Saturday, February 26, 2011
One of the Vineyard memories that remains crystal clear in my mind is of A and I sitting on the couch. We had already done a scan of the bookshelves in the house, calling out titles that surprised or interested us. “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” was a treasure that I had discovered in the upstairs bedroom; it was one I had always been meaning to read but hadn't yet had the chance. I opened it up, skimmed through the stories and pronounced that I would read aloud “The Old Dictionary.” This seemed like the perfect way to spend part of an afternoon, so we positioned ourselves and began to listen. The story didn't disappoint. The narrator describes the old dictionary and the way that it gets treated, which is reverently and with care. The actions are then compared to the way the son is treated, needless to say there are differences. I remember reading that story, giving substance to the words as I pushed them out of my mouth and into the air between us. There weren't many pages, but for that short time I was enraptured.
We have several dictionaries in our house, many still in use. For some reason, perhaps it's my tendency to preserve the past, I can't pass them by. Scanning the tables at a book sale often turns up several discarded dictionaries that eventually find their way into my car like orphan puppies in need of a new home. Fortunately they do not require feeding or walking, but they do take up shelf space--in our house that's in high demand. When someone needs to define a word, I try to stress the importance of a dictionary. Using one is becoming a lost art. It's become common to look up any word on the computer. An answer always comes back in seconds; no need to fumble with pages or squint to read the print. Yet discovery and serendipity are also lost, being surprised or excited by another word while in pursuit of the first is half the fun.
I often wonder if we're the last family still using these books. Could it be that we're becoming an endangered species? Not only do we look words up, we also read aloud. In fact we often can't help ourselves, if we're reading something humorous, particularly eloquent or feeling rather indignant at an author's point of view, we make the others stop what they are doing and recite aloud for everyone to hear. And, believe it or not, we sometimes read aloud at night. (I know it's shocking what we consider to be entertainment!) All three of us, two dogs and the cat climb under the covers on our little full-sized bed and listen to the evening's chapter. Times like these I think back to the years of oral storytelling and other families sitting around the fire as someone read aloud from the bible. I feel a connection to that tradition and try to do our part to pass it on. To us some books are meant to be passed down from generation to generation. I don't know that anyone would say that about an electronic reader, but I'm hoping years from now a small child will inherit my dictionary and feel a tingle as they run a finger along the pages looking to define a word. Not knowing that with that very act they are in a way defining themselves and they way others see them. I know I want to be seen as someone who preserves and honors traditions; treating my sacred books with reverence and grace, yet putting them to good use.
I've been aware of this word looming large on the bloggy horizon. We have no bibles here. I've never read the bible, though parts have been read to me by earnest young women in cardigans who visit on summer afternoons and manage to not look askance at my skintight, black spaghetti strap tank top and partially - sometimes totally - naked children. I don't know where these women come from; their accents are slight but specific and they smile blissfully in the face of hot dusty roads. When I offer lemonade they graciously decline without giving any sense of misgiving, as if one neighbor over had already plied them with beverage and now they were floating. For us, one neighbor over is half a mile away.
So bibles are foreign to me until I consider them as a book you return to for clues on how to live your life. Turns out, I have plenty of those. Carol Shields – have you read Carol Shields? If not, go do so, I'll wait. U.S.-born, lived in Canada most of her life, raised five children while writing a dozen books and becoming a full professor at a university. Her novels are long stretches of quiet insight after which your life is somehow fuller, and her stories are hushed moments of power that make you rethink, reimagine, redo, refill. William Trevor taught me the best of what I know of writing fiction. Jane Austen, well, she's Jane Austen, who makes me want to sit up straighter. The Things They Carried is the closest I've come to being a soldier, except maybe in my role as a parent. A Wrinkle In Time I have read about every year since I was twelve because it reminds me of contradiction. And possibility. And evil. And good. A few months ago T read it for the first time and I could almost hear his mental geography stretching to encompass Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace, the witches. The pile could tower, the list could go on. All my bibles.