Herewith a lovely, touching, immaculately detailed essay about books and reading by Fleda Brown who is the former Poet Laureate of Delaware and Sydney Lea’s friend (Syd is my old friend and the current Poet Laureate of Vermont) which is how I came by “Books Made of Paper.” As Syd explains: “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”
Numéro Cinq is just the place, apparently, for we have published two of Syd’s essays, “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know“. And now we have Fleda Brown’s response, the other voice in the conversation, and she begins with a sweet evocation of childhood and libraries and books — the little girl climbing the narrow dusty steps to the room of stacked books. Oh, to have written the lines: “I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body.”
There is some dazzling yet subtle intimacy in these essays Syd and Fleda are writing; they speak to the reader but also straight to each other, old, literate friends for whom memory and books are the lingua franca. It’s a huge pleasure and privilege to have them here on NC.
The old libraries were upstairs. Up long, narrow stairs. Maybe not all of them, but some. The one I knew. As if it were a secret, a garret. They were all musty. Or some of them. Or, the only one I knew back then, with its severe guardian, or one who seemed severe, who had severe bones and counted the books to the limit of six. When you’re small, I suppose the world itself outside of family feels severe, rule-bound, alien. But what do I know of what it was like for others? I would climb the dark stairs on Saturdays to where they opened out into the grand, narrow stacks, and I would meander my way among them, not a clue what I wanted, how to choose, except by heft, texture, print. All the covers were red, green, or brown cloth-like texture on hardboard of some sort, all the titles pressed into the board in black or gilt, all worn. I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body. What I could know was stacked and turned away, spines out, forbidding, colluding, pulling at me. I was helpless and hopeless, and when I picked out my six, I had no idea if they were the right ones. If they were the ones that would reveal to me any part of what I needed for my soul.
Before that, I remember nothing of libraries. I remember story hour in Middlebury, all of us hanging up our snowsuits and sitting in a circle. I remember the circle but not the stories. How was it that the stories went into me and lodged somewhere unreachable yet sent their perfume into the crevices of my character? I remember the semicircle of first grade, sounding out syllables one by one to hear the ruckus when Dick and Jane chased Spot around the yard. “No, Spot!” Jane called when the leaf pile flew into the air, pictures and words speaking in unison. I can smell the perfect certainty of the book, the waft of its origin, of organic matter. I can feel its soft, cloth-like pages with their slight sheen.
What did I read, after I could? Mostly easy books, below my level, for a long time. I was a lazy child in that way, wallowing alone in my own mind, wanting my mind separate, I guess, from the struggles toward a book’s difficult language, difficult plot. I read and re-read Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, my favorite book in grade school, the story of orphaned children who set up their home in a boxcar, who made it theirs by collecting cracked dishes from a nearby dump, dipping water from a convenient stream, going into town only to work briefly for a few potatoes, a little bread. I loved the way they distrusted the adult world’s ability to look after them and went at it for themselves. I loved their small world. Home was a miniature windowless island on rusted rails on the outskirts of so-called civilization. I also loved The Good Master, by Kate Seredy, the story of a smart and wild Hungarian girl who was partially tamed by her kind uncle. I look it up, now. Amazon has copies in a new cover, but Wikipedia shows the original heart-shape on a blue background. It is only that version that I want. With the jacket a little frayed from use. But it’s long gone, and even if I could have an exact replica, or the original bought from some used book dealer, I would not. It’s the one on our cottage shelves that I want. It is the nine-year-old reading it over and over on long summer days that I want. Not me now. And Heidi. Another wild girl noticed and loved into good behavior by her kind uncle. Later when my friends were reading Black Beauty; I was being a horse, galloping across the playground. But not reading the stories. I read the Hardy Boys, some of them. I read Nancy Drew, some of them.
What I remember rather than stories themselves is the feel of reading. The way the book and I came together as if we were enclosed under gauze netting, the outside world barely whispering. I remember the graininess, the slightly darkened paper, the words actually pressed into them, the texture of the pressing. My body curled, holding in the story. When I was a teenager, my grandparents gave me a stack of old Readers’ Digest Condensed books. I read them all, one after the other, lying in bed on summer mornings, lying in bed the month I had mono and had to stay home from school. Easy reading. Lazy.
