by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020
I’ve read “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson several times now trying decipher her message in a bottle, which is how I picture short stories. To me, we’re all isolated on our own deserted islands of consciousness. No matter how physically close we get, we’re all still very far apart mentally in comprehending one another. Fiction, that is the best of fiction, is a coded message from one conscious mind given to another.
I don’t mean to imply that literary writers have a philosophy to push, but I believe the best of them strive to describe something quite specific they’ve observe about reality with the best words and phrases they can find. However, no decoding of those words can ever lead to perfect telepathic communion.
There are a number of factors to consider when decoding a short story. The first thing to ask: “Whose story is it?” This can be simple to answer, or complex, or even multiplexed. In “Godmother Tea” Joy is a young black woman dealing with her unhappiness and loneliness. She has being abandoned by her lifelong best friend, the man she wanted to marry, and she is tormented by personal critiques from her mother, relatives, ancestors, friends, strangers, possessions, and even an imaginary godmother. Is Joy having an identity crisis? Is she worried that she is too white or not black enough? Is Joy a chronically dissatisfied human, or just having trouble growing up?
There is another level to consider when asking whose story is it. Is Joy merely a made-up character, or does she embodied any personal insights and characteristics of the author, Selena Anderson? All my favorite literary fiction has elements of the autobiographical. Roman à clef writing has gone out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean Anderson hasn’t used her own life as grist for the mill of her fiction.
One small clue I have that this story might be based on memory, is at the party, “some fool was playing Spice Girls on the violin.” The Spice Girls were popular in the mid-1990s. But that’s the kind of observation you save for a story, although that means Anderson has been working on this tale for a very long time. I did find this quote by Anderson:
My dissertation is a collection of stories about people who want to win and who make a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. The stories are set in Texas—but in my imagined Texas of the recent past. There are ghosts, tiny men, a slave ship, dolls, dudes who talk in third person, forest fires, and plenty of girls brooding in their apartments.
Joy is definitely a girl brooding in her apartment making a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. However, I also found an interview with Anderson talking about the writing of “Godmother Tea” and it doesn’t offer much hope that it’s about her (although in a couple places she mentions that some observations were based on the real world.)
The reason I love literary fiction, and even how I personally define it, is by it’s biographical/autobiographical feel. Literary writing is dominated by characterization that goes way beyond what genre characterization attempts. In short stories especially, literary writing feels like you are getting inside someone’s head. That’s why I say literary fiction feels biographical in third person or autobiographical in first person. It doesn’t have to be real biography/autobiography, just feel like it.
“Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson has the prestige of having the pole position for the BASS 2020 anthology. That means the editors really admired this story, and the one they expected to hook book buyers. It begins:
Just like my mama. She rolled up with a gift: a life-sized mirror edged by baroque curling leaves, with slender gold feet that somehow supported both its shimmering weight and mine. My mother has a knack for messy presents. Day passes to the gym, Merry Maids coupons, flat irons with built-in conditioner. This, however, was especially rude. A mirror would only reflect me, plus all my sulky auras, plus the cultivated environment that had drawn me this way.
Right away we know the narrator doesn’t want to see herself or how she lives. We don’t know immediately that the narrator is a woman, but it’s what I’m guessing. Moms don’t usually by their sons mirrors, and sons don’t usually worry about being judged or consider themselves sulky.
I did not know the author was black until after I read the story and began researching this blog. I didn’t know the character was black until later in the story, although I had my guesses. We don’t even learn her name right away, and then we discover this unhappy young woman is named Joy.
The main virtue of reading literary short stories is seeing inside people unlike ourselves. As an old white guy I expect most of these BASS 2020 stories will be about people much different from myself. Although Joy is African American her story isn’t about race. If anything, I feel it’s more about gender because Joy’s thoughts, observations, worries, and feelings aren’t anything like mine, or the guys I know, but are quite common with my women friends. But Joy’s problems are also about being young, something that’s becoming ever more alien to me.
A challenge to writers is to find a way to relate to the universal but present the specific. As readers we want novelty but we also need to resonate with the protagonist. Anderson lets us know the many ways in which Joy doesn’t like herself, and even why her friends are turning against her.
Joy is quite perceptive, quite smart. Is her suffering due to being too intellectual? Is her hyper-awareness of her situation the real cause of her anguish?
