Overview: A Reader’s Journey – and What Happened Next
Imagine traveling back in time to talk with your younger self. I did just that in 1990, as I celebrated turning fifty. I wanted to celebrate my fiftieth year in a way that would help me understand memories of my past, resolve contradictions in my life, and indicate pathways to my future. I was anxious about the path my life was on. Where was I going? And why? I hoped my fiftieth year could allow me to figure it all out.
Then the idea that would change my life fizzed into me. When we read a book it becomes imprinted with our memories, our life experiences and beliefs. Just as all Americans know what they were doing when airplanes hit the Twin Towers, we readers find the moments of our lives interconnected with the titles on our bookshelves. Through the purposeful rereading of books I’d read years before, I began an amazing literary journey that helped me understand the person I had been and the person I had become. On the way, I found signposts that helped change my direction and pointed my way ahead.
I’ve divided the journal into sixteen major sections that correspond with primary books read. It begins with an emotional jump-start book: Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Myself. As the year progressed, my bookshelves yielded authors as varied as Charles Dickens, Robert Heinlein, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The process helped me deal with the innate and worrisome dichotomies within myself and led me to discover a new, more integrated, life path.
When that 1990 journal turned up years later, I found myself conversing with my younger self and with those books. The journal then became a two-tier memoir. Within each section, Post Script entries bring current books into the discussion, providing updates derived from over twenty more years of living. Here’s the beginning of the resulting book.
A READER’S JOURNEY—AND WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
“The past is never dead—it’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
Birthdays measure intervals on life’s timelines. The idea that changed my life came as I struggled to deal with an intimidating birthday. Because humans have ten fingers, birthdays that end in zero have a special impact, a compelling stare. When a milestone birthday looms and it feels more like a millstone—that’s a mid-life crisis.
In January, 1990, I turned fifty years old. I felt restless in my job and uncertain about my goals. Should I change jobs, how could I decide, and change to what? I needed answers soon!
As my birthday approached, an idea finally shimmered through the brain fog. If I celebrated that milestone year with books that were old friends, maybe they would guide me.
Each time I read a book, I remember what was going on and how I felt when I read it before. Rereading my favorites would be a good way to look back over my life. Maybe the process would help me to understand what new direction that life should take. In any case, it would be a great way for a book junkie to enjoy being fifty.
I’ve always been a capital-R Reader, the kind of person who clutches a book in the dentist’s chair, reads while standing in line at the post office, stacks books on her bed-table, and, these days, downloads books to her iPod and Kindle.
This obsession started young and wasn’t always welcome. Some people were not sure it was a good thing. A vivid early memory shows me one grudging librarian. Pursing her lips, she peers at me over her high counter, made even higher by my pile of books. She looks at my mother. “Will she really read all these?” My mother assures her I will. I nod and try to look trustworthy and scholarly–not easy when you’re six years old. The librarian shakes her head but she lets me take out seventeen picture books in one glorious bundle.
Since doing without libraries would be akin to doing without oxygen, I’ve tried hard to look trustworthy in libraries ever since.
So–a fiftieth year spent with books? Could that help me resolve the tensions and contradictions in my life? Or would it be sheer self-indulgence?
I’m all in favor of literary self-indulgence, but this experiment turned out to be much more. I embarked on a year of disciplined reading—at least, as disciplined as my reading can ever be. Book reviews and loans from book-loving friends were temptations that had to be resisted. Library browsing had to be severely limited. It was hard!
What was the effect? This purposeful rereading raised demons of pain and fear, brought tears of joy and sentiment, and built a lamp to guide my feet.
As I made my Reader’s Journey through my fiftieth year, I kept my journal and slowly realized that these books were helping me. Like a good therapist, the books were leading me to live the questions of my life. Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Myself showed me I needed to integrate my disparate selves: the environmentalist with the weapon system software designer, Goody Two-Shoes with the Scarlet Woman. John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga gave tacit approval to my changed attitudes about marriage, divorce, and unmarried cohabitation (my current state, with Lou Martin). Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison brought tears as I remembered my own suicidal thoughts and the promise that saved me. When the IRS sent me a threatening letter, Charles Dickens’s great disdain for bureaucracy helped me through a trying time.
During the course of my fiftieth year, Lou and I did a surprising amount of travel in the U.S. and abroad. Books journeyed with me. Writers from Ashton-Warner to George Eliot to T.H. White helped me move between seasons and among memories to clarify the course of my life-to-be. I didn’t just relive my life, I reinvented it.
