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Your Brain on Books: Books of Another Time

Three children, three literary awakenings

I. The Once and Future Novelist

In my experience of the summer of Love, 40 years ago, 1967, Sergeant Pepper on the airwaves, the scent of cannabis on the wind, sex on the mind, and Nixon on the horizon, I was all of 13 years old. I loitered at the library, babysat my younger siblings, wool-gathered during Mass, all the while unconsciously perfecting the equipoise between innocence and experience, between doomed virtue and emasculating cynicism. And the book that sustained me all summer—for I read slowly, savoring sentences and scenes, rereading for relish before I plunged on—was The Once and Future King, by T.H. White.

I can’t remember how I discovered it. Perhaps I’d come across it accidentally, a result of my nascent interest in Broadway shows. (It was the basis of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, on whose original cast recording Julie Andrews had trilled a crystalline Guinevere.) I was not unfamiliar with the Disney animated feature The Sword in the Stone, though since my parents frowned on popular entertainment I don’t know if I had actually seen it. But I had read just enough C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander and Howard Pyle to have developed a taste for the pennants and pavilions, the quests and the jousts and the magic of Arthurian romance.

Ahead of me were Tennyson, Malory, Chrétien de Troyes. Ahead of me, too, lay a growing dread of Vietnam, the draft, the imperial presidency of Nixon and his necromantic aide-de-camp, Kissinger. Ahead lay a decade of taxing and demoralizing summer jobs. This summer, though, was bliss—was Camelot.

The paperback available in 1967 included four short novels originally published as separate volumes. In the first and best-known section, The Sword in the Stone (1938), the young Wart is taught by Merlyn the magician to revel in nature. Wart is so unaware he will become Arthur, King of Britain, and we are so caught up in his magical education, that the sudden maturation—he pulls Excalibur from the stone in just a few short paragraphs—comes as a shock. Our gawky hero, dignified? As a young reader, I feared that Wart might deteriorate into Stock Hero from that much more interesting puzzle, Quirky Underling. But White allowed him to retain his lovable wartiness: his impatience, his crippling idealism, and (I could hardly believe this, but it seemed to be so, or was it just saying something about me?) his romantic affection for the magnificent Lancelot du Lac.

But it was more than Arthur and Merlyn that I loved. There was a breezy style, erudition without condescension, that made me feel welcomed into a community of readers. I delighted in passages like this one:

It was Christmas night in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage, and all around the castle the snow lay as it ought to lie. It hung heavily on the battlements, like thick icing on a very good cake, and in a few convenient places it modestly turned itself into the clearest of icicles of the greatest possible length. It hung on the boughs of the forest trees in rounded lumps, even better than apple-blossom, and occasionally slid off the roofs of the village when it saw the chance of falling on some amusing character and giving pleasure to all. . . . There was skating on the moat, which roared with the gliding bones which they used for skates, while hot chestnuts and spiced mead were served on the banks to all and sundry. The owls hooted. The cooks put out plenty of crumbs for the small birds. The villagers brought out their red mufflers. Sir Ector’s face shone redder even than these. And reddest of all shone the cottage fires down the main street of an evening, while the winds howled outside and the old English wolves wandered about slavering. . . .

Reading The Once and Future King that valuable summer gave me the first hint of what could be done with familiar material looked at again, as if for the first time. Everyone knew about King Arthur and Merlyn, but here was this affable, erudite writer putting it all down as if it had never happened before, and making it seem both inevitable and surprising, an achievement that has informed my own literary ambition.

When, some 25 years later, I decided to do a similar job—to rewrite The Wizard of Oz as if it hadn’t been told before, and to take another look at the material through the eyes of the ancillary character of the Wicked Witch of the West—I knew very well that T.H. White’s magnum opus was my model. Wicked, like The Once and Future King, is divided into five sections, and the sections roughly conform. In the passage that follows, my own celebration of winter was, really, an homage to White.