It was as if my mind was needed elsewhere, to just live, to figure out my own life, to muddle through the day-by-day. All I could afford was this small turning away, this coasting into the heart of someone else’s life. Through high school, I read what I had to—history, the sterile excerpts in my English anthology, I’m not sure what else. Nothing stands out. Even the most modest of writers’ memoirs typically tout a list of books read by high school that I hadn’t even heard of until mid-college.
Ah, college. I should mention I got myself married before I even set foot in the door of college. That’s another story. But within that new stability, that safety, a wide and unforseen world began to present itself. My freshman reading list drove me wild with terror and joy. All I remember is that there were many pages in small type. Dickens, Camus, Tolstoy, maybe. One Christmas holiday, I read War and Peace, page by gloriously laborious page. I have a memory of reading it under a tree in the warmth of a winter afternoon in Arkansas, the snow of Moscow all around me.
Maybe we love what we love because it’s hard going. Maybe we love it because we’re supposed to. Maybe we don’t love it at all, but want to prove something to ourselves. All I know is that my mind quivered with new ideas, with ratification of old ones, with the sheer physical weight of other people’s words I cradled like a baby in my arms back and forth to class. I don’t remember any back packs. Girls cradled their books and notebooks, stacked in their arms like a baby up to the chin. Boys carried them in one arm alongside. Knowledge had heft and weight, it pressed itself onto the page, it spread itself and turned itself in the breeze like leaves.
Meaning was an amalgam of the physical object: the book, its cover, its pages, and where the words flew into my mind and rearranged themselves according to the whims of my nature. I think it is not the grand and classic narrative, the movement of events, that held the meaning, but the feeling, the interstices, the spaces when I looked up from the page, where I stopped to scribble, and where, later, I brought along a whiff of what was there, to permeate my thoughts.
I am very visual, more than anything, and I would—and still do—recall what the page looks like, how far down the page, whether octavo or verso, where the lines I love appear. Their meaning has to do with font, with ink, with crispness, delicacy, or heaviness of the paper itself. The Norton anthologies with their biblically thin pages, the Boxcar Children with its sturdier ones, my Scotch-taped college copy of Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, where D.H. Lawrence’s “Whales Weep Not!” begins almost at the bottom of a page and fills up the next one. Where “urgent” and “urge” and “ice-bergs” are circled, with the note in the top margin, “[incantatory], and, and, and,” holding my younger and excited self on the page forever. At the top margin of Robert Graves’ poems, “always the practical impossibility, transcended only by miracle, of absolute love continuing between man and woman.” My hand, Graves’s words, Miller Williams’ quoting them in class. Each part of a whole, a meaning. Yeats’ “Second Coming,” my ink drawing of a gyre, one triangular whirlwind on top of the next, with the note, “most rests upon A Vision, cataclysm every 2000 years.”
The number of marks on a page is a measure of how engaged I am. Pen or pencil doesn’t matter. For my husband, an Eighteenth Century scholar, books are sacred artifacts, or something close. He will not dog-ear a page of a book or mark it (except back when he was teaching), even when it’s a cheap paperback. For him, it’s respect for the tradition of the book, for the author, for the paper. I, however, want to mark how my mind is moving in and out of the author’s mind. I think of our work as a partnership, and my role involves scribbling in margins. In a novel with a strong plot, I mark nothing, my mind dutifully, practically, racing forward.
On the Kindle, it is possible to underline sections, and then call them up, along with the relevant passages. You can then click on those and return to the page on which they appeared. Very convenient. You can take notes, only that is harder. You have to type them in on the little keypad. I bought a Kindle. I use it for maybe a quarter of my reading. I like being able to summon books from the ether and have them magically appear. I appreciate not having so many ephemeral paperbacks pile up that I have to figure who to give them to afterward. The print is good on the Kindle: neat serifs, soft background. No doubt whole committees have scientifically assessed the brightness of the screen, the font, the movement of the eye. Good job.