When the year was over, I let a few people look at the resulting memoir. Then I put it on a shelf and got on with my life.
In 2012, a good friend died, a friend with whom I had shared love of books, cats, and gardens. That autumn, Lou and I helped pack up her bookshelves’ extensive contents, donated by her son to our county library book sale. On one shelf, I found my manuscript. I was touched and astonished that she’d kept it for twenty-two years. Another friend saw it and asked to read it. When she returned it, she asked whether I still had the books I’d read then, as she wanted to borrow a few. Of course I had them. I take care of them so they’ll keep taking care of me.
With the manuscript back in my hands, I looked through its yellowing pages and noted once again how books connect to people, to incidents, to awareness of life. Books braid themselves through memories. After looking at fifty from both sides, and thinking about subsequent changes and growth, I had a surprising urge to meddle with the manuscript. I wanted to erect new signs along its paths, put “closed” on some doors and fling others open.
So each section of A Reader’s Journey – and What Happened Next has updates from the perspective of twenty-three more years of life. I’ve become a lucky grandmother and a retiree. I’m involved in activities quite different from those of earlier years. Lou and I are still together (32 years now), still happily unmarried, although spending more time in doctors’ offices than we used to. I’ve added a running commentary to the original manuscript, in sections labeled Post Script; it’s now a two-tier journal, telling What Happened Next. And of course, I’ve added more books.
A Reader’s Journey—and What Happened Next travels the ways of an ordinary person rereading books and noticing changes, not in the books but in the reader. Though Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners are included, I did not choose the books and authors for their cultural significance. I chose them because I loved them, because they were significant to me.
As is true in the “real world,” measurements depend on the frame of reference. In this case, the frame of reference comprises the emotions and experiences of one reader.
Books reawaken me to the joys of living. Books get me through bad nights and bad memories. Books take me to where the pain is, and often help me through it. Books are compasses that help steer me along life’s paths. This is a book about rereading those books.
The Beginning, Autumn, 1989
Oct. 1, 1989: “Study the past if you would define the future.” ― Confucius
In January, 1990, three months from now, I’ll turn fifty. FIFTY! How can this be happening? Inside, I’m the age I’ve been forever: muddled grown-up. I don’t feel over the hill. But there’s no doubt about it: fifty is a high impact birthday. If I’m going to change my life, I have to start now.
I’m a middle manager of a software design and development group for a government defense contractor, a job I never saw in my future when I was in college. I live with Lou Martin, a software guy, in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. On my good days, I’m also a freelance writer who occasionally sells a short story or travel article. On my not so good days, I wonder how I got where I am, and where I’m going.
At the supermarket last week, I picked up a few small jars of baby-food beef as a treat for our two cats. The checker ran the jars over the scanner and smiled. “You have a baby at home, I see.” Then she looked at me and said, “A grandbaby, right?”
That hurt. I used to look young for my age. I don’t any more. Time to get serious.
October sun gilds my study as I sit at the computer. Our lawnmower roars past the windows as Lou circles the front yard. Nearby is a more insistent noise as a white paw probes under my door: Isis the cat wants in. I’m trying to ignore all distractions. I have thinking to do.
Is this the year I summon the courage of my convictions and quit my job? Is that even what I want? What are my convictions?
My children are grown, my health is good, and my hair is still mostly brown. I’m determined not to waste the rich promise of the next few years or drown in dailiness or despair. But I’m not sure how to proceed.
Perhaps if I narrow my focus, I can face and even reconcile my disparate selves: environmentalist and weapon builder, Goody Two-Shoes and Scarlet Woman. Perhaps this year I can put it together before I forget where all the pieces are.
Because my parents’ lives both stopped in their fifties, I feel a special urgency. Can I use this year to decide what’s most important while I have time (I hope) to act?
Besides trying to map my future, I want to plan something special for my fiftieth year. Thirty was a gloomy birthday, in the era of “Never trust anybody over thirty.” At forty, I was fearful; my thirties were over and so was my marriage. In many ways, fifty feels like a beginning.
This feeling of entering a second phase of life is not shared by my friend Anne. She and I have leaned on each other for twenty-five years. To her, turning fifty marks the beginning of only the end. ”Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said recently, “but I’m glad you’re going through it before I do.” She makes me feel like Daniel Williams, my pioneering forebear who rode through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone. They traveled boldly into unknown territory.
Fifty is unknown territory for me.
Worry jabs a painful scary finger into my gut. A cold voice says, “You’re getting older and you can’t stop it.”