One windless day, when it seemed they must get out of Kiamo Ko or expire of boredom, Sarima had the idea that they go skating on a nearby pond. The sisters agreed, and dug out the rusting skates Fiyero had brought back from the Emerald City. The sisters baked caramel sweets and prepared flasks of cocoa . . . and even Elphaba came along, in a thick cloak of purple brocade and heavy Arjiki goatskin boots, and mittens, carrying her broom. . . .

The villagers had cleared the snow off the center of the pond. It was a ballroom dance floor of silver plate, engraved with the flourishes of a thousand arabesques, mounded round with pillows and bolsters of snow to provide a safe repose for skaters who forget how to brake or turn. In the fierce sunlight, the mountains looked razor sharp against the blue; great snowy egrets and ice griffons wheeled high above. The ice rink was already noisy with screaming urchins and lurching adolescents (taking every opportunity to tumble and heap each other cozily in suggestive positions). Their elders moved more slowly, processionally around the ice. The crowd fell silent as the household of Kiamo Ko approached, but, children being children, the silence didn’t last for long.

But in fact there is just a little bit more. When, in Wicked, the reclusive Witch finds the book of magic spells known as the Grimmerie, she asks her hostess, Sarima, where it came from. Sarima replies that one day she was alone in the castle and the bell rang, and she went to answer it.

It was an elderly man in a tunic and leggings, with a cloak badly in need of attention by a seamstress. He said he was a sorcerer, but perhaps he was just mad. He asked for a meal and a bath, which he got, and then he said he wanted to pay by giving me this book. I told him with a castle to run I didn’t have much time for frivolity, reading and such. He said never mind. . . . He said that it was a book of knowledge, and that it belonged in another world, but it wasn’t safe there. So he had brought it here—where it could be hidden and out of harm’s way.

And this, as some readers have guessed, is Merlyn himself. Not quite T.H. White’s Merlyn, but close enough to be identified. The book that comes to be known as the Grimmerie is Merlyn’s Book of Gramarye. I paid my debt to L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, by naming my witch Elphaba, out of his initials—L.F.B.—and I paid my debt to White by recasting his snowy wonderland in Oz and welcoming Merlyn for a guest appearance.

So Wicked, it appears, was conceived 40 summers ago, when I was 13. It no longer seems odd that my novel has inspired a musical drama; after all, so did T.H. White’s novel, his retelling of a magical myth. I can only hope that some 13-year-old might be finding Wicked this summer, and that Elphaba will have a walk-on role in someone else’s novel 40 years hence. That’s immortality. That’s permanent summer. That’s magic.

GREGORY MAGUIRE, G90, is the author of Wicked, the bestselling novel that inspired the hit Broadway musical (now playing also in London and Tokyo). His newest novel for children, What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, will be published in September.

II. The Pleasures of Not Knowing

The summer I learned to read was a hot one, even for Atlanta. I had just turned five, and my friend Dorian and I would sit in her basement, where it was cool, on top of piles of Civil War cannonballs her father collected. (When, much later, we smoked our first cigarettes in the same place, I guess it’s a wonder we didn’t blow sky high.) Dorian was three years older than I was. These were long, lazy days, and sometimes she would bring down books for us to read while we cooled off. Like most small children, I was practiced in “reading”—I could open a book and look at the pictures, trace the text with my finger, turn the pages. That summer, I told Dorian that I wanted to learn how to really read, the way she could. She played patient instructor for a while, but of course grew tired of that. So I decided that this was something I needed to learn on my own, and in a hurry.

