Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Lives

I have reading to do. In addition to a friend's revised manuscript to which I have been looking forward, I have a book club selection I haven't finished rereading for tonight's discussion, books to be read for my committee, a book about which I ought to be writing. None of these undertakings do I take lightly. None is unpleasant. This is, of course, in addition to the reading I do for this little enterprise and the books I've been reading for myself. I have tried very hard to be a more disciplined reader of late, avoiding easy temptations, keeping my head down at work. Then Brenda Wineapple's amazingly good new book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, came across the desk and wrecked my good intentions for one night, then two...

As I said last night, it is not the sort of book that can or ought to be read by itself. Instead I find myself turning to read every poem referenced, even the poems given in full in the text of the Wineapple book. Reading one poem, or a line quoted from a poem, for me, means reading the poem again, as a discreet experience, the biography closed, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin, to replace it. This is simply a joy. To have fresh context and reference, to trust the biographer/critic, is like being in the best possible classroom; an excellent and charming teacher, very good books, and no bell, no class discussions, no quiz, no notes but in my own.

And yet I must stop. There is simply too much else to be read. I hand the Wineapple book along to a coworker. If it is in the house another night, I will read nothing else. I can come back to it when there are fewer distractions. I will.

The problem is that having looked up from the books I am meant to be reading, I find myself surprised by all that's arrived at the bookstore when I wasn't really looking. Biography, perhaps my least likely to be resisted temptation, is suddenly, or so it seems to me, everywhere, all of it new, by favorite authors or on favorite subjects, just waiting to be picked up for a lunchtime encounter, towed home, read in bed.

Victor Villasenor, author of Rain of Gold, perhaps the last multi-generational family epic I really enjoyed, has a new autobiography, Crazy Logo Love, from Arte Publico Press. The author's photo alone makes me want to read this book now. The picture is from 1960. The author was twenty. He is, in this photo, a favorite character from that earlier novel. Inside the new book is a photo-insert with family photos that likewise seem identifiable without having read a word of the new autobiography. His sister's bouffant alone makes me want to read this book now.

Flannery: A life of Flannery O'Connor, Brad Gooch, Little Brown. Gooch's earlier biography of Frank O'Hara taught me, finally, how to read that poet's work. Now Gooch has written this new life of an author I've always found more than a little repellent, if dazzling. Perfect biographical reading! (And I have the Library of America volume of O'Connor just waiting to be read with it.)

Witold Rybczynski, the Canadian architect who, since Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986,) has written so well on subjects I would not necessarily care to read about that I've found myself picking up book after book, has now written a slim volume of autobiographical essays, My Two Polish grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life, and I can't think of a subject I would rather he'd written about, or a book I'd rather be reading.

An impressive looking new biography of a literary hero, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man, Duncan Wu, Oxford University Press, looks like a book I will probably want to own. The portraits included are sadly in black and white -- contemporary production values and color have rather spoiled me when it comes to this sort of thing in biography, but all the quoted comments are encouraging, and how can I not at least take the book home and browse through the index for Lamb, et al?

And then there is a truly exciting event in biography, a new book from the great Michael Holroyd! It's been a decade since his Shaw and the corrected reissue of his Lytton Strachey. Now at last comes a book I had no idea he was even writing, A Strange and Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families, from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. I could not have imagined a better biographer for the subject or a better subject for biography. Fascinating family, amazing lives, nice fat book!

But what is it that finally can not be resisted, even for one evening? A slight book, if book is even the right word for what is, after all, little more than the script for a one-woman-show, or more accurately, an evening's entertainment, book and show both called Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. My dear friend Z. and I are determined to see this when it comes to town next month, and here's the show between covers, ripe for a preview. This can be read at a sitting. It will be funny and fun. This hardly constitutes cheating.

Maybe just this one slip, a quick fix before bed, a little rush of the forbidden, before I straighten up and fly right hereafter.

Don't judge me.

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