Betty Duffy

Friday, April 9, 2010

My Walnut-sized Brain

My Grandpa used to say it was unwise to give a good book to a bad mind. Don’t even attempt to read the Russians until you’re twenty-five. But I did it anyway, of course; got my copy of Crime and Punishment, and carried it around with me for my entire sophomore year of high school.

I’d read a sentence, reread the sentence, read it again…and finally move on just to turn the page. My family made fun of me; called the book, and the bag in which I carried it, my security blanket, because I wouldn’t leave home without it—though I rarely touched it en route.

I’ve been reading people’s lists of the ten most influential books of their lives. I don’t think I remember a word of anything I read before I was twenty-one. My brain wasn’t ready—too overwhelmed by hormones and drama—to pick up on nuances and symbolisms. So I picked out the fattest, most conspicuous books I could find to carry around in order to appear intelligent.

My seventh grade year was marked by a hard-backed copy of Anne of Avonlea. It shouldn’t have been too hard for me to read, but it was. My freshman year of high school was Eleni by Nicholas Gage, which I could actually talk about when people asked, because I had seen the movie.

Interspersed in the fat and impressive books, were books that I did read: books about ESP and the paranormal, Babysitters Club books, Vogue Magazines. I didn’t advertise these reads. I gobbled them up in private, just like I’d horde chocolate in my drawers so that no one else could see my appetite for junk.

Part of the problem of growing up in a well-read family is that we all knew that some books were better than others. I could read a thousand Sweet Valley books and they wouldn’t total the value of one Dostoevsky. As it should be. The problem was that I didn’t “get” Dostoevsky, and Sweet Valley was a piece of cake. It wasn’t fair. None of my reading counted.

Meanwhile, in our living-room, my older sister had curled her body into a pretzel and was squinting her eyes into the minuscule print of Gone With the Wind which she finished in all of two weeks. Her concentration was unbreakable. I was invisible to her, though I crawled up behind the wing-back chair in which she sat and put my finger in her ear, or whispered words like “suburban” and “couperf” and “satchel” because I knew she hated those words.

Her friends would ride their bikes over to play, find her reading, and have to be satisfied with my company. And I would be playing Barbies, no doubt, making the dolls do naughty things, and then saying, “It’s ok, they’re married,” even though in my head, they were not.

One of my boys recently said, “I have a walnut-sized brain for school and a football-sized brain for comedy.” That’s me. My brain was too full of the junk to make room for anything of importance. I wanted to entertain, and be entertained—not to learn. As my husband told my son, however, “If you don’t change those proportions, you’ll be able to look forward to a walnut-sized salary someday.”

And so, in my later college years, I set about acquiring the skills of an intellectual—which meant, getting rid of my junk-food literary diet, becoming sort of somber and withdrawn (partially the outcome of failed relationships), and emulating my sister’s reading habits.

I hate to say that my brain was just waiting for someone to turn the lights on. Either it came of age, or getting serious, and having a few more “adult” experiences under my belt, helped me to understand more serious matters. In any case, I suddenly understood. I began to read literature for leisure. I read with a pen in hand to keep notes of things that interested me—I still do.

And I felt personal connections for the first time with characters in my books.

I met my husband while I was a senior in college. Every now and then, this Duffy guy would call up and ask me to go to a Pacers game or something low-brow like that, which didn’t fit my new intellectual standards. But apparently he still liked me, and was interested enough to read Anna Karenina because it was my favorite book at the time.

When I asked him what he thought of it, he said he thought Anna was kind of a slut. It would be two years before I would go out with him again after that comment. Criticize Anna, criticize me. I took books very seriously and anyone who couldn’t comprehend the nuances of Anna’s situation had no business with me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that my future husband was being glib. And it was I who couldn’t comprehend glibness in the face of a literary master. I had slid from one extreme to another, from book avoidance, to book worship. The only way out of my predicament was to read more, and more. The more I read, the more I could compare. The greater my literary experience, the better equipped I was to critique, and even at times, to poke fun.

I read for ten years. Throughout my twenties, while I was having babies like hotcakes, and they were all little and slept a lot, I would lay on my bed in the afternoon with sleeping kids around me, reading. I read out loud to them, at least the early ones, from whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I read a couple books a week, or more. I read Anna Karenina again, and found a couple things to laugh at.

I wish I still read like that, but I don’t. I go on reading benders here and there. And then I go on a writing bender. But the kids are older, and I can’t languish in bed in the afternoons anymore. Reading is after dark, which puts it at stiff competition with sleep, and writing, and surfing the internet (which somehow never puts me to sleep).

I want to read again. I need to read again. I feel a bender coming on, but it’s going to take some work, as reading benders don’t always come with the ease of, well, other types of benders. Junk out, good stuff in.

Things may be slow on the blog for awhile.


Rebekka said...