Dorian’s family was very literary. Her uncle was the poet James Dickey, and her mother would later become a writer. There were lots of books in her house. In my own house there weren’t many books that weren’t the Bible—and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to read that. What we did have was a pair of black leather-bound volumes with gold script on the spines. They looked important, in pretty much the opposite way than the Bible was important. They seemed illicit, even dangerous. I fell in love with them before I opened them. When I did, they turned out to have elaborate line drawings unevenly filled with color (this was a 1960s edition), and I had no idea what they were drawings of. There was a boy (?) whose head was wrapped in a cloth, as well as women, monkeys, elephants, a cannon, a cow in the middle of a dirt road. I was baffled, enchanted, frightened. And then I looked at the words on the first page:

Chapter 1
O ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgement Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that “fire-breathing dragon,” hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

I cannot say now what I made of any of this. I can say only that I spent hours and days and weeks poring over these words, and by the end of the summer I could read. Or I should say I could read some things, but probably not this (if reading it meant telling anyone what it meant). The only evidence I have of my literacy from that period is that I wrote backwards, as if for a mirror. So maybe the first words of Kipling’s Kim made as much sense backward as forward to me. I don’t know.

And that is what my story is meant to illustrate: the value of not knowing. I want to suggest that this kind of not knowing and the desire and enchantment it entailed are endangered by current educational practices. My students must survive many years of knowing—of performing well on standardized tests, of being assessed from preschool to college—before they earn the pleasures of not knowing. A student once came into my office in tears because a 19th-century poem was “out of context” for him. He simply didn’t understand any of the allusions, or even many of the words. Maybe they all sounded like Zam-Zammah to him. The same student later experienced the relief and liberation of finding out that it was OK to not understand what he was reading—and, once he understood that not understanding was understood, wrote a brilliant thesis on romantic poetry.

Of course, I am not arguing that ignorance in itself is a virtue. If I had never grown up to realize what the guns inside and outside my reading meant, what I had been sitting on in Dorian’s basement, or the symbols of colonial violence in Kipling’s pages, I would not have learned much in the long run. If those exotic words of Kim had remained an Orientalist fantasy, even after I had learned to put them together, they would not have contributed much to my education. But this is not a plea for ignorance. It’s a plea for reclaiming the experience of not knowing. My students have not been allowed to have anything like the experience of literacy—or really, illiteracy—that I’m describing. No Zam-Zammahs for them. Instead, they have been expected to master each letter of the alphabet, each number, each fact. Then their mastery has been measured against the mastery of their peers. The ones who make it into my classes at Tufts are the ones who have won these contests. But what now?

Now I would like to restore to them the same estrangement from expertise I felt when I first tried to read Kim—a taste for the unknown that has informed my interest in literary study. If I understood everything that I read, I wouldn’t be a literature professor. I may never be able to recapture the profound bafflement I must have felt when I opened Kipling’s book by accident, but I seem to have been searching for something like that sensation ever since. It’s not easy to teach the accomplished undergraduate and graduate students in my English classes that I want them to feel confused, but I hope that once in a while they succeed in not knowing what in the world they are reading.

VIRGINIA JACKSON is an associate professor of English at Tufts, where she teaches courses in American literature. Her book, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton University Press, 2005), received the 2006 Christian Gauss Award, given by the Phi Beta Kappa Society for works of literary scholarship and criticism.

III. Googlies and Sticky Wickets

If one sign of an unhappy childhood is too much time spent alone and reading, then mine must have been miserable. Except that it was an extraordinary pleasure. I learned to read at the age of four, and my parents were proud that our local London library lowered the age at which one could join especially to accommodate my appetite. The library had two sections: junior and adult, an oak-beamed threshold between them.

When I was 10, my father gave me a volume of Greek mythology and two small faux-leather-bound books, The Black Tulip, by Alexander Dumas, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes. They were my first crossover books, novels that grown-ups read too. Much later I read Love and Death in the American Novel, in which Leslie Fiedler points out that most of the great 19th-century American novels, including Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, and The Last of the Mohicans, are adventure stories for boys which double as deep ruminations for adults.

Among my prize possessions was a lavishly illustrated edition of Hans Andersen’s Collected Stories (my favorite was “The Tinder Box”—I was pleasurably terrified by the dog who had “eyes as big as saucers”). My uncle, Richard Klein, a biologist, happened to own the second largest collection of Hans Andersen books in the world, and he coveted my edition. My father, generally mild mannered, forced me into a swap for a more valuable but altogether less attractive volume with no pictures. This surrender of illustration was of a piece with my father’s gentle shoves in the direction of “serious” writing.