Somehow I’m going to do more than explore Fifty’s unknown territory and survive. Somehow I’ll celebrate this milestone year.
I’ve talked to Lou about it. He and I first went out for lunch together on my fortieth birthday (he insisted on buying). Lou’s hair is grayer than mine, though I’m an “older woman.” He will turn fifty a year and a half after I do. He thinks my celebrating is a good idea.
“What do you think I should do?” I ask.
“Anything you want to.”
Lou and I have now been eating lunch together for nine years and living together for eight. (He calls it being “happily unmarried.”) We bought our house four years ago. We have two cats we got from the pound a week after we moved in, a not-quite-half acre yard with a small patch of woods, and thousands of books.
Lou is always kind about my enthusiasms. My sons David and Gary, in graduate school in California and Georgia, are equally kind and equally unhelpful. “You deserve it, Mom. Whatever you like.”
Their support is like a sturdy gracious trellis, and I am the gardener who can’t decide what to plant.
Yesterday morning, while I was fixing our lunches to take to work, Lou was talking about Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time. Lou is fascinated with physics and philosophy. He’s been urging me to read The Tao of Physics, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Hawking’s is another physics book I’ll probably never get around to.
Frustrated, I burst out, “I wish I could take a year off and spend it reading and learning.”
Then, economic realities being what they are (one reason for not quitting my job), I muttered my way to work.
All day yesterday ideas fizzed at the back of my mind, filling me with longing and an explorer’s wild surmise. Now this clear blue October Saturday pulls me toward an exciting horizon.
The perfect idea is close. Tantalizing me like a new land, rich and fragrant.
What is it I really want to do? I turn from the computer and search my desk to find the five year goals I listed this summer. The list says: go to Britain again, reread Middlemarch, write a book, climb a mountain, learn more physics, see Michelangelo’s “David,” reread War and Peace, learn the shore birds, reread Tolkien.
That list sighs with wishful rereading. Our shelves are crammed with good books I want to read again, but I never seem to get around to them any more than I do physics. I could spend a year never going to the library or bookstore, just rereading.
Wait a minute. ”I could spend a year.” My heart is pounding. That’s it. I will spend a year, my fiftieth year, rereading books I greatly loved when I first read them.
I’m so excited I could march around my study in a personal parade.
Books accrete feelings and memories. When I pick one up, I remember what was going on in my life and in my mind when I read it last. I can relive my life, revealed by rereading favorite books. I can evaluate changes. If I can figure out how I got here, maybe I can figure out where I’m going.
My head buzzes with happy plans. I will choose books that have “aged” at least twenty years, and I won’t reject books I’ve already reread. Every reading adds memories.
The mental list of candidate books is growing by the minute, expanding with the exuberance of a clematis vine on that charming trellis and bringing an expectation of joy.
That same excitement, the magic of a new project, is lighting up my mind even now, after reading those words I wrote 23 years ago. I’ve looked at FIFTY from both sides now, and a lot has changed. This manuscript will help me evaluate the changes.
The books of my rereading project spoke to me during that passionate journey through my fiftieth year. Reading is such a creative process. To build a book’s settings and characters in our minds, we readers have to meet the writer halfway, be willing to succumb to the story’s needs. At 73, will I draw different lessons from those books?
How does a full generation of cultural change affect our attitudes and memories? I now have a Facebook account, a website, an e-reader, and a smartphone. My grandchildren are kind enough to give me a hand as I stumble into what seems like a sci-fi future. But books still surround me. Once again, I’m going to use them as signposts that point two directions: to the past and to the future.
We learn early that life is change and loss. But gains also occur. As I read slowly through this manuscript, I’m planning to take the time to observe, appreciate and understand more of what I’ve lost and gained in 73 years of living.
Oct. 7, 1989: “I shall sally forth, glasses on my nose, pencil and notebook in hand, typewriter at my elbow—an ordinary mind in search of adventure.” — Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, Lesley Conger
Our books are organized because I like being able to find a particular book fast, either for my own pleasure or to lend to a person who deserves to read it. Fiction and children’s books are in my study, natural history in the foyer, mysteries in our bedroom, travel and humor in the guest room, science fiction and philosophy in the family room. Some shelves are packed double. I feel vaguely guilty about the house resembling a used book store, but dispersing the books means there’s brilliant writing wherever I look.
My study is cozy and warm, since it has windows on the south and west. Lou gave me a large round prism, which I hung in the south window. From October to April, while the sun is low in the sky, the prism turns sunlight into brilliant rainbow spectra. Lozenges of striped light glorify the white walls and ceiling and emblazon Turkish patterns on the gray carpet.