Joy’s mom obviously gives her gifts to help her improve her self esteem. Poor Joy has worn out her best friend who is leaving her, and rejected a boyfriend who was trying to help her. Joy knows all of this, and some of it comes out in an imaginary Godmother Joy creates to lecture herself. I wonder if Anderson wrote this story as a form of her own self realization.
Of course, we can’t know the answer to that. But I consider it a quality of good literary writing to wonder about such motives. On the other hand, would-be writers are taught to put their main character through the wringer, and maybe Anderson thought it would be fun to create Joy so we could watch her suffer.
Strangely, Anderson gives some of the best lines not to Joy, but to characters around her. Her best friend Nicole is moving on but still tries to help Joy by taking her to a party.
“You on the computer too much,” said Nicole. Someone passed her a plate of intricately painted chocolates that she rationed with me only. We were supposed to take one and pass them down.
“Only because I’m heartbroken,” I said, “and failing. I’m not sure if we can take it anymore.” I was speaking vaguely about everything, so when Nicole said she knew what I meant, firecrackers went off in my face and hands.
“I was just thinking about that the other day,” said Nicole. “I was wondering if I had the heart to do this work again. Like, could my heart break one more time? Then I came across the website of a woman who fostered medically fragile babies. Apparently when a newborn is terminal, the parents can give up their rights if they know they won’t be able to handle the medical bills. These newborns have nobody, so this woman would bring them home. Every now and then one would get better and be adopted, but most of them died in her living room. After about the tenth dead baby, her little son asked when they were getting another one. The mom told him it was too hard on her, she just couldn’t take it. And her son replied, ‘So we aren’t going to help any more babies because you can’t take it?’ ”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said. I looked Nicole up and down. “That story reminded you of me?”
“It reminded me of a lot of things,” she said. She turned a cocoa-dusted truffle between her fingers as though contemplating my future. “When you think of quitting on yourself,” she said, “just remember the mom and the babies.” But I was stuck on the little son who couldn’t get enough of baby-death, who had also put their sad life in perspective. Without him the mother never would have noticed.
Nicole leaves both Joy physically and emotionally at the party and Joy overhears:
“It may be over between us,” the blond person said, “but I just have to say, right now, you are nullifying my entire life.”
I turned away. I didn’t like to hear somebody’s life get nullified. People have the right to withhold their attention. I’ve done it. And when André did it to me, I’d believed I was special. My heartache was delicious. It turned me into an outcast. I would cling to him until he said something devastating, like Take it easy.
Joy then leaves the party to confront André, the man she rejected but still wants, first on the phone, and then at his house. Joy hears Porsche, the new girlfriend, say in the background: “All shut eyes ain’t sleep” and “You don’t apologize to a roach once you spray it” which Joy comments to us “It takes skill to get to that level, years if you study really hard.”
In the end, Joy achieves some insights that let us feel she’s going to be better, but I’m not sure I buy them. Jake Weber takes a deep look at Joy’s identity problem at his blog Workshop Heretic. He thought the story was more about black identity than I did, and there are hints in the story to suggest that. But I thought the story was more about being judged, with Joy being her own harshest critic. Joy sees herself as a failed artist, whose apartment reflects other people’s tastes, who can’t dress in style or put on makeup properly, who seeks identity by cooking world cuisine that others consider slop, whose best friend has grown bored of her even when she’s making exciting observations, and her lover has moved on with a women that has more insight about people and relationships.
“Godmother Tea” is stuffed with witty lines, but my favorite was “It was April and I liked to be alone.” Joy is a person who lives in her head trying to figure out who she should be by all the external judgments made about her. I believe Selena Anderson’s story captures this wonderfully. Because she has painted Joy’s inner world so vividly that I wonder if she used herself as a model.
It’s been over fifty years since my father, George Delaney Harris, died on May 3, 1970. He was just 49. I was 18. To be honest, I don’t remember my father very well. Partly because he died when I was young, but also because he wasn’t around much, nor was he much of a talker. I can remember damn few conversations I had with my dad. For most of my life I’ve been trying to puzzle out who he was and what he liked from a few clues and a lot of deduction. My mother never talked about him much after he died. My sister Becky and I have traded some memories over the years.
