by Lisa Rivero
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” ~ William Faulkner
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]
Like almost all writers, I cannot remember a time when books and stories weren’t a big part of who I am, of life itself. Some of my earliest infatuations were with titles as varied as the Little House books, the Hardy Boys series, Heidi, and anything by Stephen King. I read in my bedroom, outside on our farm, in the car, late at night under the covers with a flashlight, anywhere and everywhere I could. Keep in mind that on the edge of the Badlands, where I grew up, books were not always easy to come by. Thirty miles from the nearest library and hours from a book store, I received most of my reading through Scholastic book orders and weekly visits from the county’s bookmobile, a van that served as a kind of roving library for rural school children. (Years later, when I had my own child who loved to read, I was giddy every time I walked into the Milwaukee County Central Library with its spacious children’s room and row after row of every kind of book imaginable. Who could have known that such marvelous places existed?)
Frank and Joe Hardy, Laura Ingalls, Jo March, and Heidi’s grandfather may have been my girlhood crushes, but none was my first real book love. Not until I was a freshman in high school did I know what it’s like to lose myself completely in a narrative, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. For that I have to thank William Faulkner and my high school freshman English teacher, Mr. Maher.
It was not love at first sight. The other students had their choice of two or three novels—I don’t remember what they were—but Mr. Maher, a bright-eyed Texas native in his first year at our school, took me aside and said he had a different book he wanted me to read: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. I had never heard of William Faulkner, but I was willing to give it a try. The paperback felt thin enough. How hard could it be?
As I Lay Dying, set in Mississippi and told from not one or two but fifteen points of view, is the story of the death and burial of Addie Bundren. The book begins clearly enough:
“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head about my own.”
As the chapters continue, however, each titled simply with the name of the corresponding viewpoint character, the voices and perspectives become more complex, the relationships and motivations more tangled.
“I would let him come in between me and Lafe, like Darl came in between me and Lafe, and so Lafe is alone too. He is Lafe and I am Dewey Dell, and when mother died I had to go beyond and outside of me and Lafe and Darl to grieve because he could do so much for me and he dont know it.”
Faulkner’s use of dialect and stream of consciousness were new to me, the depth of religious symbolism was beyond anything I had learned in summer Catechism, and I was taken aback by the colorful language that made me blush and fear my parents would ban the book, should they be curious enough to open it. By the time I finished, I was not only confused; I was convinced that I “hated” As I Lay Dying, and I told Mr. Maher as much. What kind of author writes a one-sentence chapter: “My mother is a fish”?
Being the excellent teacher he was, Mr. Maher didn’t blink. He told me to read the book again (and again, if I needed to) and offered some guidance for what to look for, what questions I might ask.
This was 1979. There was no Wikipedia to turn to for a quick plot synopsis or background information, no works of literary criticism readily available to serve as analytical training. As I wrestled with the story and the style and the characters, by turns arguing with the words and listening to them, I did so on my own, page by page, chapter by chapter, and that, I’m convinced, made all the difference. For you see, during one of those re-readings, familiarity bred a kind of understanding possible only when I could place the various parts in the context of the whole, in the same way that we may not be able to appreciate or enjoy a piece of classical music until we have heard it several times and know how the current melody leads into what comes next and builds upon what came before.
The essay I eventually wrote focused on the relationship between Addie and her illegitimate son, Jewel. I don’t remember exactly what points I made, and I’m sure they were rudimentary at best, but they were hard won, and Mr. Maher made me feel as though I was the first person ever to have discovered them.
As I Lay Dying marked my coming of age in terms of reading, when I realized that we can have deep, sustaining relationships with books, relationships that require effort and that grow with time, relationships that both challenge and change us and that often haunt us for decades. It’s why when I’ve led book discussions for children and teens, I never mind if they complain about “not liking” a book worth reading, or even hating it. That doesn’t matter, and I’m not really interested. They might like it later, or they might not, and the books they “hate” are usually the ones they talk about the most. What matters is whether they come away from a work still thinking about—even obsessed by it—regardless of whether they would deem is worthy of a Facebook like. Only then have their minds and hearts been involved in a new relationship, not just with words or an author, but with life.
And life, as we all know, is delightfully complicated.
When she’s not falling in love with books, Lisa Rivero is a writer and an adjunct associate professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Her website is http://lisarivero.com, and you can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.