September 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Five Perfect Passages: Celebrating the Joy of Reading

In The Sorrows of an American, Siri Hustvedt traces the intricate family webbing that was spun in the wake of a generation’s emigration from Norway. The language is beautiful, but mostly subsumed (as it should be) to the story, so that my attention fixed abundantly on its characters.

Then came a passage so arresting that I disengaged from the story and read it several more times. Two young people, Lars and Marit, were discovering that something special pulsed between them. Hustvedt writes in Lars’s voice:

"On one of our dates, Marit wore a shaggy pink sweater that shed like a collie in spring. I must have held her close when we said goodnight, because on the following morning, I discovered that my jacket was all but pink from clinging fibers. During the half hour or so it took me to remove these strands, one by one, there welled up in me an overpowering feeling of tenderness, the kind that swallows you whole and turns you into mush. If I were told that I could only save one memory from my life and all others would have to go, I would choose this one, not so much out of romantic nostalgia, but because the event marked a seminal moment in my life. It pointed forward to our marriage, to the two children we would have together, to the home we founded, and to the joys and sorrows we later shared."

The disorienting sensation of wheeling through space and time that comes with the recognition that one is falling in love: Hustvedt captures its contours perfectly. Realizing that, I began to muse about the phenomenon of the perfect passage. I could easily come up with 100 such passages in honor of Bookslut’s 100th issue, but here I will content myself with four more. In each of the five cases, I have selected a passage that I had marked, at the time of reading, in my book, and that endures in my memory.   

In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski also writes about love, the love felt by the dog Almondine for the boy Edgar. Edgar has gone off, leaving his dog, leaving her to search for him. Wroblewski writes the dog’s yearning, noting first, in her voice, that the boy still comes freely to her in dreams: 

"Not so in the waking world. Which held nothing but an endless search.

"All her life she had found whatever she had been asked to find and there had only been one thing ever. Now he was truly lost, gone away, crossed into another world, perhaps, some land unknown to her from which he could not return. The closet was as puzzled as she, the bed silent on the question. It was not out of the question that he had learned the secret of flight, and the window was not too small for him to pass through. There, sleeping on his bed at night, she would be the first to see when he returned. Old as she was, she still had questions to ask him, things to show him. She worried about him. She needed to find him, whole or changed, but know in any case, and she would taste the salt of his neck." 

Animals feel deeply; to see this truth brought forth in Wroblewski’s book brought tears to my eyes.

Not all perfect passages are weighted with love or loss. In Helen Schulman’s novel A Day at the Beach, a married couple, Gerhard and Susannah, negotiate a crisis in post- 9/11 New York. They’ve fled to the Hamptons, and at one point Gerhard enters a food store:

"The coconut cupcakes at the Barefoot Contessa were oversized and snowy white, covered with a creamy coconut stucco frosting. It was all Gerhard could do not to bury his face in the tray of them. They were laid out to the left of the coffee service at the front of the store, which was pretty enough, the silver creamers beaded with cold sweat, the little wicker baskets for the sugars, the cupcakes sandwiched in by a beautiful, impossible-to-cut strawberry shortcake, with its featherlight sponge cake and its red rubies, the ethereal whipped cream that would have no choice but to go splurt if kissed by a knife. Next to the cakes were trays of blondies and brownies, linzer cookies and shortbread hearts, banana crunch muffins, and scones, tons of scones, blueberry and strawberry and maple-oatmeal scones, even cheddar-cheese scones (orange-speckled and flecked with feathers of green dill), but nothing held a candle to the cupcakes. Gerhard felt a specific gratitude for them, for their just being there. He felt a reverence for the full spectrum of the pleasures of life, simple and expansive. Which category did his cupcake fall under? It was a voluptuous, luxurious, homespun delight."

Schulman turns a sweet description into something more when she writes "Gerhard felt a specific gratitude… a reverence for the full spectrum of the pleasures of life." An emotional crisis may tip us into  the dizzy equivalent of a drunk stumble around the room. Surrendering our senses to a small pleasure may inch us away from a shut-down of the heart, towards a trust that once again our own skin will feel right.  

Science writing, my own genre, supplies equal pleasures. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe tells of the lives of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son George. While the book’s central dynamic turns on the father-son relationship, the parts that sang to me involved the natural world. Once, the Dysons camped on Hanson Island in British Columbia, near to the home of scientist Paul Spong. While studying killer whales, Spong set up hydrophones to record the whales’ calls. Brower writes: 

"The tendril of sound unraveled over the bottom. It traveled through the night waters and right up my spine. I had heard it on records, and I had heard it several previous nights on Hanson Island, but I was still not prepared for it. It was a communication from an unexpected quarter, and it raised goosebumps. It was a nonterrestrial intelligence, it was probing the void, it passed without discovering us."     

Our world is replete with communications from unexpected quarters, with intelligences from multiple species. Bernd Heinrich writes about these very things, and he too has brought out a father-son book, The Snoring Bird. The elder Heinrich, a naturalist, thrived out in the field, especially around certain species of wasps and birds. As a young man, Bernd joined his father in Tanganyika, as Tanzania was then called, on a collecting expedition:

"I felt as though I was being reborn into a new and uncharted world, one where I knew nothing and expected anything. It was a world of new odors and strange sounds. I was an outsider. I did not know which stimuli were relevant or which signaled danger, and I had to be open to them all. Whistles, groans, ticks, scrapings, and sibilant melodies come to me from all directions. I would eventually learn to identify the bulbuls that answered each other with a loud whistle, pigeons that boomed like owls, sunbirds with twittering little ditties, the loud barking of turacos, the monotonous clucking of the Camaroptera hidden in tangles, and countless others. I had at first imagined vipers, charging elephants, and bloodthirsty tsetse flies infected with sleeping sickness. But the fear that I had anticipated gradually declined and was replaced by a sharp alertness that left little room for worry. I became a hunter, a role for which my senses had been honed throughout most of our evolution as a species. I felt as though I was awakening from a long sleep. Slowly, I became less conscious of myself. To be engaged in the hunt is really to become one with the animal and the landscape and the cycle of life in which every creature is food for something else."

The joys of hunting animals are not my joys. Yet a half-century ago, natural history was resplendent with collecting ventures. Heinrich’s life in biology, and his writings about bird cuckolds, raven minds, Maine woods, and more, bloomed from his participation in them. For these reasons, his Tanganyika passage brought me (once I thought it through) to pleasure.

And so it is with reading’s double delights. In perfect passages, when we encounter an everyday emotion or situation, we are invited to know ourselves, and others, better; when we bump up against the unfamiliar, perhaps even the uneasy-making, we are ushered to the threshold of a new perspective.    

Some perfect passages comfort, others startle. Some lap at our deepest hopes. The best of them bring love -- of each other, of the natural world, even of snow-dusted cupcakes -- bursting to life as we read.

-- Barbara J. King tweets about animals and books @bjkingape.