I recall reading in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction that we retain only a general sense of a book unless we read it more than once. That memory was sparked again by Joseph Epstein’s “The Pleasures of Reading” in which he shares a response to some works:
What I consciously take away from many of the books I read are scenes, oddments, bit and pieces. I am somehow less interested in the final meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” than I am in the fact that so many of the phrases from that poem have stuck in my mind for more than forty years. From an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, I recall the earlock of a yeshiva student, flapping in the wind; I remember the little finger of Father Sergius in Tolstoy’s story of that name, twirling in the air after he has chopped it off….
It’s reassuring to know that the fleeting hold I have on some books is a common response, as are the selective details that may, surely do, reflect my personal reading.
Usually I remember my feeling about a book (a no-no in scholarly writing). Sometimes it’s affection, sometimes resistance, maybe a shudder. But if the book moved me, I’ll remember vividly some image or line or a choice, something specific. I think they’re telling details, important to a particular theme or issue, but they’re access points to memory. Here are a few of the many that have lasted: The choice of endings in The French Lieutenant’s Woman—the slight dismay I felt discovering that the ending I wanted wasn’t merited by the strength of the character; the “planting hands” of Elisa in Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums” and the “speck” of flower in the road; the casting away, in Cather’s My Antonia, of Mrs. Shimerda’s gift of mushrooms, the only food she has; the mute love of Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; the bit of lard in Sula and the miserable choice of using it as food or lubricant; the Faulkner lady fallen from high station and allowing herself to take from her neighbor’s garden only what she can reach through the fence.
Morrison’s Sula was a hard book—so much suffering, but much life, too, bold and vivid, something precious always at risk. I was afraid to come to the end of the novel. I didn’t see how anything positive could rise from such betrayal and loss. But one line turned my near despair to a kind of joy—tearful, admittedly. An I’ll-be-damned moment. Morrison changed my perception of the character. I loved the end. I celebrated Sula.
A recent read is still very close: Where the Crawdad’s Sing. It’s a kind of delicate book, satisfies at so many levels. The situation tests belief but becomes increasing believable. This young girl—Kya, Catherine, the Marsh Girl—is a survivor. She grasps opportunities and works unflaggingly. She loves the world and people, even if she’s wary. She’s practical but filled with wonder. There’s a murder mystery all along, and the resolution of that is an of-course one. Of course. This is an honest author, no tricks. But what hooked me most and makes me think on the book again and again, are the poems pieced here and there. Tidbits. The resolution to that authorship mystery is perfect, about art and realism, and thought and touch. It’s a full circle book. One thinks (I think) of the character, the author, women and the Word. I suspect that years from now, even if I forget the murder, and the love, and the lyrics themselves, I’ll remember that I loved the presence of the poems and what they meant.
Epstein, Joseph. “The Pleasures of Reading.” Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Houghton-Miffline Harcourt, 1999: 207-209.