Wings, boats, & asses

Before the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News gussied itself up over the last thirty years, my brother and I would play in its small-craft building, which today would look like a warehouse, were it still around.  Not like a big-box store made to look like a warehouse: it was a real, un-air-conditioned, sheet-metal-sided, concrete-floor warehouse.

We’d climb on old gondolas and tugs and dugout canoes illuminated only by a translucent, fiberglass ceiling. We could see the pine needles and dirt accumulating in rows along the corrugated roof from inside the building.  We played underneath a white, fallow field blessed by inattention and sunlight.

A sign in the aisles said not to climb on the boats, sure, but no one was ever in the room with us: no docent, guard, member, or guest.  Only birds.

The building’s doors stayed open.  The prefabricated construction invited nests.  The birds’ sudden flights drew our attention.  The room echoed with their pipes and amplified their wings. Beneath them, my brother and I were like Mole and Water Rat; each boat seemed headed for adventure.

From adulthood, I see the glory and the dream the birds and we shared. Like Thomas Cole, I look back and paint a guardian angel in each boat. The whole, eclectic fleet we played in could have been headed for the Gates of Dawn.

And now?  Is there such a room? I’ve spent my life nesting or looking for places to nest.  My mud and pine needles protrude out of the walls of professions and spill out of a church community.  I fly to my small library with bookmarks of straw.  Like the birds, I utilize; I don’t use things as they seem intended.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.  [Psalm 84:3]

I feel myself circling, or I feel myself building.  (It’s never all circling or all building, though, but it’s primarily one or the other; it’s a season of one or the other.) I’ve been circling for years now, looking for your altars, O Lord.  It has been a beautiful search, and I am grateful for the wings.

Most of the time, though, I think I’m just looking for Little Portly.  Trying to keep a kid in line at school or helping him learn past participles.  Saul looking for his father’s asses.  Could be.  Could be each of us is looking for his father’s asses.

[There are no birds in the new, 17,500-square-feet International Small Craft Center.  You can see the boats we played in, but you may not touch.  I should complain.  If you exhibit part of my childhood, at least make it interactive.]

Slow reader

When I was a child, I thought speed reading was the thing to do. To cram all those wonders in, in almost no time at all: how wonderful it would be. I used to think about the champion readers immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, that sacred text of my pre-teen years. Anna Karenina in three hours! I was in awe of such genius.

But ever since I started reading as a writer—this coincided with the first sprouting of my facial hairs, though I doubt there’s an essential connection—I’ve read more slowly. It generally takes me about two weeks to get through a two-hundred-page novel, and about a month for bigger books. If I have a long languid summer, I might get through a six-hundred-pager or two.

I can read rapidly—I did pick up the skill of absorbing the gist of a paragraph at one glance—but I have no interest in doing so. Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.

Like those people who can take a sip of a soup and declare that it contains marjoram, basil, the faintest whiff of such and such a species of thyme and a hint of the earth the thyme was grown in, I am an oversensitive wreck. My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.

In extreme cases—Here is Where We Meet is a recent example—so involved am I with the thing that I read almost as slowly as the writer wrote, somewhat like that old Russian lady who told Uncle Gabo that she copied out every word ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude so she would be sure she hadn’t imagined it all.

Plot is not the most interesting part of a book for me, and this frees me to take pleasure in book fragments. The author’s literary DNA is on every page, at least for any author worth her salt. So what if I start at page 120 and I abandon the book on page 203? What an encounter those eighty-three pages have been. The most fleeting of affairs, consummated with the passion of a death-row conjugal visit, fervid and yet full of delay-tactics.

I read page 346 of The Count of Monte Cristo last weekend, and grew wings.

One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty. Naturally, I often found myself in the middle of a sentence at the page’s beginning or end. But these are the fragments from which a life is made, like those snatches of conversation one hears on the subway, which are free-floating pages from a much larger and more intricate narrative. I eventually left the bookshop, late late in the afternoon, and it was as though I had been to the world’s greatest luncheon. I was sozzled on literary wine and the voices of the twelve brilliant guests echoed in my head.

