Unrequired Reading

My oldest niece went off to college this week. Inevitably, it’s made me think back to my own Freshman year.

It was my first time leaving home. For a kid from Queens, the ivy-covered campus, the Platonic ideal of an Eastern college, was as discombobulating as a trip to Oz. The entire student body, less than half the size of my NYC public high school, was made up of strangers who’d experienced very different lives from mine. Everyone of them, I assumed, would be smarter than I was.

My room, even after I’d unpacked and filled it with my things, felt empty of life. It was a small square but, even with my little rug in front of the iron bed and my posters on the wall, it seemed to echo. There was a pole-operated glass transom above my door, something I’d never seen before. Then there was the small metal safe-box that was bolted to the door beside the wardrobe; it didn’t seem particularly safe to me for anything except, assuming it was at least sufficiently insect-proof, my stash of spray cheese and Milano cookies. The communal bathroom—a row of stalls, a row of sinks, a row of showers—was down the linoleumed hall. Meals were peculiar dishes like Swiss Steak, eaten at refectory tables in the dark paneled dining hall. Classes, when they began, were small (12 or 15 students, rather than the 34-36 that had been standard for me K-12). Unlike the homely teachers I was used to, the ones who seemed like someone else’s mother or uncle, the professors were grand or cool or a combination of the two. And the work load was staggering. Read how much before the next class? Write how many pages??

That first semester, everything about the place was strange to me, with one exception: the college bookstore. From the first time that I understood how letters fitted together into words, reading was always my most beloved entertainment and my most dependable therapy. Considering my shallow purse, you might have expected the library to become my logical haven; but the gorgeous Gothic library, with its stacks and carrels, intimidated me. It glowed with a purposeful scholarship that felt far beyond my grasp. I spent many dogged hours there, but it was never home the way that the bookstore was. Once the first few weeks of term had passed, and the stacks of required volumes migrated from its tables to our dorm rooms, the bookstore was comforting in its familiarity. The shop was run by a pair of women who truly loved to read and who stocked it accordingly. Unlike those in the library, these books wore bright covers and friendly titles. As well as classics, and the contemporary books that people were talking about, there were plenty of lesser known volumes.

I found the shelves of children’s lit on one of my earliest visits to the bookstore. I assumed they were there for faculty children; but I came to learn that I was hardly original in reacting to sudden adulthood by reaching back to childhood. I splurged guiltily that day and scuttled back to my dorm, where I snuggled into the corner of  my bed and returned to Narnia. On later visits, I dipped heavily into the mystery and science fiction shelves. I also discovered reissues of novels that had been popular in previous generations (I freely admit it: I have chosen a hell of a lot of books by their covers).

It wasn’t that I needed something to read. I had piles of required reading to plough through. What I needed was to read books the way I always had, for the pure enjoyment of it. I craved fiction, especially fiction that I wouldn’t be required to pull apart. There was freedom in knowing that the only person who cared that I was reading my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey books was my friend Jo back home, who was also reading them.

Some of the most significant reading that I did during my four years of college were the books I read when I was supposed to be studying. Whenever I needed a break from studies, when I had a broken heart, when I felt I was losing hold of who I was, I ran to the bookstore. It wasn’t long before the women who ran the shop started recommending books to me, and even holding new arrivals behind the counter with my name on them. When I graduated, we hugged and cried.

It’s difficult to remember exactly what I read when (it wasn’t until my Senior year that I thought I might want to look back on this someday and began keeping a record of what I read), but here are a few I can pin to that year. The links are to Amazon, but any bookstore or library should have all of these:

  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle). Note that I’m linking you to the Kindle edition, because it costs less than a fancy coffee beverage. If you still haven’t read these stories, I’m hoping this cheap option will push you to finally do so.
  • Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (L. Frank Baum). I first saw the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz on television when I was 5 or 6. Soon after that, I read the book for the first of many times. But until I got to college, I was woefully ignorant of all the other Oz books. I bought and read a bunch of them then. This one, with it’s direct connection to the first, was one of my favourites.
  • The various volumes of “People” stories, by Zenna Henderson. This link will take you to a volume titled Ingathering, which is a compilation of all the stories Henderson wrote about refugees from a lost planet who find themselves on our earth. They appear human, but their longing for Home and their psychic abilities make them perpetual outsiders, ever seeking for their own. You can imagine how an eccentric college Freshman might over-identify!
  • Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers). This is my very favourite of all the Wimsey books. If anything, I loved it more after spending a summer in Oxford, and even more after attending a recent college reunion of my own. If you’re not going to read all of the Wimsey books, you’ll better understand  the emotional landscape of Gaudy Night if you precede it by reading Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.