As my eye moves down the Kindle “page,” I am aware of the words as barely being there, disappearing with a click to the next page, gone forever if I remove the book from my device. I feel the futility of saving anything, and interestingly, therefore, I begin to view my mind as the repository, rather than the bookshelf. I am my own bookshelf. And of course even I can’t hold on to much. My mind is slippery and unreliable, unlike the firm book between covers. Unlike the world I imagined existed, the permanent one in the past, the better one, with manners, with tact, with grace and a clear list of what the well-read person has on her shelves.
I love the actual book. I am okay with the Kindle. What’s lost, what’s gained is hardly worth talking about because what’s here is here and won’t go away. Humans will always find the shortest path, given a chance. I just downloaded my first book of poems: Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief. I’d heard poetry was a formatting problem for e-books, but this one seems fine, if sterile. I will probably use the Kindle mostly for fiction that I intend to get rid of later.
A poem cries out for paper, in my mind. It wants to be located, pinned down. I’m fine hearing a poem spoken or read, but I want to know it resides, at last, on what is for me its native habitat, the page. Why else the fuss with line endings, with indentations, with stanza breaks? Why else do poets argue with their publishers about fonts and point size? Of all genres, it seems that poetry most wants to be read simultaneously by eye and mind.
There’s nothing more or less “real” about the words on Kindle versus the words pressed onto paper. The words themselves are not real. They’re metaphors for what we “see” (also not “real”) as we read. I could deconstruct all the way down, but everybody knows that. What matters is the relationship with meaning that each insinuates.
Someday this conversation is going to be so dated! Who cares if the molecules form themselves into pixels or press themselves into ink? What difference did it make when Gutenberg began pressing one after another pages, each a copy of the first? Was the work less authentic, being no longer in the delicate script of the copier? Are stone hieroglyphs “better” than print, being more permanent, more solid?
I am the generation who’s been knocked on its tail by the systematic unmooring of all we held sacred. Never in human history has the past disappeared so quickly while at the same time remaining perpetually with us in film and TV. Our first little black and white Zenith TV entered our home when I was 13, my first computer when I was 40. After a traumatic struggle, I learned to love the word as it flashes at me from my screen. I love it on the page, I love it flying around in the air. I am a convert, mostly.
At the same time, I’m sad. I think only those of us who were young in a different world know what it is to move more slowly within it, to feel its edges as unrelenting rather than as possessing the infinite regress of the screen. To walk up the many steps to the library, its elevation a signifier of the invisible grandeur of its holdings—even the word “holdings” both warm and forbidding—pull open the long wooden card catalog drawers and run our finger along the cards softened by years of our predecessors, miss the right card, look again and find it! And write down the call numbers on a scrap of paper with a stub of a pencil, then stand in the crevasse between stacks letting our eye travel until—there it is!—our book. By now it is our book only, the one we looked for with our hands and feet and eyes, and found. The one chosen from the long, skinny drawer of cards. This one. The librarian stamps the borrower’s card and slips it into the pocket at the back of the book. We can read who else has checked out the book. The names remain until that card is full and has to be replaced. Oh, this book hasn’t been checked out in six years! How smart we are to have re-discovered it! We carry it home, place it on the table, and open it, the end of one journey, the beginning of another.
Not that people don’t still do this. But when it was the only way, it seemed more important. Even the book felt somehow more necessary, a lifeboat in a storm, a lone squeee of a radio signal in the wilderness. When each book went through several printings, we could trace that in the front matter, and marvel at how many people must have read it. People. That’s what I mourn, I guess. The thumbprint, the smudge, the marginal note, the hand that works the press. The hand, its slow and sometimes clumsy articulations. The universe is slow, really. The sun takes its own sweet time coming up and going down, tides come and go with time enough between for a sand castle to be built. No matter that it will be washed away. It was something: tall, many crenellated, gritty, its doors and windows made of our own fingerprints. It was right out of King Arthur. You could see the knights crossing the moat-bridge, clamoring their way right out of the book.
— Fleda Brown
Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.
She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.
A simply stunning essay. Rich with memory and thought and yearning, I’m so happy to have read it this morning.
Fleda,–this essay made my day. I also love paper and have an obsession with what can be held in the hand, smelled, and yes, even written onto. Paper allows a few more senses into the reading of a book. I understand the ephemeral of everything, but the book seems to wink at eternity, if only for a number of pages or handfuls of chapters. Thank you for this essay.