My father also liked to feed me the junior classics, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives among them, yet my appetite was far stronger for genre novels about English schoolboys who were either badly behaved and always getting into scrapes, or sporting heroes. I couldn’t get enough of Billy Bunter, William Brown, Teddy Lester, Tom Merry, and Jennings and Derbyshire. All these characters appeared in long series, often with 30 or more titles. At the library, I went straight to the shelves that held them, to the long yellow block of Bunter, or the red of William. Close by, at once mysteriously attractive and daunting, was a multivolume series intended for girl readers: The Girls of the Chalet School. I would have loved to know what went on between the covers of those books, but I didn’t dare. What if I met a football teammate on my walk home from the library through Gladstone Park?

The experiences of most of the characters I read about were strikingly different from my own. Bunter, Teddy Lester, Tom Merry, and their respective crews were boarders at well-appointed public (or, in American parlance, private) schools in bucolic country settings with names like Slapton or Greyfriars, each school with its own carefully tended playing fields. There was frequent attendance at chapel, lots of sneaking “out of bounds,” usually for acts of derring-do at the local fairgrounds, and riveting cricket and rugby matches. My own urban Jewish middle-class life was not at all reflected in my reading. Instead of chapel I had Hebrew school three times a week, and my school football (soccer) field in the local park, rough and muddied, sloped at such a precipitous angle that it was impossible to score when playing uphill. We did have a local fair, on Easter weekend at Hampstead Heath. My older brother Stephen (now a psychoanalyst) took me into a tent to see the Rat Woman, a girl in a cage wearing a more or less transparent leotard. She was surrounded by rats and sported a long tail. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and quite different from the inspired boxing match in which Tom Merry had triumphed over a local hard-nut townie in Frank Richards’ novel.

And so what? So what if I loved novels set in places that were alien to me and to whose characters I was unconnected except through empathy? Too often nowadays we try to sculpt children’s reading to fit a program imagined to boost self-esteem: a novel that mirrors a child’s experience is deemed superior to one that doesn’t. Was I damaged in some way because, apart from Bible stories and The Diary of Anne Frank, I never read a piece of literature about a Jewish kid?

When I turned 13, on what seems to me now a kind of literary bar mitzvah, my friend Robert Lipman gave me a copy of J.D. Salinger’s beautiful novel Franny and Zooey. A few months later my brother Stephen handed me Catcher in the Rye and said “read this.” I was on my way into the world of grown-up prose. Not long after, Stephen took a trip to Paris and returned with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was banned in England at the time. I stole the novel from his bookshelf and read it under the covers with a flashlight. That year, 1963, the English courts lifted the ban on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. My father bought a copy and kept it in the blank blue plastic cover that Penguin had provided so no one would know you were reading it on the train. I read it—well, the good bits anyway—when my parents went out. Now I was done with English schoolboys and childhood reading in general, although I’d still like to know what went on at the Chalet School.

In his biography of Sir Isaiah Berlin, Michael Ignatieff reports that when the great philosopher first returned after many decades to Russia, all he wanted to do was sit in a library and peruse books he had read as a child. Early reading stays with us, vivid and bright in the imagination. A couple of years ago, on a whim, I ordered Teddy Lester: Captain of Cricket from an online site in Australia. I had only to read a page for the story to come rushing back. I called my brother in Oxford to quiz him. “Who was Tom Sandys’ little brother?” I asked. “Frank Sandys,” he replied without missing a beat. “He bowled googlies.” (A googly, in cricket, is something like a knuckleball.) You open a book and you step in, and with any luck you don’t come out at all, at least until several thousand books later.

JONATHAN WILSON is a professor of English and director of creative writing at Tufts. He is the author of four works of fiction, including An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble (Pantheon, 2004). His latest book, Marc Chagall, was released by Schocken/Nextbook in March.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155