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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

On Not Reading Like a Critic

It's so much more than a pond to me.

Reading Subjectively


When I wrote about a new book recently on this blog, I said explicitly, “This is not a book review.” Increasingly, I find myself reading more and more subjectively, zeroing in on passages and thoughts and events and images meaningful to me because I relate them to my own life. Characters in books don’t have to be “like me” for me to find connections with them, and neither does the setting or even the time period have to be my own. People, after all, are people, whoever and wherever and whenever they live -- and fictional characters do live in good books, as all readers know, so when we read a well-written novel, we enter into the lives of the characters.


Here is an example of what I mean by reading subjectively – first, the quote from Proust and then, the associations it brought up for me:


Thus, at every point in its existence the name of Guermantes, considered as a conglomerate of all the names it comprised within and around itself, suffered losses and enrolled new elements, like those gardens in which, in a continuous process, flowers scarcely in bud, ready to take the places of those which are beginning to fade, lose their identity in a mass that appears unchanged except to those persons who have not been witnessing the succession of new blooms and therefore have retained in their memories an exact picture of the flowers that have disappeared. 

- Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured


In the final volume of Proust’s epic, Marcel attends a reception at the home of the Princesse de Guermantes, where he encounters a number of old acquaintances so changed by Time that some at first he does not recognize at all. Gradually he is able to re-member them, as it were, comparing their present faces and bodies with young, fresh images recalled from years past. Along with physical changes, he notes how failing memories have allowed former acrimonious feelings to vanish, so that individuals once bitter enemies now meet on cordial terms as if they had never been at odds with one another. Newcomers, with no memory of relationships of former years or what place was held in society by various individuals twenty years or more before, take the present to be something that always was, more or less, while those who have not kept track of all the changes wrought by Time remember what used to be, “the flowers that have disappeared.”


I read and re-read the paragraph, substituting in my mind, for “Guermantes,” the name “Leland,” since it was in Leland — and specifically at the Blue Bird — that my Leelanau County memory first began to be formed. Many faces from those days have disappeared. (Most, I often think. If I were to go there some evening now, would I recognize a single person?) At the same time, I know that the names and faces I associate with those tables and that bar mean little or nothing to Leland’s young crowd today. The same, of course, is true of Northport, but in Northport my own memory goes back only to 1993, to Woody’s Settling Inn and my first, oh-so-modest little used bookstore in one of the sheds next door. I never even saw “the old school,” as it's called on sweatshirts worn proudly by those who attended and graduated from that old two-story brick building with its outdoor fire escape chute, yet I recall the happy feeling it gave me when one of that school’s graduates, himself a third-generation Northporter, told me I was “a Northport person.” 

David, my husband, was always a Leland person. Leland was where he established his reputation early on. My only identity in Leland was as his partner, whereas in Northport I was “the bookstore lady,” someone with an identity of my own. David and I settled in the country halfway between the two villages, with good friends in both.

Early on, David Grath in Leland, Michigan

Leland/Fishtown legend David Grath

Original Dog Ears Books, 1993, Northport

Time’s flight is inexorable. Artists, however, leave behind them work that never grows old, and in that way the garden, here in Leelanau as elsewhere, continues to grow in richness and complexity.

How Does My Garden Grow?


When it comes to literal gardening, my focus this past season was on flowers rather than vegetables. I needed flowers. I needed color in front of my house to welcome me home every day, since the Artist wouldn’t be waiting for me in the yard or on the porch, as he was last year. I planted annuals as well as perennials and recommend having both. Perennials mark the passing season for us as each blooms for its limited time, while annuals either flower continuously, such as pansies and begonias,  or repeatedly. Is my new favorite annual below bacopa? I forget. But I love it.

Next year I’ll have vegetables again.


But the glory of my home grounds for me is my meadow. Now cleared of autumn olive (temporarily, I know; the vigil will be lifelong!), the variety of its flora is a rich and diverse mix.

Just now the asters are stealing the show (bees are busy in them all day long), and yesterday I saw the first of what will be hundreds of milkweed pods releasing their seeds to the wind, while butterflies continue to flit about among the grasses and flowers. There are wild roses and an enormous colony of blackberries. So much that it’s hard to have a “favorite” plant, but I was thrilled to find not one but two hawthorns this year, one to the east, the other to the south. 

The summer I fell in love with Proust I was obsessed with hawthorns, and however thrilling the landscape that met my eyes when we went out on evening rides through the countryside, I could not get hawthorns out of my mind and looked for hawthorns everywhere, just as I used to make mental notes of blooming asters, always meaning to go back to collect seeds and never following through. Then one year the wildflower seed mix I’d sown in my meadow began producing asters. Now it seems I have hawthorns, also, and I find their presence immensely satisfying. No, more than that. Comforting. Don't ask me why. Although in some way, I suppose, just as I am struck by associations to my life in books, I also value associations to books in my life.


Not everything I read gives me comfort. Some re-open springs of grief. Others stretch my mind. The one thing they have in common these days is that, while still aware of quality in writing and the skill of writers, I am reading more and more for myself, gathering in as much as possible in these harvest years, as I look back to put it all together. At least, to try.



Karen Casebeer said...

Wonderful images, Pamela, especially of the pond, asters and bee, and the final leaf.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Karen. I was particularly happy to get a good shot of a bee -- finally! You probably can't tell I was holding that final leaf by the stem with my left hand....

Dawn said...

Funny, as I read this, and got to the part of the hawthornes in your meadow I thought " that would be comforting, to find she had them there," and then you used the word yourself.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, how did you know that the hawthorns would comfort me?

P. J. Grath said...

An article in today's Leelanau Enterprise tells us that the Blue Bird, iconic restaurant/bar in Leland (and I am not using the word 'iconic' lightly, either) is due to be RAZED. The past dismantled! I understand the reasoning and would not argue with the owners (long-time friends), but oh, dear! No going home again! Memories!!!