It’s 1989 and I haven’t used a typewriter in years—I’ve graduated to the glories of a computer. It’s especially glorious now, as my prism has cast a rainbow on my monitor screen. I’ve never seen that happen before. The time is 11:40 a.m., and the angle of the sun is just right for one of the prism’s rainbows to reflect from the mirror on the closet door behind me onto the screen. The bright splash of colors is visibly moving across the dark screen at the giddy pace of one Courier 10 letter every five seconds. I bet a physicist could measure that speed and the angle of the sun and knowing the time of day and the date could calculate the rate of the earth’s spin and the distance to the sun and doubtless other stuff. I’ll get around to physics another day. I have an omen: the rereading project has been blessed.
Oct. 14, 1989: Striking the Hot Iron
It’s Saturday again, after a busy week of meetings and program reviews. Working for a military contractor is not something I ever thought I’d do for a living, but they were the ones who offered a job when my marriage was breaking up. Part-time work would no longer suffice: I had to support myself. I seized the offer with gratitude. Now I feel increasingly torn between opposing goals. Shouldn’t I go looking for a job that’s concerned with the environmental issues that occupy so much of my “leisure” time? I’ve done well at this company and have friends there; am I a coward, staying where I’m relatively comfortable?
So far I’ve been able to avoid feeling like a hypocrite because the Navy weapon systems I’ve worked on have all been designed for self defense. In fact, it might be last ditch defense. We joke that if a ship is attacked and our system fails to protect it, the tactical operator’s viewing screen displays the message: “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.” It’s what they call military humor.
Well, Lou and I are not important enough to be “saving the world for democracy.” It won’t matter to anyone else if I change jobs. But this job is convenient and often interesting. I’m getting older and less employable. If I’m going to change, I have to start now.
Today’s hazy foggy October morning brightened into a blue afternoon. I went for a walk. Crickets kept up a constant high humming and the air smelled sweet as autumn apples. Thinking about my project, I walked for a long time. The trees are beautiful now: the yellow of hickory and ash, red of maples, yellow and purple of sweet gum, crimson of dogwood, russet of oak. I saw a tulip tree whose leaves were nearly all scattered around its base. Only a golden few remained, clinging to the tips of the branches. It was a Halloween tree, offering lollipops.
The energy engendered by crisp cool weather and the feeling of inward turning as winter approaches have combined to entice me to begin my project now. Why wait? Gathered momentum will carry me through January’s Fateful Fiftieth.
While I walked, I considered the books on my mental list. Which candidate will be the first, the trial balloon? It has to be a vigorous book with strong personal connections so the project will be well launched.
By the time I was back to my own driveway, I had chosen the book. I ran into the house to find Sylvia Ashton Warner’s Myself. I remember it as being so powerful that it’s more than a book: it’s a jump start.
A fascination with New Zealand and the Maori culture led me to Sylvia Ashton Warner via her lilting novel, Greenstone. Its humorous, passionate prose drew me to her other books, notably Spinster (fiction) and Teacher (non-fiction). They describe her methods of teaching Maori children to read by using words from their own culture rather than the proper British textbooks. Myself is taken from her early journals, when she was developing this concept as a teacher and struggling with her own volatile personality.
When I read it first, in 1968, I had just begun to write children’s stories, though I had told only my sons. David and Gary, then 7 and 5, were curious about all the kitchen table typing of my first attempt. I seized my courage and my manuscript and read it to them. For a few thrilling moments I entertained the notion that mine would be a story they’d ask to hear again and again.
When the story was over, Gary slid off the couch without a verbal comment and went to find a truck. David said, “Gosh, when we get older, can we write stories for our children?”
“Sure, if you want to,” I said. Then, in a voice that quavered, “Did you like it?”
“Oh,” he said airily, “pretty good.”
That first story was not at all good. The boys never asked to hear it again. They were not enthusiastic about hearing more, either. I persisted anyway. The addiction of writing was taking hold, abetted by Sylvia Ashton Warner. What I remember about reading Myself the first time is a volcanic emotional energy that poured from the book. It charged me with ambition and excitement. I even started getting up earlier, as she did, to have quiet time to myself. I vowed I’d give myself three years of writing to sell a story.
I was lucky that it didn’t take that long. My first sale was a children’s story titled, ironically enough, “Who’s the Oldest?”
