Banned Book #18

IN HONOR of Banned Book Week (September 26 – October 3), I wanted to post one of the books on the list that was significant to me. Sadly, there are several, but this one arrived (as it did for so many young people) at a significant time in my life. I was in an English class that was more like bedlam. The teacher had no control of the room or of his own destiny so it seemed. He passed this book out and gave us a week to read it. I pounced on it. The voice, the descriptions, the pathos. Holden’s use of “crumby” and “phony” all these years later still pings in my head as if I *heard* him speak those words. At any rate, I read the book in an evening. The next day in class we were to discuss the first couple of chapters. Someone, one of the surfers or the stoners or ??? made some lewd comment and the teacher puffed up into a hissy-fit and began collecting the books. “You all are too immature for this book!” Back into the cardboard box they went, and we were back to the moldy-smelling reader. Now I think, how terrible it was that he allowed one or two to ruin that experience for 25 others. I know he was at his wits’ end. I understand it even more now. But this book opened a door to something for me not just as a reader, but I know, as a writer. It arrived at the same time as a few other important titles did — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and of course, even more so, The Crack Up. I would spend a great deal of the rest of the semester sitting on the broken-down sofa reading my assignments but also Cream and Rolling Stone magazines — not just for the music features, but the other journalism — long-form narratives, essays and the like –the latter in particular. I was learning about how stories were put together — in so many different ways. Holden Caulfield’s voice was a “source” — in the many meanings of the word. Once I’d held the vibrancy in my hands, there was no capping it.

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7 thoughts on “Banned Book #18

  1. can say that again! you take me back to a time when I had an even harder time telling the literary voices that got inside my head from my own (and I’m more than interested in how, exactly, you do that or if it’s even really a question): I read Catcher, ‘ran away’ from home–under the assumed name of Helen Caulfield–lugging a suitcase stuffed with pink sponge rollers and Ray Charles LPs—not a little anxious that such a transparent alias would stop me at the border. But I guess Salinger hadn’t made it onto their book lists yet. (from the files of life’s more cringing experiences).
    I’m also with you 100% on the door-opening shift from reading-for-‘content’ to reading-for-craft-too. Earlier this year, I decided to have a go at blogging my Ph.D on race and ideology, history and memory. After all, I taught myself to write academese so why not the vernacular? wow. talk about door-opening! I could spend the rest of my life pouring over an ever-expanding list of favourite writers, working out how, exactly, they achieve that cadence, that zing, that roll-off-your-tongue momentum, that unsentimental tug at the heartstrings, that grounded in concrete clarity. and so on. Your blog’s on the top 10 list and on every front. So here’s where I need to come clean and tell you I’m worried about attribution. I’m worried that bits of my first post, which has been waiting in the wings for far too long, are too derivative. Not because I yearn for originality or for my ‘own’ voice—I have something to say and I want to get it out there in the most effective way possible. Even if no one ever reads it. The question that nags me is when does inspiration become theft. I will of course acknowledge your work and link to your site. But from what you’ve blogged about writers, writing, influence, I’d guess you might at some time have been plagued by such thoughts as well. Would love to read what you have to say on this topic. p.s. Yikes– just read ‘Ventriloquism: The Highest Form of Compliment?’. Ok, so Sabrina (et. al) would be one touchstone. Though even that gets a little complicated, notwithstanding the fingernail/chalkboard persona.

    • it’s so true! especially when you are starting as a writer. and it doesn’t end, i think. we just become more aware that it *might* be happening. sometimes i spend weeks reading just one writer — i didn’t want to be interrupted, those cadences were *really* important; i liked the continuity, it was comforting. i knew it would be too jarring to switch off. also, i’m aware that it had to have affected how i would lay words down on the page. there is something incantatory about living in a writer’s head as you’re reading — they are living in yours. i love those details about “Helen Caulfield” and pink sponge rollers and the Ray Charles, LPs. You’ll have to use it somewhere in a piece at some point. These are the details that make something indelible. Your PhD work — race and ideology, history and memory — sounds really fascinating. I would love to know more about it/your work.

      thank you for your very kind words. i really appreciate it. It’s so interesting that you raise this “the question that nags me is when does inspiration become theft”. I’m teaching journalism this semester and we are in the section of the class where we are discussing precisely this. In fact, I just walked across campus talking to one of my students about where the line is — Ideas are free-floating. the ones that resonate with us and spark something — a new turn, wrinkle, a new POV, expanding the idea. i always attribute — or try my best to. but those ideas/thoughts floating around us are the root of inspiration. we just connect the next dot. I would love to see your blog — when you’re ready to unveil it to the world.

