Monday, October 3, 2011

I Didn't Like It, But I Liked This

As soon as I spotted The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford in the paper catalog provided by Slightly Foxed (, a quarterly periodical devoted to the pleasures of reading and the vast discoveries that come with it (It came with my order of the current issue and the second issue of its existence), I ordered it. I wanted to read about the journey of Spufford's childhood reading, what he found, what he latched onto, what nourished him, what made him curious about all kinds of things in the world. I might have gotten that if I decided to read past page 50, or I might have not, because skimming through the rest, being that I didn't want to read the rest, I found more of Spufford tangling with research he had done on the word formations of very young children, how they don't associate words with certain meanings right away, a gradual process. For many, many pages in the first chapter, he spent so much time with others, analyzing their works that explained all that, that I was waiting and waiting for him to get back to himself, to tell me more of becoming a reader. When I'm flipping the pages of the second chapter to see how far along I have until the third chapter, when there seemed to be more promise of what I was looking for, what the book seemed to have predicated itself on, that's an iffy sign.

In the car on the way to Woodland Hills today, I decided I had had enough of trying to get to what made me want to read Spufford's book, and switched to that second issue of Slightly Foxed, summer 2004. But one passage in Spufford's book remained in my mind:

"I'm thirty-two years old as I do my little performance in the bookshop, which means I've been reading for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years since the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon. Twenty-six years therefore since the primary discovery that the dragon remained internal to me. Inside my head, Smaug hurtled, lava gold, scaly green. And nothing showed. Wars, jokes, torrents of faces would fill me from other books, as I read on, and none of that would show either. It made a kind of intangible shoplifting possible, I realized when I was eleven or so. If your memory was OK you could descend on a bookshop--a big enough one so that the staff wouldn't hassle a browser--and steal the contents of books by reading them. I drank down 1984 while lotering in the O section of the giant Heffers store in Cambridge. When I was full I carried the slopping vessel of my attention carefully out of the shop. Nobody at the cash desks could tell that I now contained Winston Smith's telescreen chanting its victories, O'Brien's voice admitting that the Thought Police got him a long time ago. It took me three successive Saturdays to steal the whole novel. But I have not ceased to be amazed at the invisibility I depend on. Other people can't see what so permeates me, I accept that, but why can't they? It fills me. The imbalance between what's felt and what shows means I carry the sensory load of fiction like a secret. Perhaps like all secrets it leaks in the end, but while I'm still freshly distended with my cargo of images, while I'm a fish tank with a new shoal in me, with one aspect of myself I enjoy the power of being different behind my unbetraying face."

I've done what Spufford did. Mom generally spends enough time in Target that back in June, I spotted Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain in the books section. I read an excerpt of Kitchen Confidential back in March in Best Food Writing 2000, edited by Holly Hughes, and felt like I had been violently shaken and slapped around, and I wanted more. I was hooked on Bourdain after that, picked up Medium Raw, and began reading it as we walked through that Target. On the next visit to Target, not long after, I got to within 30 pages toward the end. I decided not to finish it, hold it until the next time, since Mom and Meridith were done looking around, and I didn't want them to wait any longer. Bad timing, because the next time we were at Target, it wasn't there anymore. And not the time after that either. I was ticked because I had only those 30 pages left in that wonderful trip through Bourdain's experiences. I was entranced by his profile of the fish-portioner at Le Bernardin, who receives the fish that's going to be used in the kitchen and portions it out for cooking, in a room all his own with a metal table and equipment all his own. The touching climax comes when Bourdain invites the man to eat in the restaurant he's only served from his place below.

I doubt Medium Raw will reappear in Target, but on the off-chance that we go to Barnes & Noble again for whatever reason (and dammit, I should have thought of it when we went a few weeks ago!), I'll find it and finish reading it there. Or I'll wait until we arrive in Henderson and I get my Henderson and Clark County library cards.

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