I wrote about my mother on her would-be 100th birthday four years ago. Now it’s my dad’s turn. I am not a religious man, so I don’t expect to see my folks again in an afterlife. All I have are fading memories. My parents exist as long as Becky and I remember them. How many years will that be, probably not many. My memories of my father have lived longer than he did. My mother was a religious woman, and she hoped to see her folks after she died. But mom wasn’t anxious to see dad again. I remember before she died, I kidded her that she’d soon be in heaven reunited with daddy for all of eternity. I think that pissed her off. Their last years together were not happy ones.
The photo at the top of the page is my father, mother, and me. It is the last good photo I have of my father, probably taken in 1952. It’s rather telling that I have no photo of my dad with his wife and children. I have several from when he was growing up, but only one more photo taken before he died. It was Thanksgiving, 1968. That shot was an accident, taken before rewinding the film. I can barely, make him out. That’s dad at the head of the table with a shiny spot on his bald head. He was actually sitting by my mom. I was talking the photo. All the other family photos he took, which wasn’t many, but explains why he wasn’t in any of them. Most of my memories of my father are like this photo, blurry, out of focus, and hard to make out any details. I believe only my cousin Alana from this photo, is still alive. Becky wasn’t in this picture.
The oldest memory I have of my father is probably from around 1955, when I was 3 or 4. He was playing me, chasing me around the yard and letting me chase him. We tried playing with my plastic cowboys and indians together. I was wanting him to pretend the horses were galloping, and he would just slide them quietly along the floor. I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t communicate with him that he should make galloping noises like I heard in the cartoons. To be fair, I also remember having problems communicating with my mother too at this time. I guess my father died before I learned how to communicate well.
My next memory was at our house on 68th Court in Miami, probably 1955 or 1956. I was four, and he was teaching me to ride my little bike after removing the training wheels. I got the knack of it immediately and he went back in the house. I road up and down the driveway by myself. I have a few other vague memories of my dad from this period. I seldom remember him being home, but sometimes he would take me and my sister riding in the car, a 1955 Pontiac, to the 7-11 to get a coke. (Remember when they came in small bottles?) Becky and I would stand in the front seat and sometimes we were thrown against the dash. This was when I first discovered music, on that car radio. My father didn’t like me changing the station, but I loved pushing the buttons looking for music.
I can’t even remember him at the next house, where I started first grade at age 5 at Flagami Elementary. Or the following house. I can remember my mother being there. I can even remember my grandmother visiting and staying several weeks. And I remember Becky. I just don’t remember dad being there. Maybe he was stationed elsewhere.
One possible reason why my father is missing from my memories is in the evenings Becky and I always sat in front of the TV on the floor, and my parents sat on the furniture behind us. I certainly have more memories of watching television than of them.
I have several memories of dad from the 1958, when I was six. We had moved to South Carolina, and lived in a big old house out in the country. My mother had bought two dozen chicks to raise chickens, and two ducklings. Becky and I loved them. My father made us swings on tree limbs that were very high, which meant we could swing very high. Stray dogs which I called wolves kept trying to eat the chicks. My dad had a small .22 rifle his father had given him, and he used to try to shoot the dogs. I was always disappointed he missed. I remember he promised me a pig for taking out the garbage. I never got it.
Two of my best memories of my dad come from this period. The Air Force was my father’s real family and religion. And they taught him not to be prejudiced against black people. One day he tried to teach Becky and I that. He told us never to mistreat the black kids we played with. I couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. It turned out our playmates were black and I didn’t know it.
While we lived in South Carolina, my dad took us out to the movies for the first time. It was a theater on base, and we saw Snowfire. But also, one night I got and my dad was up watching the all night movies on TV. He let me stay up with him. I didn’t really know what movies were, or who actors were, but I later learned the movie was High Barbaree with Van Johnson and June Allyson. Watching that film made a lifelong impression on me that I’ve written about many times. I just wish I could remember if me and dad talked about anything.
Our next house was in the Lake Forest subdivision near Hollywood, Florida. It is the first house I remember my dad buying. This was probably Fall 1958, and I turned 7 at the end of the year. I have one memory of him driving me to school and he saw the American flag flying upside down. He told me that was the signal for trouble, so he stopped a cop and told them.
