dunkin’ Donuts (one of the five million in Mass.), then went to a fantastic bookstore that neither of us had been to before, called McIntyre and Moore, in Porter Square. We both gravitated toward novels, but I admitted to Marie that I wish I had the time, patience, and simple brain power to read some psychology and philosophy, and a lot more literary criticism. So although I’m more likely to choose fiction or poetry from my “to be read mountain” than anything too abstract or theoretical, I’m often drawn to those kinds of books, and sometimes buy them or check them out from the library, even though I realize that I won’t have the time to properly read them until I’m retired. (Yes, that’s over 20 years away.)

For example, there was a book that caught my attention months ago that was on my (comparatively short) list of “books that are probably way over my head that I’d likely buy anyway if I ever found them.” Well, last Sunday, in McIntyre and Moore, I found it, and couldn’t help exclaiming, “Duuude!” which Marie heard from a couple aisles away. It’s called Strangers to Ourselves, written by Julia Kristeva. It was in the literary criticism section, but even from the jacket description, you can tell it’s not strictly lit crit.

(description copied from Amazon, but I think it’s taken from the book jacket)

This book is concerned with the notion of the “stranger” -the foreigner,
outsider, or alien in a country and society not their own- as well as the notion
of strangeness within the self -a person’s deep sense of being, as distinct from
outside appearance and their conscious idea of self.
Kristeva begins with the personal and moves outward by examining world literature and philosophy. She discusses the foreigner in Greek tragedy, in the Bible, and in the literature of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the twentieth century. She discusses the legal status of foreigners throughout history, gaining perspective on our own civilization. Her insights into the problems of nationality,
particularly in France are more timely and relevant in an increasingly
integrated and fractious world.

As you can tell, this is not a breezy or potboiler kind of book. If I had a day completely free, I would start reading it and see how far I get. I also found, totally by chance in an unsorted pile, another title that had grabbed me more recently, and had to buy that as well. This one is psychology: Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior, by Jon Elster. When I was at Smith, I participated a few times in a group of survivors of sexual abuse. While some women talked about not remembering, and not allowing themselves to feel anything deeply, I remember saying I was the opposite way, “I am emotion.”

The books that examine the intersections of life and literature; books that seek to explore the workings of our minds as well as our brains; books that might help me see myself and others more clearly — these are the kinds of books I want to find and read, beyond novels and other imaginative literature. A few titles from my “watch list,” books that sound interesting enough for closer examination:
The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change;
Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State;
Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature;
The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: a Philosophical Journey into the Brain;
Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government;
The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life;
Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World;
Just and Unjust Wars: a Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.

You get the idea. Ever since I started getting the Labyrinth Books sale catalog, my watch list has ballooned with these kinds of titles, which sound both fascinating to me and hugely challenging to read. Back in library school, I was talking with one of my friends one day about what kind of library I might work in when I got my degree. She looked at me closely and said, “I can really see you in academia.” Strange for a high school dropout, but in a way she was right. If I had access to a university’s resources and the time for self-directed study, the life of my mind could be amazing and constantly growing.

Back here on earth, I’ll try to wrap this up so I can actually post it tonight. (I started writing it before work, at about 745am, and now it’s after 11pm and I’m getting tired!) Many many thanks to Marie for meeting me on Sunday and introducing me to such a great bookstore. Both our meeting and the store were like hot fudge added to an already good ice cream visit. 🙂

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

  1. Marie

    I'm sooo glad you liked that bookstore. I am even happier that you found two books that were on your "to read" list. Who would have thought you'd stumble upon those two specific titles – one in lit crit, one in psychology, and one being in an unsorted pile, no less!?!? How fortuitous! Then again, we were in "Hahvahd" vicinity where I'm sure those smarties have a lot of "smart books" to unload. 😉 It was even funnier when the salesclerk started engaging you in this whole conversation about Wilkie Collins, after you told me about The Woman in White!?! I consider that a successful book shopping trip overall!

    Thanks for posting the Labyrinth Books link. Maybe Mark and I will make a trip out to New Haven one day, and I will have a chance to check it out!

    Those titles you listed do indeed sound interesting. I would probably read them, too, if I just had the time, energy, and attention span! I have to admit, though, I just got back into a novel-reading habit ever since I started working at the museum. I have a lot of time to read there, especially when business is slow, so I have been focusing my attention on fiction (and some memoirs and biographies) and hoping that will help with my writing… There is just so much to feed our brains with!

  2. HeathMochaFrost

    Thanks for your comment! Yes, there *is* so much to feed our brains with, and that's a wonderful thing, but also overwhelming sometimes!

    That chat about The Woman in White really was a neat moment. It's so rare for me to connect with people that way — when I'm really excited about a book, and the other person is equally excited, and you both experience that same feeling for a minute, even if you don't know each other. What can I say, I live with three males who gladly talk sports every day. When one of my kids asks me which player is the best or which team is my favorite, I sometimes threaten to reply with a book/author/reading related item instead — that gets me a reprieve. 😉

    Let me know some of the fiction you like the most and/or find most helpful with regard to your own writing, so if I find stuff along the same lines, I can let you know. 🙂

    Back to work for me… Hope this week is better than last for you!


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