Now, I’m sitting at another kitchen table. Kids no longer peer over my shoulder. Lou is out at a real estate seminar. The house is quiet. I look through the sliding glass door across the patio to the back yard. Our cats, Ellie and Isis, made frisky by the brisk afternoon, are chasing leaves and each other across the lawn. We’ve had no hard frost yet; our tomatoes still ripen slowly and snapdragons and lobelia are bright. But winter is coming, and with it, the end of my forties.
It won’t be so bad, turning fifty, right? Both television and paperback books turned fifty this year, with considerable fanfare. And two days after my fiftieth birthday, Paul Newman will turn sixty-five. Nobody says he’s over the hill.
My chosen book is here on the table. On its cover, the author is holding a cup of tea. I shall fix one myself, and begin reading.
Oct. 20, 1989: Taking Risks
Since diving into the turbulent Ashton Warner, I’ve had two vivid dreams. In one, I was a member of a group of terminally ill people on a pilgrimage. There was an ostensible goal, but the point of the pilgrimage seemed more the journey itself, the demonstration of endurance. I stumbled along, determined not to drop by the wayside and let the others go on without me.
In the other dream, I’d just had a baby. Unlike real newborns, he could talk, and his memories had not been erased when his spirit was made ready for another incarnation. He was understandably apprehensive about this new life just starting. I held my solemn, nervous baby close and tried to reassure him.
I’m no expert dream interpreter, but surely this new baby articulate, worried, treasured must be my book project. Is the journey of the dying pilgrims the journey I’ll be making on this project, this recalling of my life?
After a night of dreams, crisp morning air is refreshing. When I go down the driveway to fetch the newspaper on these chilly autumn mornings, the sky is black and bright with stars. My favorite constellations (the only ones I know) are both visible. The Big Dipper balances giddily on the tip of its handle just over the maple tree in our back yard. Orion the Hunter strides the sky above the house across the street. The stars of Orion’s belt point to a very bright star lower on the horizon. I looked it up on the little ephemeris I’ve had since sixth grade (you’d think I’d know more stars). It was Sirius, the Dog Star. Of course! What hunter goes out without his dog?
I’m half way through Myself. Ashton Warner’s fiery intensity hasn’t overwhelmed me as much as it did the first time, when the book was a revelation. When I was younger, I cast about for a life direction, tugged by motherhood and feminism and wondering whose expectations to try to satisfy. (I look at these words on my computer screen and flush with embarrassment. Twenty years later, I’m still casting about and wondering. )
Ashton-Warner recorded the same pulls and problems. “Serve my family or serve my work?” she cried. With steel-blue honesty, she described her struggles to discipline herself, to be the teacher her students needed her to be and the writer and woman she had to be.
What’s astonishing is her willingness to publish this emotional journal. For most of us, the soft pillow of respectability stifles the cry from the heart. It’s hard to tell the truth, right out in front of God and everybody. To let one’s inmost thoughts, insecurities, and imbalances be visible to all. In this journal I must try to be as honest; it’s a scary thought.
Pilgrims on that long journey, we carry our anxious babies within, hoping all will somehow be well. But living well means taking risks. Writing well means taking risks. Myself is one big risk in a red cover.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to realize that so many years have passed since I began my Reader’s Journey. Lou and I still live in the same house and we still have cats, though not the same ones. My prism still casts rainbows on my study walls for six months of the year. Books still smile at me from the same bookcases. But Lou and I are both retired; my hair is grayer now and his is white. He’s had a long list of surgeries. I walk with a slight limp because of a back injury and an arthritic knee. Lou now has three young grandchildren, and my oldest grandchild is almost 21.
Our lives are different now, and part of the reason I’m reopening these pages is to see how much of the difference is internal. I’m planning to at least look through the books I wrote about here, all those years ago, which will in itself be a great pleasure. I feel this “add-on” project is creating a two-person book club, whose members are Cecily-50 and Cecily-73.
One effect of reading about Myself and paging through it is feeling again Ashton-Warner’s energizing force. This book is still a good launch for a project.
What an amazing idea! I cannot wait to read about the author’s self discoveries as she travels back and forth in time via the books she loves. Looking forward to reading the next post.
Self discoveries is an apt way to describe the experience. You must be a writer, too, Carla!
Reminds me of the book “Everything I ever learned, I learned from a Children’s book.” Power of words in books guiding you every step of your life–what a lovely thought. I love your description of you organized book cases–inspiring. How would one feel with only kindles and/or other electronic devices? It just isn’t the same!
Can’t wait to read this book, Cecily.