In 1959 my dad got stationed in Canada, and my mother got TB and was sent to stay at Valley Forge, PA. My father’s mother, whom Becky and I called Ma, took care of us for six months. We’d get letters from my father. Then he came and got us and we drove to pick up my mother. At first we lived in Philadelphia, but then moved to Browns Mill, NJ, and then New Egypt, NJ. This was 1959 and 1960. I really have to struggle to remember my dad though. I do remember Christmas 1959 was a good one. I got two electric trains and a leather jacket with three stars on the shoulders. I remember my dad saluting me, and helping me set up the electric trains. The only other memory I can dredge up was when Becky and I went hiking through the woods for miles and miles, and found ourselves in Browns Mills just as my dad was driving home from work. I was in the 3rd grade and my sister the 1st. I think he was shocked we had wandered so far from home, but I don’t remember him yelling at us – my mother would have. Of course, we did that all the time. Times were different then. It was like in Peanuts. We lived in Kidsworld and never saw parents much, or let them know what we were doing.
I don’t know if my parents separate or what. But my mother took me and my sister to live in Marks, MS in 1960 for the rest of the school year and maybe the start of the fourth grade. My mom’s oldest sister lived there. Evidently, things got patched up, because we moved back to Lake Forest in Hollywood, FL. This was my favorite childhood home. This was around the end of 1960 and early 1961. I don’t have any memories of my father from this period. Although I do think he was home in the evenings. I believe he worked at Opa Locka Airport at the time.
Later in 1961 he got transferred to Homestead, AFB. We moved to Maine Avenue, and lived on base from 1961-1963. Becky and I loved it there. My father was around a lot then, and 1962 was our best Christmas ever. I have a vague memory of him watching the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies with us. Still I can’t remember any conversations with my dad from this period. I just don’t think he was that talkative, although he loved bartending, so I bet he was. My theory was he just didn’t know how to talk to kids.
Towards the end of 1963, just before JFK was killed, we moved back Hollywood, FL. We drove to South Carolina the day after the assassination. My parents rented another house out in the country, which Becky and I loved, but I don’t think my father was home much. My mother had started drinking in a bad way, and they fought a lot. My father had his first heart attack there. He received a medical discharge from the Air Force, after serving 20+ years. From 1964 to 1970 he had another heart attack and a stroke. But he never stopped drinking and smoking. He could smoke several packs of Camels and drink a bottle of Seagram 7 in a day. Dad would get Becky or I to fix his drink. He liked a glass of ice with a dash of Canada Dry soda water, a full jigger of Seagram 7, and then fill the rest of the glass up with Canada Dry ginger ale.
These were the bad years. My dad would recover enough to get a job, and then end up in the hospital again. My parents fought all the time, even separating several times. I think I don’t remember my dad much because I hated seeing him drunk. And often he was just passed out. That made me afraid to bring friends home, so I often stayed away from home.
I do remember three conversations from this period. Around 1967 he went to a trade school to learn computers. One day he came home and taught me about punch cards and what the holes meant. This was significant because in 1971 after he died I enrolled in a trade school to study computers.
Another time we were having breakfast together – which was very odd. My mother and sister were already gone. The Today Show was on and there was a piece about J. R. R. Tolkien. My father said, “They’re talking about Bilbo Baggins.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but years later I remember he said it. I’ve always wondered if he had read The Hobbit? It was published in 1937. What else had he read growing up? I wished I had asked him. I wish I had asked him many things. Part of the problem I think was the chain of communication was one way. My parents told Becky and I what to do. They often said don’t talk back, go do your homework, go outside and play, go do your chores. We were rambunctious, and it was a never ending job to quiet us.
The last conversation I remember having with my dad was just weeks before he died. I believe now he knew he was dying, but I didn’t know it then. He was drunk, and told me that he loved Becky and I, and even my mother. That felt odd him saying that. It made me worry about him but I had to leave. So I snuck into my parents’ room and took two loaded revolvers out of his sock drawer and carried them around all evening. (I don’t know how people carry guns, it was very inconvenient.) When I came home he was passed out. A few weeks later he was found dead in a hotel room. He had left us again. Another heart attack, but his autopsy showed a variety of internal problems that would have killed him eventually too.
My childhood was all about the failure to communicate. It’s like watching old movies today. So many plots would have been ruined if they had had cell phones in those days. I believe my dad, mom, Becky, and I could have been happier if we could have communicated. But that’s just a theory I fantasize about now.
I was born on my parents sixth wedding anniversary. They had been informed they couldn’t have children. My uncle Bob told me in my teens that my mother refused to believe she was pregnant for a long time. My mother was 35 and my father 31 when I was born. Another of my many theories, maybe a fantasy, is that my parents were happy before they had me and Becky, because they looked happy in all their photos. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and my parents got married in 1945. Before we showed up they had been stationed in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. While growing up they often mentioned how happy they had been in those two places. Here they are in Puerto Rico before I was born. My mother kept a bunch of mementos from Puerto Rico for the rest of her life.
