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Reading through shelter-in-place


I can’t remember a time when I didn’t long to write. At the age of four, I’d sit at my mother’s vanity table with some good books from her library—leather-bound works of Balzac or Shakespeare—and ruin their flyleafs with a pencil, making repeated curlicuing loops, as I pretended to write cursively. I must have known in my mind what the words were, although at this point, that memory is gone. But my mother certainly gave me a role model for reading. Night after night, when dinner was done and the dishes washed and dried, she’d retire to the living room, to “her” chair, a green velvet overstuffed monstrosity of the kind even then called Haut Bronx, and read the rest of the night away.

Her books were fictional mysteries and romances, so unlike my own preference for history, science and memoir. My sister, who hated my mother, criticized Gertrude’s reading habits as escapism: from an unhappy marriage, from a limited life cooped up in a drab apartment, from the resentment of her children. (I did not resent her, but my sister did, and often projected her own mental state onto others.) Maybe that is why Gertrude read, but then, books are “portable magic,” in Stephen King’s words, and Gertrude was not the first to transport herself to other places through a good book.

I myself learned to read at a very early age, and once my teachers taught me how to write, I was off to the races: poetry, mainly. By eight I’d been exposed to Amy Dickinson, Whitman, e.e. cummings and the obligatory Poe. None of my work survives from that ancient time, but I do remember a ditty composed to a goldfish that swam, limitedly, in a bowl on our kitchen counter. The fish clearly did not realize it was confined to a prison. Yet so was I (as are we all), and that was the poem’s point. It was a nice juvenile effort to place myself in the consciousness of another being, the sine qua non of good writing.

I generally read three books at a time, one in my bedroom, one in the john and one at table. My bedroom book now is Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest, a little—well, a lot name-droppy (Tennessee Williams and Harry Truman on page 2, Jack Kennedy and Susan Sarandon on page 3). But few other books make me burst out laughing. The bathroom book is William D. Hassett’s (he was a sort of personal aide to the second Roosevelt) Off the Record with F.D.R., 1942-1945, a fascinating, gossipy if discrete account of Roosevelt’s private wartime hours, chiefly at Hyde Park. Almost all of his visitors, to hear Hassett tell it, were deposed or exiled European royalty, especially Crown Princess Martha of Norway. In Palimpsest Vidal implies a romantic relationship between Martha and F.D.R., although to be fair, Vidal loved that kind of insinuating tattle, and Hassett’s repeated description of Martha as always arriving with her children and royal entourage, with Eleanor fussing over them, would suggest no extra-marital intimacy. But who knows? In those days, aristocracy had its arrangements, and while reporters were just as snoopy as they are today, they were reliably reticent to write about the private lives of politicians. Besides, wartime censorship laws, of a kind that would be deemed unconstitutional today, prohibited journalists from publishing what F.D.R. aides like Hassett told them not to; and Hassett, if he knew his boss was fooling around with Martha (and if F.D.R. was, Hassett knew), certainly would have quashed it.

My dining table book is Emile Peynaud’s the Taste of Wine. All three are re-reads. Any book worth reading once is worth reading again. But also, in my dotage I find myself liking the comfortably familiar, which is why I still like, say, Magical Mystery Tour (so underrated a Beatles album). Incidentally, the American release of MMT does not contain two of the greatest Beatles songs ever, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, while the British release does. I remain dumbfounded how impactful The Beatles remain after all these decades. Beethoven, Bach…and The Beatles? I wouldn’t be surprised if musicologists of the future mention them non-ironically in the same breath, although I’d be surprised if I were still here to read it.

My book collection is not large, maybe a thousand volumes. I’ve slowly been getting rid of the ones I no longer care about. We have, in my neighborhood, a metal box, about 2’ x 2’, in which people drop off reading materials for their neighbors, a sort of lending library co-op. But with shelter-in-place, it hasn’t seen much activity lately, as people are rightfully concerned with riffling through stuff that strangers have touched. I wish there were some way to ensure that my best books—the wine collection and my World War II volumes—remain intact after my demise, and end up with people who will love them as much as I have. But then, I have to remind myself that once I’m gone, all my worldly cares will disappear. Will it really matter who gets my first edition of Notes on a Cellar-Book?

Current fear: my eyes are going. Yes, the ophthalmologist at Kaiser tells me I have cataracts, a fellow traveler to old age’s other insults. The right eye cannot read anymore; the left isn’t far behind. This is alarming for someone who loves reading and whose reading, under shelter-in-place, decidedly is more escapist these days, when there’s little else to do. The problem is that Kaiser has ended all elective surgery, and so the ophthalmologist tells me I might not be able to be treated until late summer, by which time my reading vision will be gone. I have complained mightily to Kaiser’s customer service people or, as they call themselves in bureaucratese newspeak, “Expedited Review Operations.” Cataract surgery may be elective to Kaiser, but blindness is not elective to me. The squeaky wheel might be working; now they tell me they may be able to arrange something. We’ll see, but I read an article that the surge in coronavirus cases that necessitated a halt to routine surgery will likely result in a second surge of elective surgeries this summer, which will come just in time for an expected third surge, of COVID-19 cases, this Fall. Surge gridlock! As Roseann Rosannadanna said, it’s always something.

At any rate, my heart goes out to my Governor, Gavin Newsom, who is caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea, or is it a rock and a hard place? Does he wait to re-open until the epidemiologists say it’s safe, or does he kowtow to growing public pressure to get back to normal? He’s a politician, after all, and wants to be re-elected; the last thing he needs is for growing numbers of voters, especially younger ones, to turn on him for preventing them from playing volleyball at Laguna Beach and drinking mimosas or whatever young people drink these days at the local pub. The tension is palpable, the issue authentically complicated. I want California to re-open as much as anyone. But I wish the re-open demonstrators would stick to that one issue, instead of parading around in MAGA hats and Trump2020 shirts. If they’re for him, then I’m against them.

  1. Nancy W. Brown says:

    Your comments about the Beatles reminded me of a UCLA Extension music class I took eons ago. The professor (who is a household name in academia and certain elements of classical music followers today) said he always wanted to teach a class where the only composers he would concentrate on were those who moved the form in a new direction. That meant Beethoven would be part of the curriculum but Mozart wouldn’t. He also said something to the effect that he would cover the Beatles but not the Stones. I though it was an interesting concept back then and I’d still love to take a class about that today. You’re right: Bach, Beethoven and yes, the Beatles.

  2. Yes, I agree. 500 years from now they’ll be talking about the The Beatles (if they’re talking about anything at all!).

  3. “ in my dotage”. I love this! (And you)

  4. Thank you Kathi! Back at ya.

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