I did that to my Barbies too.

Hope said...

I carried around War and Peace in high school for a brief time. I never read it but I wanted it to look like I did.

My daughter asked me once if we were book snobs. I always commented if she was reading anything I considered fluff. And they all remember the time I stopped reading a book to them because after every other sentence I lamented about the wretched writing.

Now I know that every so often only a fluff book will do. I still haven't read War and Peace.

Of course I want you to be able to go on both a book reading binge and a blog writing binge.

nicole said...

I made myself read War and Peace. I didn't really like it, but I wanted to be able to say I read it. Which is just plain silly.

I LOVE to read. I read at the expense of just about everything, which is not really a good thing. I read a lot of fluff with some more "serious" literature included once in a while. I stopped worrying about the value of what I was reading and decided that it didn't matter. Very freeing.

Oh, and if you do find time for a reading bender, I hope you will share with us what you read.

Karyn said...

Your comment about being able to read more when the kids were young gave me the shivers - I keep hoping I can get back to reading more once my kids are older. I picture all of us spending languid afternoons reading silently to ourselves. Darn it.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Re: War and Peace

Most translations of it are incompetent, cut out all the funny bits, and then abridge the story without telling you. I'm not saying it's all for funzies, but Russians didn't make it a bestseller originally out of some masochistic urge to suffer. I don't know why most translators are so allergic to translating wit, though. (Granted, it's not easy to do; but an attempt would be nice.)

(Like the usual school versions of The Count of Monte Cristo. Nothing like cutting out all the non-main character moments, and then asking you questions on the quiz about the characters who are now barely there. Like cutting out all the witty banter at decadent parties. That sort of thing.)

I haven't gotten through W & P either, but I was really enjoying the unabridged good modern translation until my eyes started crossing and I got a headache.

Re: Crime and Punishment, we had to read it in high school. I'm not much into thrillers about killers, so neither that nor Dreiser's American Tragedy did much for me. Porfiry was cool as a detective, though I couldn't get over the fact that the Tsarist police wasn't All That Nice.

Re: literature opening up -- I never had much trouble reading Big Books o' Doom, but I'm still not much for a lot of mainstream literature. Early 1800's literature came alive for me in my late twenties and early thirties, though, so I sympathize.

Mark Brentano said...

Extraordinary. I've just sauntered into an internet cafe to post about books, and I was going to tell everyone to avoid Crime and Punishment and read The Brothers Karamazov instead. Popped over to your place, and it's books all over the shop. Small virtual world.

Peter and Nancy said...

Jane Eyre in the 8th grade was the first "serious" literature I ever read. I re-read it 3 years ago for a book discussion group, and found that it stood the test of time very well -- particularly since I became a Christian at age 21, and there are some lovely words in there about our heavenly Father and redemption. I love, love, love a well-written mystery though -- that's my biggest reading vice.

Couldn't make it through War and Peace, but I did my time with Moby Dick.

mrsdarwin said...

I hate W&P with a passion (and I have read it all the way through -- I didn't like any of the characters, and I loathed Natasha). And your husband was right -- Anna was a slut.

I read Babysitters Club voraciously in sixth grade, when everyone else was doing it as well. Now I'm divided on whether or not to let my girls get hooked on an interminable series like that. I did veto the Rainbow Fairy books from Scholastic that all the little secular homeschoolers are passing around (yes, the books are innocuous and inoffensive) because my girls would check them out in great armfuls and we'd lose them and the little brother would throw them in the toilet. And eventually the covers gave me morning sickness.

TS said...

whispered words like “suburban”

Smiling broadly.

I knew my wife loved me when she read the turgid Art of Loving by Erich Fromm at my request (naively I imagined this as 'marriage insurance' given my worship of books).

Meanwhile I'm still pondering something you said from a much earlier post: I have no problem picking the scab. Or maybe I don’t want it to heal because I’m afraid of having nothing to do without it. Does this mean in the sense of courting drama merely for drama's sake, because it makes us feel alive or is it because we would (paradoxically) feel more vulnerable if our weaknesses were taken away?

PS My word verification is: beertinv - a Godincidence!

Laura said...

I go on such binges whenever I'm home from school. Finally, time to read for fun! Why is reading a book for pleasure so much better than reading it for class? Why are novels so much more fun than nonfiction?

Sally Thomas said...

I need a reading binge. Several summers ago I went on one, a big fat book binge, in which I read Brothers K, which I had not read before and am not sure I "got" -- aside from the distinct impression that the mere fact of being Russian seems stressful -- and The Pickwick Papers, which I loved and read aloud to anyone who would listen, until the children begged me to stop.

Dreiser: bleah.

I used to think novels were more fun than nonfiction, but in recent years, I've been far more able to read nonfiction than novels, maybe because I really want to write one, and when I read them, they get in the way of what I want to write. Not that I'm making any better progress on the writing front than the reading one . . .