My father was a restless man. He loved being in the Air Force but we moved so much that I believe he put in for transfers. He also worked two and three jobs while in the service. He loved working at the NCO club or a VFW club as a bartender after his regular duties. I assumed because we needed the money, but as I’ve said, I have theories. One theory is working nights kept him from having to come home. I’m not sure my father knew what do with kids. I also assumed he had a full life away from us. At least I hoped he did.
And the reason why I theorize my parents were happier before Becky and I were born is because most of my memories of them were when they were fighting. For mom and dad, good times always seemed in the past. But I’m sure this is a distortion of what actually existed. If I try hard I can remember family get togethers where they might have been happy. And as a kid I sometimes heard them having sex, so maybe they were happy then too. They often retreated to the bedroom and let me and Becky have the living room with the TV. Maybe they had happy times talking together when they could get away from us. At least I hope they did.
My mother was high strung, and I probably bipolar. Becky and I were too much for her. All my early memories of my mom are of being screeched at. She constantly yelled at us to behave, often going into a rage and switching us. Now I don’t blame her. She was raised with the idea that children should be polite and well behaved. We were wild and energetic. She fought an endless battle to control us. We consistently rebelled. We couldn’t be tamed. So she yelled and yelled. Which made my father stay away. Which made her bitch at him. Both my parents became alcoholics, and I never knew who succumbed first.
My father grew up in an alcoholic family. His father and brothers drank. I think he was disappointed I didn’t start drinking as a young teenager. He hated that Becky and I preferred marijuana instead of booze. Of course, this was the sixties and we were part of the generation gap. My dad was always a steady drinker and could handle it until he started having heart attacks in 1964. My mother was a quiet drinker, and couldn’t handle it. She’d lose her shit. I think she used booze as an antidepressant not knowing it increased her unhappiness. A vicious cycle. But as a kid I didn’t understand any of this. All I knew was my parents often got into big fights. I can remember back then always wondering: Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my dad was a drunk.
However, this is enough of remembering their shortcomings. I don’t blame my parents for anything. They tried as hard as they could. I just don’t think they were cut out to be parents, and I wasn’t much of a son. I was great at surviving them, but it required being selfish and self-centered, and I got good at that.
I’ve always wanted to imagine what my dad was like as a person. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if he had lived and we had finally gotten to talk. I have very little to go on. His favorite TV shows where The Fugitive and Bonanza. He liked Mickey Spillane books and adventure magazines for men like Argosy. He hated rock music. Obviously, he loved to drink. He had a whole world of drinking buddies, and maybe women. He liked fishing, and sometimes took our family fishing out on a rented boat, or me and my male cousins. He talked about how much fishing he’d do when he retired, but after he was forced to retire he did damn little fishing.
I remember my dad taking me to several significant events in my life. But we didn’t go alone together, he would take me and my friends, and he didn’t talk. Or I don’t remember him talking. He took Connell, George, and I to see the liftoff of Apollo 8. That’s a fantastic memory. George kidded me later about how much my dad drank during the trip. He also took the three of us to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. Both were road shows where I had to buy tickets ahead of time. He took me and my cousins camping in the Keys. Bobby, Timmy, and I slept on the beach on a blanket, and he stayed in the car drinking. One of the high points of my life was waking up in the middle of the night to see the Milky Way floating overhead. A majestic memory. My dad was there, but not part of the experience.
I do have memories of him talking about his parents and grandparents. Dad liked the old days, and didn’t like the Sixties. He was born in Nebraska in 1920 but moved to Miami around 1924 I believe. He sometimes talked about the big hurricane of 1926. He once told me a story about how Nebraskan farmers killed jack rabbits. But he was too little to remember that, and I sometimes wonder if he got it in a newsreel. After he died I saw an old newsreel about Nebraskan farmers killing jack rabbits, and it was just like his story.
Going through what few things he left after dying I found a couple newspaper clippings, letters, and photos. I still have them. There’s just not much evidence. I really wanted to know what he dreamed about becoming when he grew up. Of course, his teen years were the depression, so it was probably a job. One newspaper clipping told about how he and some classmates interned at the Miami Herald and learned about composing ads. In high school he delivered telegrams for Western Union on a bicycle, but I only know that because of a photograph. I wish I had Henry Louis Gates to help me decipher my past.