  2. Immersive, comforting, ‘incantatory’, yes, yes, yes! The thrill of falling upon an author who fits you with a new pair of glasses. Sometimes out of the blue—like a blind date, other times like an old acquaintance who suddenly reveals a different face. John Berger (from The Shape of a Pocket to A-X) springs to mind, what he says about the face-finding quest of the best artists speaks to what writing’s all about too. And I remember when my everything was Easy Rawlins till I had consumed the whole list as it then was. And even now, umpteen readings later, I still reach for one when all else fails. ‘Incantatory’ speaks to the whole gambit—less grasping than ‘possession’ and perhaps incantatory is to inspiration as ventriloquism is to theft. It also also resonates for me thinking of writers I yearn to understand but don’t quite get, the spell cast by their words that keeps me coming back…each time a little more. Like Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Storyteller’ which I read anew every 6 months. It now strikes me that one thing these writers have in common is their contestation of the genre borders that I believe are one of the most pernicious cultural artifacts of our time. Another reason that your own genre-busting work is such a beacon.
    As for Signifying Bodies (short title of my work), dictated by life-changing experiences in the 1960s, it started, rather arbitrarily, with the ambition of worming out alliances between Mary Wollstonecraft and Olaudah Equiano. But before getting there I was swept away on an all together different course that propelled me further back …from Herododus, thru 16th century ‘voyage writings’ on West Africa, to Aphra Behn’s Oornoko ultimately throwing up two questions. The first one, being in the order of the Emperor’s New Clothes, is a question that for me (and here I’m paraphrasing Barbara Johnson) ‘begs an explanation of how the apparently inescapable is so apparently escaped’. So quoting myself here: how did ‘race’–an ideologically structured perception of human difference, a concept that solidified as a principle of political organization in the late eighteenth century–succeed in biologizing its authority? How, exactly, did a political ideology managed to transpose itself so materially into the visible? By what medium did we come to believe in the materiality of ‘race’? to ‘see’ ‘race’ ‘with our own eyes?. I didn’t even get to Equiano until after the dissertation had been done and dusted. But he has opened a whole new kettle of very slippery fish in realm of history and memory that I can’t yet formulate in a couple of lines. (Wollstonecraft has long since been left to the able hands of others.)
    Trying to re-write this stuff in short readable blogs and in a different language is an unnerving experience: inching along at a snail’s pace while rocketing through space on an emotional roller coaster. One day exhilaration, the next throat-slitting frustration. So thank-you for your generous response (though I ask myself—does this woman ever sleep?). It was just the timely nudge I needed to stop dithering, hold my nose and plunge. I’m now hacking a path through the new tech thicket of virtual editors, posts vs pages, widgets, forums, WP for Dummies, —trying to get it up. I would love you to read at least my first post, my first attempt to connect the next dot out here in the blogosphere. p.s. I used to teach too—and the questions that flit up!…has to be the best.

  3. I love how you put this:
    “old acquaintance who suddenly reveals a different face.” it’s true. if we’re lucky enough we do get to know writers in stages, through periods, like friends. we go on their “discoveries” with them — to the edges.

    and this: “By what medium did we come to believe in the materiality of ‘race’? to ‘see’ ‘race’ ‘with our own eyes?.” I was just talking to a friend the other day about hierarchies/categories we construct and we were postulating that absent of one we’d create another and i wondered what would replace “race”? and all the others…

    blogging. i resisted at first. as reporters we had begun to post shorter items that were in some way related to the stories we were writing. maybe it was something that we couldn’t fit into the story because of space restraints. other times it was some back story about the story — some lingering impression. and most other times it was simply a brief observation and tiny bit of a story that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. it was the latter that most interested me. when it came time to create my own i wanted the space to feel like someone had dropped by my desk to chat. and so . . .

    the tech stuff took a bit to wrangle at first (I’d started with typepad, then blogger, and through the suggestion of a couple graphic designer friends of mine, settled on wordpress, because it gave me more flexibility. (I do like tumblr too) — playing with it as sort of a “daybook”. it’s been a good exercise on so many fronts…really, a journey in the best possible way…
    let me know when you’re ready for a set of eyes.