And then there are those books I read and put away and pick up again and put away again. Not because there’s anything wrong with the book, but simply because I see no reason to consume it all at once. For example, I’ve been reading The Human Stain since June 2004. This work’s riches embarrass me, as a blueberry muffin with too many blueberries would. It’s undeserved, it’s sheer dumb luck on the reader’s part. I’m only on page 190, but it’s already one of my favorite books. I know how the story ends, I know who dies, I know who kills whom, but this has nothing to do with what I’m looking for in the work. Ten pages at a time is about all I can handle of Philip Roth, when he’s at his best. Actually, sometimes it’s just the one athletic paragraph, so clean and in tune with its own song, that knocks me off my charted course. I replace the bookmark, put the volume back on the shelf, and, sighing, remortgage my pact with the Devil. He already has my soul, and now we’re down to bartering the household crockery. Long may I continue to live and read and ever slowly read.

As for Love in the Time of Cholera, don’t even get me started. I’ve read the first hundred pages of that book no less than three times, Saint Ursula is my witness. The first time was out-loud to my wife, three pages a night. Maybe or maybe not I will eventually read the rest; more likely, I’ll go back and read the first hundred again. As I’ve said, that’s between me and Mephistopheles. All I know is that what little of it I’ve already taken in has set a fire in my life that I am unable to douse.

I enjoyed the first two sentences of Lolita—filthy, brilliant—so much that I put it down. For fear of damaging myself. I haven’t found the courage to pick it up again.

Beowulf’s first word bitch-slapped me. I surrendered. And I can’t even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words.

I have abandoned that ecstatic fury in which one tears through an entire book over the course of nine hours, caffeine coursing through the veins, the wrists sore from page-turning, the eyes streaked with burst arterioles. No more of that for me, I’ve been saved from that particular variety of youthful indiscretion. But, worryingly, I seem to have recently picked up the nasty habit of reading novels right through to the end. As if getting to the end were the point. This is no joke: I’ve completed at least six books in the past three months. If these symptoms continue, I will consult my doctor. But for the most part, as I grow older, I’m less inclined to wolf down my nutrition, the opinions of the literature-police be damned. I think of prize judges and professional reviewers, those fifty-novels-a-year freaks of humanity, with a chuckle of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.

Life is too precious to waste on fast reading; I bet Neruda says something like that in his Memoirs, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.
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© 2007 Teju Cole. Used by permission. Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer, and the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. His novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Tom Montag’s Morning Drive Journal

[For an explanation of “Morning Drive Journal,” click here.]

December 23, 1998

Weather and love are always and only local. Oh the storm may blow in from the mountains or down from Canada, but it means something to us only when it’s here. Like love, there’s a lot of weather we don’t notice, that we take for granted. It is fiery passion that explodes in us, the throb of excitement, the sear. That, we think, is love. The tornado is weather, but so is the pale blue day. A slight breeze in the leaves, just a faint rustle of the leaves, so quiet you’d hardly notice. A thousand days of quiet commitment is love, as much as the hard-charging stallion of passion. I recognize both and I have reconciled them within myself – love the passion, love the quiet commitment; love the winter storm blowing, love the quiet day.

It must be a little warmer this morning. Thermometer in the garage says it is about 10 degrees above zero.

The sun at its southernmost point rises behind the house next to the old school; this is from the vantage point of the driver’s seat of the pick-up at the stop sign, corner of Washington and Main, Fairwater, December 23, 1998, 7:35 a.m.

I taste myself in the air today. And though I do not see it, I taste the hawk as well.

The sky is pale blue. There is a faint pink glow of haze again at all the world’s edges, soft, delicate as a girl’s desire, blushing shyly. The blue of her eyes. We just keep rolling into morning, seduced.

Snow banks have drifted into the ditch on the west side of Highway E. Now you cannot deny it is winter. The snow banks look like the blue heart of winter. They look like the cold shoulder of God. They look like the wall upon which all hope is dashed. Yet I have come too far to give up now.

May 13, 1998

Another fine day, after a little rain last night. The mourning dove flies from our driveway. The wind ruffles the surface of the pond. Blue sky. Here we go.

Great piles of stone have been dumped in the canning factory’s field north of town. Perhaps they will put stone along the paths of the tires of their irrigation unit?

The field of peas is already thick green. There is a hint of corn in another field. Blossoms are off the trees in the orchard of the farmstead north of Carter Road. The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?

The fields south of Five Corners are still wet, still untilled. The weeds overtake them.

[Copyright © 1998-2007 Tom Montag. Used by permission.