I was a disappointment to my father. He wanted me to go to college, take ROTC and become an officer in the Air Force. Of course, my high school years, 1966-1969 was during the Vietnam War. I had long hair and was against the war. A couple times he called me a long hair commie pinko. I wasn’t, but he couldn’t understand. I was too immature to try to explain things to him, and evidently he wasn’t mature enough to deal with a son who didn’t fit his expectations.
The long hair really bothered him. I think he even worried I was gay. I remember when I was 16 he was so overjoyed that I wanted to borrow the car to go on a date that he lent me his car and gave me his drinking money. Another time he tried to show me a Playboy – now that was embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell him about my stash of girlie mags and didn’t want to think about what he did with his.
I do have a memory of a conversation my mother and father had in bed one night when they thought Becky and I were asleep. They were worried we were doing drugs. We were. They considered calling the cops on us. But they finally agreed that as long as we weren’t doing heroin they wouldn’t turn us in. I was proud of them for that. They were no angels as teenagers. My mother had run off and married a bootlegger (her first husband). I’m sure my dad drank as a teen. Oh, we knew kids doing heroin, but Becky and I didn’t. The closest I ever came was smoking opium with some Navy guys coming back from Morocco – but that was after he died. I remember the first time I got falling down drunk all I could think about was how could my parents stand years of drinking. I considered alcohol an inferior drug.
I did drugs for a few years when I was young, but eventually I realized I had an addictive personality like my father and quit. The lessons of seeing him saved me I guess. He saved me one more time for sure. When it was time to be drafted I was informed I was exempt for being the sole surviving son of a veteran.
Still, I wonder what he dreamed. What did he hope to get out of life? There were many parallels between my father and Jack Kerouac. Both were born around the same time and died around the same time. Alcoholism killed both of them. After my dad died I read a lot of books by Kerouac and about him. Because Kerouac wrote about the times my father lived through I imagined Kerouac thought and did things my father had done too. I saw them as tragic brothers. Both were restless men who compulsively traveled, roaming the United States and never finding what they needed. My father once told me he had been to all 48 states (this being before Alaska and Hawaii joined the union). I figured dad had done some hitchhiking. I did a little myself.
My dad’s father was on the right, one of four boys, and his grandparents were out front. My dad was one of three brothers. My mom was one of five sisters.
My dad as a baby
My dad with a friend in June of 1923. Probably still Nebraska.
My dad on right and his first brother Jack in 1929, now in Miami for sure.
Jack and my dad visiting their grandfather in Nebraska in 1929.
Dad in 1936. Doesn’t he look like someone in a Kerouac novel?
Dad as telegraph delivery boy also from 1936.
Graduating high school in 1938 and then a year later in 1939.
Some photos during the war. He was a drill sergeant.
Most people assume if you can read you can read. But what if reading was a skill like playing the piano and most readers are no better at reading than an eleven-year old with a year of piano lessons. (I’m expecting you to hear a badly played tune in your head.)
What if you could read like Glenn Gould playing Bach? Can you even imagine what that could be like? It would be like having Broadway actors performing in your head. It would be like having the professors from The Great Courses whispering you the annotations. It would be like James Joyce reading Ulysses to himself.
Well, I don’t read anything like that. My inner reading voice is a tone deaf monotone, and my annotations come from a lifetime of half-ass autodidactism.
Growing up I read nearly a thousand books. Because I read so much, I assumed I was a great reader. Beginning in 2002 when I joined Audible.com I often selected audiobooks I had read and loved way back then — when every book I read was great, even those by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Hearing all my childhood favorite books read by skilled readers has shown me just how bad a reader I was when I was growing up and thought I was so great.
And it’s not just comparing my wimpy inner reading voice to professional narrators, or the fact that I was young and wasn’t mature enough to understand everything in what I was reading. I am including my college years in that youthful period, when my mind was at its peak performance, and being crammed with a variety of diverse knowledge.
Listening to audiobooks taught me that I read too fast growing up. That I paid attention to the action and dialog but skimmed over any long passages of dense narrative details. But I also missed the emotional cues, and I didn’t spend enough time picturing the scenes and settings. More than that, I didn’t dwell on the implications of what was being expressed fictionally.
Every so often a friend will say they love the sentences in the books they are reading. I don’t think I ever stopped to admire a sentence.