Do I dare to eat a mango?

I just cubed a mango, which is one of my personal Proustian memory triggers.

In my Senior year of high school, I took the advanced level French course (did we call it French 4 or French 5? I can’t recall). It’s a joke that I even took the course. In my school system, languages were primarily taught via memorization. Whether conjugated verbs or categorized vocabulary for various assumed frequent-use topics (weather, food, transportation), you’d be given a page or three of words to memorize as homework. The next day, you’d have written or spoken drills in class. We even memorized scripted conversations, often echoed back to a tape of “native speakers”:

Bonjour…Bonjour Jean…Bonjour Marie…Bonjour Jean et Marie…Comment va tu?…Pas mal, merci, et toi?…Pas mal, merci.

When there was extemporaneous conversation, the emphasis was on being linguistically correct over expressing your thoughts. From the earliest I can remember, I’ve learned most effectively through context. Even when I was acting, I’d learn my lines better by putting the work up on its feet than by reading the lines over and over to myself. Rote memorization has never been my friend, I lack that magical language-music-math gene, and I grew up in a monolingual environment. Put it all together and you get a miserable language student (though, should I ever run into Jean and Marie, I can successfully say hello and let them know I’m fine, thank you).

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter 'T')

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter ‘T’)

However ineffectual my attempts to learn, I continued to dream of someday speaking another language, and I knew that the teacher of the only advanced French class was Henry Solganik. He was one of the younger, cooler teachers. More than that, he was vibrant with life and the implication of a world far wider than our neighborhood in Queens.

So in my final year in high school, I made one more attempt to learn some French. This time, thanks to Henry, something stuck. What happened that year was that French was finally freed from drills and scripted “conversations,” to become a living language. We read Sartre and Racine—aloud, and with tremendous overacting. As we might have done had we been raised in France, we read Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicholas. I also recall thumbing through issues of Paris Match. Not only did we read, but we spoke. We discussed current events and what we did over the weekend. Henry told us about some of his travels. His travels were an important part of who he was to us, fundamental enough that, when we wanted to give him a present to say “thank you,” we chose to buy him the suitcase you can see in the snapshot above.

I know there’s much else I’m forgetting about that class; but I can haltingly express myself in French if I have to, and there are two important moments I will always remember.

We were smart kids, but Henry knew how narrow our horizons were. He decided to broaden them before we launched out into the world. At the end of the year, he treated us all to dinner in Chinatown. The enormity of his generosity must be considered in light of the size of the class (there were about 30 of us; he split us into two groups to do this) and the fact that teachers’ salaries were even lower (proportionately) than they are today. The only qualification was that he would be ordering the meal, and we must each absolutely taste every single item that was put on the table. In an almost hysterical state of anticipation, we took the subway downtown and followed Henry to the restaurant. We’d all eaten a lot of what we considered to be Chinese food (Americanized Cantonese), but even those whose families might have ventured downtown had never been to a place like this. It was a half-basement space, and dimly lit, the combination making it seem far more exotic that it probably was. The maitre d’ greeted our teacher like a friend and showed us to the large round table. Food started coming out. With each new plate that arrived, Henry would scan our faces with wicked glee. Some of what he’d ordered was actually familiar, and even the more mysterious dishes weren’t scary once we tried them. Except, that is, for the snails. They came in the shell, with toothpicks to dig them out. We didn’t know what to do so, with one trembling eye remaining fixed on our own plates, we watched him demonstrate. Then he sat back and, grinning from ear to ear, watched. I remember sticking the toothpick into the shell and wiggling until I pulled out what looked like an inch and a half version of a pencil eraser. I held it gingerly between my teeth and snapped my mouth shut before I could decide not to. It was as chewy as an eraser, too; and it honestly didn’t taste like much of anything. Yes, the first snail I ever ate in my life was overcooked and under-seasoned. But this peculiar not-horrible mouthful, consumed in a strange place but among safely-familiar faces, made me feel worldly and adventurous. It was probably the first adult meal of my life, and the memory became a kind of mascot to bring me courage when confronting the unknown.