I'd love it if you'd leave a link to this post in the little linky-carnival widget over on my blog, by the way. Things are a little slow getting going, and I think this would be a great addition to the conversation. I myself have been discursing on Sagas of the Icelanders -- another big fat book which I find I can put down, though it is pretty fascinating in its own bleak way.

My v-code word: tagri.

Sally Thomas said...

Discoursing, I think I mean. Being discursive. Whatever. I mean I'm talkin' about the Vikin's.

And now my word is "sqhsmerd." I think we ought to start a dictionary.

Sally Thomas said...

Sorry, I'm flooding your combox, but perhaps the actual link to the post would be useful.

BettyDuffy said...

You wait at home most days hoping someone will stop by, then you leave the house for just a minute and everyone shows up. Party in my combox, and I want to be here. I'm thinking about all of your comments. I'll be back as soon as I can.

lissla lissar said...

Oh, heavens. I read Les Miserable and The Canterbury Tales. At 14. To show I was smart.

I didn't enjoy them. I was just being a prig.

I have a mental separation between 'fluff' or popcorn books, and decent books. I have books from both categories in my 'too tired to read anything new' book pile, but it tends towards fluff.

I also read a huge amount of terrible stuff in high school. I'm annoyed about how much time I wasted on Heinlein.

Sorry this in incoherent- I have a new baby.

Rae said...

Oh dear. I go through times of reading and times (er years?) of not really reading, but I don't have the excuse of children. It seems that sometimes my brain is simply smaller for no reason.

But I am guessing that I am not fit to comment on "the Russians" since I am only 24. :-) I must say though that I doubt your grandfather ever read Chernyshevsky, or he might not have had such a high view!

Dawn Farias said...

I enjoyed this post!

BettyDuffy said...

War and Peace: started it twice. Got halfway through twice. Gave it up twice. Oh well.

Crime and Punishment: I did revisit a couple years ago, and was sort of surprised by how simple the story arc really is. Guy contemplates murder. Guy commits murder. Guy goes nuts with guilt until he turns himself in. Written out like that, it's so obviously a snoozer, and the whole premise assumes that the readers will all share the same abhorence of Raskolnikov's crime. I was struck while reading it though that most people really don't obsess like that over their own sins. Lies, stealing, cheating, easily forgotten, but murder, the BIG GUN, I don't know. I'd like to interview an actual murderer just to see if it's as affecting as Dostoevsky wants it to be. Not to downplay murder, but to paraphrase Don Draper (Mad Men) on how he gets over his sordid history: "You will be shocked at how much this didn't happen." Anyway, C&P and Sigrid Undset's Master of Hestviken are both giant novels whose narrative drive depends on the main characters remaining unrepentant for murder, and I think both novels fail for some reason.

Karyn, I could be wrong, but it's looking like the next languid afternoon comes in the nursing home.

Mrs. D, I'm a few years older than you, which means that while you were reading Babysitters Club in sixth grade, I was probably in high school. That's embarrassing.

BettyDuffy said...

One more thought on C&P and the Master of Hestviken: I think the reason they don't work (for me, anyway) is because they want to illustrate the natural law, but I think in actuality, the natural law works in more subtle ways than flattening with guilt anyone who disobeys it.

TS: "Does this mean in the sense of courting drama merely for drama's sake, because it makes us feel alive or is it because we would (paradoxically) feel more vulnerable if our weaknesses were taken away?"

I think it's a bit of each, but mostly the latter, along with a healthy fear of sanctity, because it's an interminable labor.

JMB said...

My favorite novels were read in conjunction with some fabulous teachers. I read Dickens in high school, Shakespeare & Chaucer (of course). I wouldn't have enjoyed these half as much if I read them on my own.
Later on, I read Flannery O'Connor, more Austen, Jane Eyre, more Dickens, Anna Karenina, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the list goes on. This was during college when I had plenty of time and plenty of people to sit around and discuss books with.

Books to me have to be read and discussed. It's really lonely to read something and have no one to talk about it with. It's also hard when you have a tendancy towards being a readaholic, when you would rather read and be in your own little world than be in the big world.

And some books I never got, nor don't care if I ever did, like Moby Dick.

Darwin said...

I'm a few years older than you, which means that while you were reading Babysitters Club in sixth grade, I was probably in high school. That's embarrassing.

I suspect that "when everyone was reading them" in regards to Babysitters Club is a little like the golden age of science fiction: it's an age not an era. It looks like the series started in 1986, so I think you can safely claim you read them in Junior High, even if MrsDarwin did so a few years later.

If truth be told, I read two Babysitters Club books myself in fifth grade -- but that was because a girl I knew said she'd only try the science fiction series I recommended to her if I read two of her babysitters club books. (She read the rest of the SF series and I never cracked another Babysitters Club book, so I figure I won.)

mrsdarwin said...

