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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Writing about books by a non English major

by Jamie Lutton

I have wanted to write a book on books, and have tried to start out many times to do so, but I was intimated by my lack of credentials. I was not an English major in college; and I never had very many writing classes. My main credential is that I sell books to the public, and have for nearly 30 years. I also read thousands of books in many subjects, I can read very fast, and I remember and am enthusiastic about what I like.

Books helped me survive being insane.  I was certifiable for years and years.  I had the misfortune to have early-onset manic depression, and to also have alcoholic parents who had many problems that they did not hesitate to have their children listen to. My school years were terrifying, and my home life was just as terrifying, but in a different way. This was long before there were decent drugs for what I had, and at any rate, there was no place for me to go, but to endure my home life.

It is very like a prison sentence in a madhouse, to be in the home with parents like mine.  My mother got wrecked nearly every night, then loud, then sometimes demanded my presence to hear about how awful her life was -- for hours.  But this was the same mother who encouraged my reading at age four, never took a book away from me, and in fact got books for me all the time. My father read to me constantly, as well.  Mother was a childrens librarian and Dad was a scientist.   For a couple that met as teenagers, and who had so much in common, their marriage was singularly unhappy and emotionally violent, though my mother did make it clear that after I was out of the house, they were much happier, got to travel to Europe and elsewhere, and got along much better.

So I escaped my peers, and my parents, by reading. I read everything I could get my hands on; anything lying about. The bliss of this is not conveyable. I could not hear the outside world, and the type on the page came to life for me.  I could see what the author was telling me clearly in word pictures.  I could shut my miserable life out.

My first adult nonfiction book was Why Children Fail by John Holt; which I read in fourth grade as they were expelling me for bad behavior. That is one brillaint book;  I could not put it down. I can still see passages from it, though I have not touched that book in 25 years.  He caught the essence of what children go though when they are terrified of what they are studying because it has not been properly explained to them. When they are banging their heads against a subject -- in this case, math or handwriting -- and every attempt they make is worse than the one before.

Boy, I knew how those kids in Why Children Fail felt. There was one passage where he described a mentally handicapped girl trained to act like a normal girl, and the strain the child was under, to "pass", to please her parents.  I knew that strain, too. The emotions that drove me made me miserable. I was never allowed to notice or talk about my mother's behavior, and I was thought to be "good" if I had a book in hand, and my head down, and I was reading.

I got to meet the Holt when  I was in fifth grade; I bet he never knew how demented my mother really was; when I gave him my copy of Why Children Fail to sign when I went with her to meet him. I ended up reading all of his books I could find that year.  That is when I got my thirst for nonfiction and psychology.

I began to crank through the books.  At first it was just this and that; my mother being a children's librarian I read all the best children's books. Then I discovered science fiction, and I was lost.  I stopped reading much else. (though I still read anything I could get my hands on) I cranked through two books a day, if I could get them, and reread favorites when I could not.  All my allowance went for science fiction books.  I survived my mother leaving my dad for nearly a year to do graduate work (and dad falling apart), going to day Juvenile Hall for 18 months when I was expelled again in ninth grade, where they finally pried the Science Fiction out of my hands and said I had to do my schoolwork.

I had had done very little school work all those years.  I had a very patient counselor say that I had to do this, or I would never get out of high school, which I wanted to do to go to college, which he presented as some sort of paradise.  He made gestures against a brick wall, saying that I had to do this, and this, before I could get to this.

The best part about college seemed to be that I could get away from my mother's scenes when she drank, and the infernal loud, bleary noises she would make.  My counselor also assigned a little volume of collected verse for me to write papers about; which did get my attention (though I still resented having to do anything but read).

I am not being quite fair to the parents; while mother was sober she was pretty darn good. She used to hold me and hum at me, like I was  a much younger child than  I was.  She could make me laugh, she talked to me about poetry and books, and she was on my side. So was dad.  Even though I kept being expelled from school, they did not let the powers that be take me away and lock me up, which had actually been discussed.

I got to stay home, and get enough background experience that I could critique Tennessee Williams plays when I saw them as an insider (joke.) And, so, they talked and talked to their problem child, about poetry and books, which is what they talked to each other about, to keep from fighting with each other.

And a great deal of that took.  In fact, when daddy died a few months ago (mother had died last year) all the kids, all five of us, were together to divide up his stuff (I am the baby of the family) and I realized that I was the only one of the kids who liked poetry the way the parents did.

I held these two translations of Constantine Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, and was showing my siblings that the books they were in were marked with mother's particular bookmark, and isn't this a great poem, anyway.

The blank look I got is why I want to write a book on books.  That, and my brother Robb said point blank that he hated poetry, and that he thought of mother as little as possible. I realized that my siblings know almost nothing about poetry; and that had been one of the parents' passions, and that is a damn shame. Mother's drunkenness living after her, but not her and daddy's love for poetry and books of all kinds.
This is the paradox.  They were incredibly difficult parents. Mother, for being a wild drunkard, and daddy for not shielding us or stopping her.  But, I grew up in this really difficult household and emerged very well read, and with some discrimination, or at least a taste for serious books.  Also, I have been working on my compassion for others, though that is coming more slowly than the knowledge of books. Having a  drunkard for a mother taught me to be selfish; I want to give, now. Forty years or reading, to either hide from people, or to drown my sorrows from my isolation from people, must have some meaning than just a bunch of memories, and being better at my job than I would have been. .

The books, history, plays and poetry mother and dad loved are worth passing on.

So here it is; I begin at the beginning.  I will cover the world; all the subjects I have read in, and my favorite books from those subjects.  This book will cover mostly nonfiction; I will not linger too long in the genre fictions like science fiction and mysteries, as others have done this.  I want to cover the great psychology, paleontology, math, history, plays, poetry, sociology, etc, that I can recall and tell you about.

My lonely and miserable childhood and adulthood will be put to good use. Like the Cecil B. DeMille movie character who said that "the slaves bones,  body and blood will make good mortar for the blocks of stones for the pyramids," so will my life aid me in writing a  decent book on books to read.
Like  I tell my customers: "come; let me find you a book. I know where the bodies are buried."

I hope that my writing will improve as I go.  The first section will be the Ancient Greeks, and the first 'book' will be the play The Medea by Euripides.  I hope to cover at least 500 books; preferably 1000.

Watch this space.

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