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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Binge-Reading and Finding Pearls


Sarah supervises my work
Where did I find time to binge-read? Good heavens! There was our four-day trip to Kalamazoo, and after three days in the bookshop upon return I worked Sunday and Monday outdoors at home. Traveling, visiting, hanging laundry out on the line, bringing it in and folding it, cooking, washing dishes, mowing grass, digging, weeding, planting, not to mention (but here goes hours in the shop in Northport. And last year I said I didn’t have time to garden, but this year is different. This year I’m making time, just as I make time to go for walks with Sarah. I want to spend as much time outdoors as possible! I won’t always be able to get down on my hands and knees and dig in the dirt. Do it now! I tell myself. Do it while you can! 

Yet there is still, always, time for books. Again, making time to read is crucial.

On our recent road trip, I took along Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, because even busy days visiting friends and family end at last with bedtime, and how is one to go to sleep without reading? Once back in Northport, I fell deliciously into John Searle’s The Rediscovery of Mind one afternoon at the shop ... but not too far in, because my own mind got so busy I had to lay the book aside and try to gather my thoughts ... and then my thoughts were interrupted and would not be regathered ... and finally it was obvious that the rest of that book and its exciting inspiration must await me at home for some quiet hour. Meanwhile, however, I returned to and finished The Plague of Doves. Very satisfying!

And now I have fallen into a lovely book of essays by the late Maurice Sendak, titled Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures. Much to my delight, there are not one but two essays on the wonderful Beatrix Potter. In the second, Sendak recounts an experience he had serving on a panel with other children’s authors, speaking to an audience of “concerned” parents. The authors had been advertised, much to their own concern, as “experts,” but how were they to respond to one audience member’s outraged complaints about the sweet little Beatrix Potter classic, Peter Rabbit?
A gentleman ... raised his hand and with a voice full of righteous ferver declared that no one on the panel had as yet explained how a book as simpleminded and flat as Peter Rabbit deserved its prestigious reputation. Worst of all, it seemed to him to be “neither fact nor even fancy.”
Sendak and the other authors protested against pigeonholing books and suggested that both books of facts and stories of fantasy needed to be recognized as “imaginative writing.” They also tried denying that they were experts. Sendak admitted that the audience was not happy with either suggestion.
I think we made it quite clear that there were no oracles seated on the platform that evening. However, for all our efforts, we were treated as experts and not too subtly condemned for being not-too-expert experts.
How does one mount a defense for a book that should never need one in the first place? Unable to come up with words on the public occasion, Sendak says he “quietly sulked,” but now, in his essay, will “bravely state my case: Peter Rabbit transcends all arbitrary categories.” He goes on, most delightfully, to discuss in detail various moments in the story and how the text and illustrations are perfectly integrated, stating generally:
This book, so apparently simple, smooth, straightforward, is to my eye textured and deepened  by the intimate, humorous observations that Beatrix Potter makes in her pictures.
In general, he concludes, it is the sense of life in the book that makes it a classic.
This standard should be applied to every book for the young, and no book can claim the distinction of art without it. Peter Rabbit, for all its gentle tininess, loudly proclaims that no story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it is not a work of imagination.


As I read this essay, I thought of the many Beatrix Potter books my son and I enjoyed when he was young and remembered also, naturally, Maurice Sendak’s own wonderful children’s books. The third author-illustrator who also came to my mind, over and over, was Leelanau County’s own Lynne Rae Perkins. I love her most recent book, Nuts to You, so much, and can hardly wait to have her new book, Frank and Lucky Get Schooled, in my bookstore.

I feel sorry for anyone who outgrows children’s books and hope I never will. But fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, essay, poetry – what reader would deny herself any of the foregoing? It’s worth getting up before sunrise, if necessary, to find time for reading. 

Very soon now, I will have in stock a new book of essays from another well-known Leelanau author, Kathleen Stocking, so think now about getting your name on my list of reserved copies for The Long Arc of the Universe: Travels Beyond the Pale. Like Lynne Rae Perkins, Kathleen Stocking proves that Maurice Sendak knew whereof he wrote. The sense of life these two Leelanau authors brings to their work comes from vital, intelligent, sometimes offbeat and always wonderful imaginations.

Transcending categories, transcending genres -- those are the very best books of all!

3 comments:

Dawn said...

Ahhhhh. Peter Rabbit. It was at grandma's house on the farm where we read that, appropriately I guess as she had a huge vegetable garden, though I don't remember any rabbits invading there. I remember being somewhat frightened at the reading of this book. I need to go check it out at the library and remember why.

Gerry said...

I was completely and permanently enchanted with Beatrix Potter when I discovered the tiny, perfect books at the Carnegie Library in Rhinelander, Wisconsin many years ago. Had I been Maurice Sendak at that panel I might have unleashed a Wild Thing at the "gentleman."

I took Plague of Doves off the shelf to remind myself whether it was the one I thought it was, which it was, and then read a little here and there and got a bit lost and remembered that I can never hold all of any of Louise Erdrich's books in my mind whole, but only in glimpses, and that I can read any of them over and over and find something new and astonishing. I will always be grateful to L&L Books, a tiny independent bookseller in the Penobscot Building, where I was guided to these treasures.

P. J. Grath said...

I am always enchanted, Gerry, when you mention Rhinelander, Wisconsin, because we have broken our journey to the Twin Cities there several times. I love the deep blue dome of the -- is it the county building?

My son and I loved Beatrix Potter together, especially JERRY FISHER and SQUIRREL NUTKIN.