One more thought on C&P and the Master of Hestviken: I think the reason they don't work (for me, anyway) is because they want to illustrate the natural law, but I think in actuality, the natural law works in more subtle ways than flattening with guilt anyone who disobeys it.

Kristin Lavransdattir has that same flair (though it deals with fornication, not murder) -- the guilt from sin seems to drown the story in melodrama.

I think an interesting contrast is Absalom, Absalom (though maybe that's a discussion from another blog). None of the characters seems to have the remotest sense of sin, and yet the consequences of sinful actions stretch through the years and doom an entire family (all of whom, to some extent, have bought into the lifestyle afforded by sin, so all of whom bear the guilt -- there are no innocent bystanders hurt in that novel, except maybe the narrator, who isn't really involved in the drama).

BettyDuffy said...

Mrs. D, I'm still trying to figure out who the narrator is. Am I getting that the narrator changes almost every chapter, and yet it still somehow always sounds like Faulkner? But yes, for another blog.

JMB, speaking of other blogs, if you like talking about the books you're reading, you may enjoy the blog Mrs. Darwin and I share with some other very interesting people,

We're just getting started on Faulkner right now and commenters are welcome if you'd like to join in.

Mr. Darwin, Good save.

mrsdarwin said...

And some books I never got, nor don't care if I ever did, like Moby Dick.

Preach it, amigo. I had a college professor who was convinced that Moby Dick was comparable to the Summa Theologica for spiritual depth. I thought he and the book were Looney Tune.

eaucoin said...

Three great books I would recommend are Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, and Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro. There, I'm done. P.S. The youngest of my five daughters turned 20 at Christmas--I sometimes have time to read--your best strategy might be to keep a book in your purse for when you have to wait for someone--I've spent about a third of my life waiting for somebody somewhere. And I will admit that the time is better spent praying (as a mother it's advisable to be proactive rather than reactive). Also of interest, our old neighbours remember that my children were nice, not that the yard was usually a mess.

JMB said...

Thanks Betty, I actually checked you guys out because my book group just finished Donna Tartt's Secret History. I really appreciated your comments about the book. I liked it immensely, but it was way too long and seemed to get lost in the middle. I'm surprised there isn't a screenplay out - I think it would have made a great movie.
Our next book is Lit by Mary Karr.
Have you read it?

BettyDuffy said...

JMB, I wrote down Mary Karr yesterday so that I'd remember that I want to read that very book. How funny. Let me know how you like it.

Eucoin, thanks for the encouragement.

Emily J. said...

Poor Moby Dick. Dear God, please bless Dr. Alvis for sharing his clear-eyed understanding of this book in his captivating Dallas drawl. Amen.

JMB said...

Loved Lit, but then again, I am a sucker for train wreck families, alcoholism and agnostic literary types who convert to Catholicism. She was also a former girlfriend of David Foster Wallace which really piqued my interest. Now I'm interested in reading some Tobias Wolff, who was her RCIA sponser and Godfather.

BettyDuffy said...

I just picked up Tobias Wolff's "This Boys Life" from Goodwill the other day. I too am a sucker for agnostic literary type converts. I'm going to read Lit.

Lucy said...

Moby Dick and all of Hemingway can go in the garbage disposal. What can you expect from a guy who comes from a family of suicides and succombs to it himself. I give him credit for delving deeper than the average joe, trying to find meaning in this seemingly meaningless existence. I'd probably be just like him, (with a much lower IQ) if I hadn't finally discovered that this isn't our home. What a relief! I kept trying to figure this place out, and it doesn't make sense without some understanding of the meaning of suffering. Reading about suffering fools who strive for something on earth which turns out to be so unsatisfactory only led me into further despair. But perhaps it was this despair which made me keep looking for more, until I finally found the truth.

He was probably melancholic, like me. We've seen through everything on earth and we are ready to leave it all for Heaven, now!

My 8th grade summer I checked out all of the classics I had ever heard of and began my quest for superior knowledge and a great tan by reading on a mat in our pool. Foolish me! I have Irish skin with freckles, so all I did was burn, and my abition with self-taught superior knowledge was short lived as reality that I wasn't ready for it sank in.

In my late thirty's I was disgusted with men after finding out that so many, including some of my friends husbands, were addicted to porn. I decided to escape into a big long book and checked out The Brothers K. from the library knowing nothing about it. Needless to say, the book hit the wall within a few chapters!

Alas, I grew up with a thorough knowledge of Gilligan's Island and could tell you about almost every episode. My children, who being homeschooled, had plenty of time to read and no access to television have read so much more than I have. They have a great outlet for a deeper relationships with novels by being involved with a national speech/debate club and view every novel as a possible "winner" next year.

Thanks for your very honest and self-revealing post. I really enjoyed this!

In Christ,