Monday, October 1, 2018

Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 - by Margaret Atwood

My husband and I read this collection of Atwood's writings over an eight-month period. Thought provoking, as well as conversation provoking, we both just felt smarter each time we read some of this work. 

Atwood gives libraries and librarians their due in various essays - starting with the Introduction
As one early reader of this book pointed out, I have a habit of kicking off my discussion of a book or author or group of books by saying that I read it (or him, or her, or them) in the cellar when I was growing up; or that I came across them in the bookcase at home; or that I found them at the cottage; or that I took them out from the library. If these statements were metaphors I'd excise all of them except one, but they are simply snippets of my reading history. My justification for mentioning where and when I first read a book is that...the impression a book makes on you is often tied to your age and circumstances at the time you read it, and your fondness for books you loved when young continues with you through your life.
This custom of telling of the history of reading a book is something that can be found in my blog as well. I often begin my posts by saying where I found a book, or when I first read it. There is in fact something rather meta in my description of my first encounter with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale when I consider it in light of what Atwood says here. And in honor of this tradition, I will divulge that I checked this book out of the Maxwell Library, the one in which I work. I picked it out specifically because I wanted to read Atwood, and this seemed like it would be a good read along with my husband.

Atwood gives a shout out to librarians and archivists as "guardian angels of paper" in her essay "In Search of Alias Grace".

Without them there would be a lot less of the past than there is, and I and many other writers owe them a huge debt of thanks.
This was written in 1996, and seems to set up her comments in a later work - a review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst (2004). Bringhurst's book tells of two poets Skaay and Ghandl who were from Haida "one of the many cultures that flourished along the northwest coast of North America before the arrival of the smallpox-carrying, Gospel-bearing Europeans in the nineteenth century." The two survived the disease, but were left blinded. They told their stories, in the original Haida language to John Reed Swanton, an ethnography/linguist who was "collecting stories as a way to learn a language." The poets died in the early twentieth century and "their stories gathered dust in libraries for almost a hundred years" before Bringhurst found them and over a twelve-year period taught himself the language and wrote a book about it.

It is a good thing we have archivists and librarians, otherwise we wouldn't know this story at all.

In her discussion of author Dashiell Hammett Atwood laments the lack of a library in northern Canada where she spent her preadolescent summers, and informs the readers that she, therefore, had to re-read a lot of detective fiction. Where she found Erle Stanley Gardner, or Ellery Queen "dry", Hammett's writing was, conversely, "fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue." We also learn that "as a boy [Hammett] wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library". I imagine she means the Baltimore City library, rather than the Baltimore County library, which is where I got my first library card. Nevertheless, this bit of trivia gave me a special thrill.

Atwood describes her foray's into Harvard's Widener Library as a graduate student in the 1960s in her Introduction to She by H. Rider Haggard
Once I was let loose in the stacks, my penchant for not doing my homework soon reasserted itself, and it wasn't long before I was snuffling around in Rider Haggard and his ilk...
In her introduction to "The Complete Stories, Volume 4 by Morley Callaghan" we learn that Callaghan's books were
sometimes banned by the public library in Toronto - I forget what the rationalization was, but the real reason could only have been that if a Canadian were to do anything so ethically dubious as write, he should at least write like a proper colonial and not like someone who had lived in the Paris of Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
Totally appropriate that I'm writing about this during Banned Books Week.

And speaking of banned books, Atwood's review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi begins with the question of where to categorize such a book. After making, and rejecting several suggestions she says
A mischievous soul might stash it under "book groups," which would be about as close as my college library's choice of "veterinary medicine" for Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.
 This same kind of questioning of classification is used in her review of W.S. Merwin's The Mays of Ventadorn. She clearly understands the kind of struggles cataloging librarians face when she recognizes that
It is...the sort of book that poses a problem for classifiers: What shelf to put it on? Is it a memoir? Not exactly, but sort of. Is it a rumination upon memory? Yes and no. It is about poetry? Not only.
I image that not everyone will read this book cover to cover. I expect many scholars will likely read the most relevant parts for their specific research and then return the book to the shelf.

But those who decide to take the deep dive will be richly rewarded.

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