  4. ‘Hierarchies/categories’. boy, you do raise the big questions. They MAY be in our nature—after all, simply as creatures living in the world we need some way of ordering the stimuli rushing in from various quarters. But are the power hierarchies that we (as a culture) construct to divide ourselves inevitable? I really believe in my bones that, at worst, the jury’s out on that one. I find hope in the fact that there have always been resisters contesting the categories of their day And in the fact that we have moved some distance from, say, the great-chain-of-being belief that social hierarchy is an ‘in the blood’ given: signed, sealed,delivered—straight from God. Your ‘Memory Hole’ post today is uncannily (writ large) relevant to the conversation happening over here on ‘Banned Books’. I’m with Orwell: ‘The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is …to keep the structure of society in tact,” with the proviso that we are not simply victims but also, however unwittingly, complicit. (Hummm, I guess that’s what 1984 is all about—I’ll have to re-read it.) Accomplices, partly thanks to the ‘diet of distraction and obfuscation’ we live on—so visible in those heart-wrenchingly frustrating student essays I read when I was teaching. But the complicity of language—its nature and its power as the foundational ordering system we live by—is the question that has seized me in the quest for ‘how politics biologises it’s authority’. I am chomping at the bit to expand on that, launching out from your comments on language an rhetoric. But I will leave it for now or next thing you know I’ll be homesteading on ’native-to-the-place’.

    A word though on collaboration. Leaving aside easy cases, insight into unwitting collusion, our own or others’, seems to happen after-the-fact: we cannot know in advance or even at the time, when we get it wrong—all we can do is read closely and learn, groping for the next dot of a “‘new to-be’” I love how you treat this problem —Salter is one good example: critique? absolutely!; out-of-hand condemnation of a life’s work? no. I’m also looking forward to reading Randy Kennedy’s piece on Ernest Withers. But I do know that, whatever his position, the ‘I am a man’ photo ignites hope and its example of dignity at the furtherest extreme-will continue to haunt and inspire me until the day I die.

    Blogging—That ‘lingering impression’ those ‘brief observations’ and that ‘tiny bit of the story that wouldn’t fit anywhere else’ —these are what interest me most too. Sometimes you can only glimpse them from the corner of your eye, nagging little strays. Dedicating a blog to this ‘marginalia’ was a brainstorm! A great gift for your readers and for me this blog is a commemorative archive of all sorts of people, places and events, many of them new to me. And I’d bet that as you look over these pieces you glimpse shapes of the work to come.

    I’ve gone for WordPress, plugging away on ‘my experimental’ lorem ipsum blog. Also re-writing part 2, the hardest bit of first post which now seems to lurch between thicket and polemic. But I already feel that I’ve hit the road on the most exciting journey yet. As for another pair of eyes, I’d love you to read part 1 of post 1 but at around 600 words think it’s something of an imposition. Specially in marking season!

  5. Sorry for my slow reply…I’m just turning the corner on the homestretch of the semester and it’s been a bit intense — plus a couple of deadlines hovering. How has your experimenting been going? Are you finding your way toward a voice, tone, POV that’s feeling somewhat comfortable?

  6. Not at all! believe me, I know just how intense end-of-term is, not to mention having other deadlines as well!

    The experiment proceeds… if not exactly apace. I had started with chaotic soul (even before I fell onto your blog) just because it feels right, but then thought I needed a more complicated structure to accommodate moderator’s suggestions so– started exploring other themes, html..and, not surprisingly as the only person I know who actually went to Helvetica-the-movie, whirred around for awhile in the typography vortex. Now feeling confident enough to reject most of that and get back to square one. It’s all been worth it though in helping to think through an approach which, of course, affects what’s for me the most challenging element of all—voice. just ain’t no shortcuts on that one!
    I shall keep you posted and in the meantime, good luck on the slog and the deadlines and, personally, I’m looking forward to reading more ‘flotsam of the road.’

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