By the way, I don’t mean to imply that my reading skills have vastly improved over the years. They are a good deal better, but I am no concert pianist at reading. In fact, I have a hard time gauging my skills against others.
Growing up I assumed everyone saw the world in the same way, that our brains and senses were similar. I’ve since learned that our perceptions of reality vary so greatly that if two people standing next to each other watching the same event will interpret it in two distinctly different ways. Since discovering that I’ve paid attention to whenever people describe how they read, and I’ve learned that decoding words produces a wide range of cognitive results.
You can test this observation by asking your friends about what they experience when they read. I’ve been doing this for years and discovered some of my friends have amazing mental abilities that make me green with envy.
Have you ever loved a book and urged a best friend to read it and then been let down when they didn’t respond to it like you did? Have you ever read a classic novel or bestseller and wondered what all the fuss was about? Have you ever read a book about your favorite subject and found it boring?
Part of reading is decoding words in the way the author intended. Part of reading is being on the same wavelength as the writer. Learning to be a skill reader involves words, sentences, and paragraphs, but it’s also involves reassembling the vision the author constructed in their mind that they wanted you to see, and triggering the emotions and philosophical insights they felt.
What if readers could be ranked like chess players using their Elo ranking system? Would I be an 800 or 1200? I’m quite confident I’m nowhere near a master rating. I wish I could be a grand master of reading but I know that’s impossible. We all wish we could be rock stars at our chosen ambitions but we’re not. But just how much can we improve? Can advance reading skills be taught? Can advance reading skills be assessed? I wonder what I’m missing.
My SF anthology reading group on Facebook is reading two stories this week, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe from 1972. I might have tried to read both when I was young because I had anthologies they were in, but I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked either. I just don’t remember. The writing style of the Forster was too quaint, and Wolfe’s prose was much too dense.
Reading these two stories in 2020 is dazzling my reading mind, but I hunger to know just how much I’m comprehending, just how much of their totality I’m experiencing with my current reading skills.
I’m reading these stories with my eyes (Kindle) and my ears (Audible) concurrently. I’m doing everything I can to read them with all the possible reading skill I can muster, but I have no idea how skilled that effort is. Am I 50% efficient at getting what Forster and Wolfe intended? Or even 75%, or just 30%? It’s my third reading for Forster and my second reading of Wolfe in recent years. I’ve also read about both stories, and I’m constantly encountering insights into them I missed or didn’t draw the implications the reviewers did.
“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is about an old man telling about his childhood, and the audiobook I have has an old man with a pompous or posh English voice reading it. You can listen here:
The setting feels like the French Quarter of a 19th-century New Orleans but it’s actually set on another planet in the far future. Wolfe writes in a baroque style about two boys growing up in a brothel during a decadent era, being educated by a robotic tutor, and slowly learning their bizarre origins. The story is dense, and I’m not sure if I read it ten times that I would find every treasure Wolfe buried away in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”
“The Machine Stops” is about an agoraphobic woman blogger who Zooms with all her friends in a country completely controlled by an AI machine. Well, not exactly since it was written in 1909. But when you read it, you’ll wonder if E. M. Forster ever hitched a ride on H. G. Wells’ time machine. Again, there is so much in this story that I can’t tell if I’m little Becky playing her first recital at church or Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff in Russia. My hope is I’m at least Becky as a sophomore majoring in music at college.
I just wished I had some kind of assessment tool to help me evaluate my abilities and progress. I suppose I could go back to college and take literature courses, but I’d prefer something more scientific, something more quantitative, something involving computers and brain scans.
Anyone who has read the works of Oliver Sacks knows how different humans minds can function. Reading isn’t just reading. Our ability to process words into mind movies varies so greatly that it’s impossible to comprehend. Every cognitive ability you can possibly envy in another person goes into the infinite ways in which we process books. Because we can’t see what other people experience when reading we assume it’s like our own reading experience. But it’s not.
In my last third of life I’m struggling to read with greater skill. With fiction, I’ve mostly shifted to reading short stories. Novels take up too much of my precious time, and they are also too indulgent. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas are compact, intense, and offer more variety of reading experiences. I’d like to think I’m an old dog that can still learn new tricks. I know I’ll never read like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall, or even at a high school auditorium.
