Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading for Pleasure

I am a voracious reader. For fun, I read novels. Lots and lots of novels. I managed to read quite a lot last summer, when I was studying bookbinding with Don Rash (who is highly recommended). And in the second year of my graduate program, I still managed to churn through a pretty large number of books, even if it was only at night, to escape from stress and make my brain turn off so I could sleep. I was aided and abetted first by downloading the Kindle app for my iPhone, then by my husband's generous end-of-school gift of a full-size Kindle, which has been keeping me company every day on the Metro. Although I don't agree that it somehow magically becomes a book in your hands—the clicking page-forward buttons are somewhat offputting—it does keep me occupied. Even when the air conditioning has failed, as it did yesterday. Ugh.

Lately I've been reading Haven Kimmel's books, and although I'm somewhat ambivalent about them, I can't seem to stop reading. Her latest novel, Iodine, reads like a fever dream, and I loved The Used World. To hear Kimmel tell it, Indiana is full of wasted small towns populated by dysfunctional families and meth freaks, with assorted pointy-headed, emotionally scarred intellectuals thrown in for good measure. The striking contrast between these characters can make for compelling reading, especially when the educated folks manage to maintain empathy for the lost souls struggling around them. However, I lose my patience with some of the religious-studies jargon. In The Solace of Leaving Early, Kimmel writes about Alfred North Whitehead's theology as perceived by preacher Amos Townsend:

"In God's Primordial Nature there exist all the pure possibilities for every moment (every actual occasion, Whitehead would say) of concrescence; in the Consequent Nature is the world as we choose to make it: every actual occasion and every actual entity, every single moment, rendered objectively immortal. Amos still felt a chill when he considered the reach of this idea, and how he felt when he first heard it discussed in seminary."

Unfortunately, I got to the end of that paragraph and said, "Huh?" This is the reason I decided not to pursue a PhD in English Literature. The theory and the jargon were completely unpalatable to me. Eventually, after multiple readings, I think I see where Kimmel is going—and it's even a cool idea—but it's completely obscured by Important Sounding Language. I hate that crap. Plus, I have problems with conceptualizing the nature of God. Any God we can define becomes automatically too small, too limited, too tame. Why define Her mysterious ways? If they can be known at all, we'll know them when we're dead, and not before. All these discussions of free will and predestination seem pointless when you consider that the rules don't change: Love God, love your neighbor. The end. Isn't that hard enough? Do we really need a bunch of inscrutable terminology to complicate matters?

OK, OK. Stepping down off my soapbox. I guess my religious intellect has never progressed beyond the Chronicles of Narnia. Still, I keep reading, even when books annoy me. They're my favorite escape. To track the books I'm reading, visit my book list at Goodreads. I've got a backlog of titles to upload, but I'm working on it. Happy reading!

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I suppose it says something about me that I started this blog almost two years ago, on July 12, 2008, to be exact, and that I have done nothing with it since. Part of it is that my life was swallowed whole, chewed into something unappetizing and slimy, and spit by the roadside by graduate school. Part of it—I remember this clearly—is that I was paralyzed by the thought of beginning. What would I say? How would I describe myself? How could I be charming, witty, amusing? And who would care? Fortunately, after one's life has been fully masticated and digested, one no longer cares whether one is witty or charming. One is merely grateful to have survived. And here we are, dear readers, with a beginning.

Paul wrote, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Co. 13:11). As a child, my imagination was fueled by the writings of Frances Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and Mary Stewart. I lived almost entirely in my mind, whether I was playing with stuffed animals in my bedroom, soaking up the humid green air of Umstead State Park, wrestling with the surf along the Outer Banks, or writing short stories in the V-berth of my parents' sailboat, drenched with sweat beneath the wind scoop.

Creativity seemed to overflow in those days. In the summer of my eleventh year, while my parents conducted research in a ramshackle lab in the national park on Saint John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I began an illustrated novel about a puppy in a medical research facility, wrote plays for crayon-colored paper puppets stuffed with dog fur, and made up long, meandering stories about the royal figures on our deck of dog-eared cards. I also read without ceasing, including the age-inappropriate novels my grandmother had thoughtlessly provided for the trip: Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of Horses, Sophie's Choice. My brother and I spent endless unsupervised hours swimming in Little Lamashur Bay, exploring the donkey trails through the scrub and fruiting cacti, and avoiding the poisonous manchaneel apples and the haunted jumbie tree. Eventually we also avoided Bill, the park caretaker who liked little girls. Ah yes, it was a summer full of novel fodder. And it led me to imagine myself as a writer.

I am working for the summer at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and this week I found a Norman Rockwell postcard of my imaginary self in the museum bookstore. In a dusty attic lit by a narrow window, a young woman in nineteenth-century clothing scribbles furiously on the pile of papers in her lap. More papers are stacked around her feet, which are propped on a picturesque wooden trunk. Two rats look on approvingly from the beam overhead. Yes, I was going to be a Writer in a Garret, a Rapunzel of words. I felt this so strongly that when an interest survey in high school said I would make a good book restorer, I reacted with indignation and kept on scribbling.

I found, however, that my perfectionism stands in the way of my novel-writing. I have written reams of material for the same novel over the past sixteen years, and I don't think I have ever progressed beyond halfway. The story morphs and changes as I age and learn and grow, but it never really progresses. I edit and re-edit what I have, try to work out the intricacies of plot, fall in and out of love with my characters. But unlike my more successful novelist friends, I am not driven to complete the thing. I don't sit down every evening to chip out another page or two. I just munch the first chapter over and over, like cud. I've never been able to embrace Anne Lamott's concept of the "sh*tty rough draft." Alas.

And so I find myself, at 37, embarking on a new career in which hand skills, logical thinking, and creative problem-solving outweigh the need for a million-dollar vocabulary. After three years of post-baccalaureate education in English Renaissance literature and creative writing, and seven years of working as a writer and editor, I went back to school for two years of prerequisite courses in general and organic chemistry, studio art, and art history. I then entered the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and studied book conservation. (Remember that high-school interest survey? Somewhere God is laughing.) Now I'm in my third year of that program, interning in paper conservation at the National Portrait Gallery, then in book conservation at the New York Public Library and the Walters Art Museum.

This week I reduced the ink staining on a print of James Monroe, our fifth president, using deionized water and a suction disk. Afterwards, I gave Mr. Monroe a bath. He suffered from foxing, brown discoloration, and tidelines. (Readers, take note: use UV filtered glass to protect your valuable prints and drawings. And for goodness' sake don't store them in attics or basements or squeeze them into frames that are too small.) In addition to cleaning Mr. Monroe, I removed some vile pressure-sensitive tape hinges from two other prints. I also learned to made and attach standard Japanese paper hinges for mounting and to cut window mats. But here's the really cool part about interning at the Smithsonian: I got to inspect Thomas Jefferson's Jesus scrapbook (his clippings from Greek, Latin, French, and English Bibles describing the moral life of Christ, sans miracles, all pasted into a stubbed blank book); a heartrending slave manifesto from a ship departing Alexandria, with slaves as young as 7 months; and the original Oscar the Grouch puppet, whose polyurethane foam stuffing is disintegrating.

Where will I go from here? Have I given up childish ways? In many ways, I hope not. As I told a friend recently, I'm still looking for the secret doors and windows of the world, the gates that open onto beauty and eternity. I love it when the veils fall away, the mists clear, and I'm confronted with the ineffable. Joy can stun me to tears. Today: sun on the wildflowers in my garden, the taste of my husband's home-brewed summer ale on my tongue, these words.