At some point during that same year, one of my classmates (I think it was Thalia Gross) brought a mango to class. During the years of my childhood, pineapples were about the most exotic produce any of us encountered. The closest we came to other tropical fruits was the label on the can of Hawaiian Punch. I don’t think there were even two of us who’d ever seen a mango. Henry’s face lit up like the sun. I’m sure that’s why she brought it to class; she knew he’d know what do. He took out his pocket knife and ran it around the edges to halve it, then scored the halves and turned them inside out. He passed the halves down the rows of desks. Each of us in turn nipped a single cube of sweet flesh from the skin and passed the rest down. Unlike the snail, the mango was a revelation to me. It was what I thought Olympian ambrosia must taste like.

During that final year of childhood, I was lucky enough to spend 40 minutes a day with a teacher who thought not only of the schoolwork we needed to master but of the wider world we would explore once we ventured past our own backyards.

I remember Henry Solganik, and that moment on the frontier, every time I cut open a mango.



Last month, I made a quick post on my Sparks page about what I call “covetable copy” —a piece of writing I wish I’d written.  I wanted to put up another one, so I started leafing through my little notebook with the red brocade cover. It’s probably Chinese.  This one is old but I think you can still get them downtown at Pearl River. The pages have pale reddish lines, and some have a small sketch of a bird or flower in one corner. The paper is so thin that some inks bleed right through, making it necessary to leave the reverse side untouched.

This is one of many blank books I’ve bought or been given over the decades. They’ve been anything from the size of a deck of playing cards to 8×10″ schools notebook, with pages stitched, sewn or spiral bound. The covers have been hard and soft, made of anything from banana leaves to recycled roofing tin. I’ve actually used most of these. Before there was even my ur-device (my original Palm Pilot of beloved memory), I used to carry one in my bag at all times in case inspiration struck. Each of my plays and all my early book ideas had a notebook carefully matched to it. There was always something momentous about finding the perfect book and writing the title on the first page, in my neatest hand; a kind of blessing on the project. I’ve never been much for journals, but many of these notebooks turned into what can best be described as commonplace books. They hold random notes: lists of things to do or see; topics to research; skeletal maps of how to get from vacation hotels to sites of interest; sketches of motifs from ancient pottery or the shape of a sleeve; nearly-lost memories.

The little red book is a commonplace book with nothing but quotes. As well as “covetable copy,” I’ve saved quotes that I find inspirational and a couple of verses I didn’t want to forget. Some have been transcribed in an attempt at calligraphy, or in other deviations from my usual hand or ink, with the intent of adding another layer of meaning. The sight of purple faux-copperplate or round print in rainbow pencil lead can raise as many memories as the words themselves.

Today I noticed this:

“Novels are against randomness. They’re against the idea that nothing happens.” Jayne Anne Phillips, in a 2000 interview in Mirabella magazine

Sometimes the thoughts triggered by flipping through notes you’ve kept for years and years are surprising. For example, I very much like what Ms. Phillips says here. Her words make me think, and then nod my head in pleased agreement. But when I paused on this page today, what jumped out at me were the words “Mirabella magazine.”

My memories spiralled back to the 90’s, when former Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella created a glossy monthly publication for smart women. Smart. Mirabella had beauty and brains, combining fashion coverage with high-quality writing. It wasn’t only about style, it had style. And it had confidence. Not since I was an eleven-year-old reading Seventeen had I been so excited at the arrival of each new copy of a magazine. I loved reading it, and I aspired to someday being interviewed for it. When it died, after several years of being torn apart and eventually sold, I’d renewed my subscription so far forward that it still had three years left to run. The publishers informed me, with no option for protest (though I made a number of attempts) that they would “fulfill” the remainder of my subscription with More, which is like being told that the vacation to Paris that you paid for will be replaced by a pass to the French pavilion at Epcot center.

I miss that feeling of aspiring to things of quality.  Most lives are about the striving, not success. I think we lose something when the unattainable is commonplace.