I intuit this from listening to the best audiobook narrators or from watching lectures on The Great Courses Plus. But I have acquired the awareness of my progress and that’s something. It’s a shame we haven’t emphasized the details of reading skills. Oh sure, schools constantly grade kids on reading ability, but we never get enough feedback as to what those abilities truly are.
All I can guess is what you experience in your head when reading is much different from what I experience. I just wonder if there is any way to compare experiences? I participate in a number of reading groups, but the best we seem capable of is expressing if we like or dislike what we read. We know how much a musician knows because they perform and their performances can be evaluated and compared.
I suppose the real GRE for evaluating reading is writing. By that measure, I also come up short. I struggle to write fiction like a drowning person flails in the ocean.
Since I can’t go book shopping, I’ve decided to browse my own bookshelves instead. I’m amazed by what interesting books I find there.
It’s been months since I’ve shopped at my favorite used bookstore, Second Editions. I use to visit it at least once a week. I certainly don’t need any more books, there are already thousands on my to be read pile. Over the years I’ve discovered that my reading habit is entirely separate from my book-buying habit. I love to read and I love to shop for books — I just don’t always read the books I buy.
The other day I browsed through my entire Audible.com library of 1426 audiobooks looking for all that contained short stories. Time and again I was amazed by what I owned that I hadn’t listened to yet (I can’t resist a good sale). Once again, I told myself I needed to stop buying new books and read or listen to what I already own. But I love going to Second Editions, the used bookstore run by our Friends of the Library.
I never know what I’ll find. Sometimes it’s an old book I’ve been hoping to find again, or it’s a book I never knew I wanted but had to buy, or it was a hardback copy of a book that just came out that I was thinking of paying full price — that’s how I got Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson for $5.
I’ve only got five six-shelf bookshelves to browse — but I’m overwhelmed by how many books I find that I want to read. Strangely, it’s 100%. Well, maybe not so strange. Because of my limited shelf space, I tend to donate books back to the Friends of the Library of those I’ve read or decided I’m not going to read. My self-imposed rule is I can’t own any more books than I have bookshelves. I’ve technically broken this rule because I’m currently allowing myself a legal loophole by shelving some books at the top of my clothes closet. Those three six-foot-wide shelves really do look like bookshelves. (But don’t tell my wife!)
Second Editions bookstore is closed for the duration of the pandemic. I know everyone is missing their favorite places to hang out, so I shouldn’t whine about missing mine. However, I do miss it. And browsing my own bookshelves looking through the books I often bought at Second Editions does help a little, but not much. It does help me empathize with young people who can’t resist gathering in public places during a pandemic.
I wonder if I pulled out a few books, and gave myself a twenty if the experience would feel more like visiting Second Editions? Maybe Susan could pretend to be the clerk at the cash register and we could chat a bit about books?
The sad truth is I’m a Flipboard addict. And if I’m really jonesing for news, I’ll also check Apple News and Google News. I compulsively tap my iPhone several times a day for more new news, speed reading through dozens of digital essays and news stories every day. But Flipboard is starting to irritate me with all its ads, and more than that, my comprehension skills are deteriorating.
Although the internet is instant, smartphones are convenient, and news feed apps are comprehensive, I’m not sure they are the best conduits of news. Oh, they definitely get me more news from a greater variety of sources updated by the second, but I’m not sure its the best way to stay informed. And I’m not sure if it’s not becoming abusive to my neurons.
People often say less is more. News feed apps work on the principle of sending you news customized for your interests. Often content is barely more than blurbs with ads, and generally the same information is repeated or restated by countless news outlets, sources, and publishers. There is lots of substantial content, but lately, more than not, it’s behind a paywall.
I’m reading in a hyperactive mental state, gobbling down facts in a frantic effort stay informed. But am I? I’m starting to wonder if I read less if I’d be more informed?
Could carefully choosing my own news sources be the wiser path? Could a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, digital or print, offer a better news experience than a news feed service? I don’t know, but I’m thinking about trying the route. I just don’t know if I can break the news feed app habit.
I’m also tempted to go back to printed magazines and newspapers for some of that reading. The cost of printing tends to control what is printed. And I’m also wondering if reading less from a slower source might be advantageous. I really have no answers right now, but my hunch at the moment is pushing me to read less news on my iPhone. However, I’m not sure I can give up that much convenience.
It occurs to me now that I actually enjoyed TV more when there were only three networks. And music was more fun when I could only afford to buy one new album a week. Maybe there’s a downside to convenient abundance.