Ready; On Reading and the Pursuit of Happiness

I just watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. Several things struck me. One was how swiftly Joan Didion’s face lapses back into loss, her large eyes oceans of exactly the darkness that grief is, the slash of her mouth across her lined face, the bizarrely flung movements of her hands toward the interviewer, her nephew, as if they were living another life from her face, as today I look at one window and see a twinkle of snow flurries but through another window a blue sky. But the other thing that struck me was the shots of the book shelves — when the documentary mentions one of Didion’s or her husband’s books, the book itself is often depicted on a shelf with other books, some contemporary with the mentioned book, some older, some classics. A life of reading was depicted here, even more so perhaps than a life of writing.

I’ve also been looking through Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, which is a year in her life of monthly blog/cartoons thinking about the US presidents and the concept of Democracy. Her two drawings of the crowds of fluttering flags on the mall for Obama’s inauguration make me sad. (I think too of, in the documentary, Obama protective and carefully shepherding tiny Didion onto the stage for her medal.) I love Kalman’s picture of a pink chair piled with some of the many books in Jefferson’s library, preserved in the Library of Congress. What incredibly well read and thoughtful people were Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, so many of those old “fathers,” for all their faults and contradictions. (Am I still allowed to say that out loud, or is the zeitgeist overwhelmingly bloody-minded about flawed white men?)

Kalman’s curiosity and drollness and interest in US history reminds me of Sarah Vowell’s dear and hilarious meditations on her various historical obsessions. I would like to have them both over for dinner. Throw Didion into the mix, and I’ll just stay in the kitchen and eavesdrop.

The house of my dreams has a wall of white built-in bookcases surrounding a picture window. In the dream, I’ve read all the books. So it must be a dream. I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion, and of the books mentioned by Kalman in her perusal of the Jefferson library, I’ve read none. I’ve read many of the books in my house on its scattered and unseemly bookcases (no white built-ins, no picture window), but many look at me year after year, their covers fading and dusty. I’ve read few of the classics of Western tradition, and yet I’ve read a lot of all kinds of books. (Perhaps my downfall is that I love to re-read.) (Well, one of my downfalls.) My mother, in the days of library card catalogs, used to, for a while, go into each letter of the alphabet and randomly choose a card and read that book, whatever it was, a biography of an obscure historical figures, a translation of short stories from the Congo, a TV repair how-to book. I appreciate and share that magpie approach to reading.

Whenever anyone asks me how I became a I writer, my reply always begins with the fact that I was always a reader. Reading indeed is fundamental, that is, pertaining to a foundation. I love that our country, as wildly flawed as it is, was founded on principles developed by a well-read group of people, as wildly flawed as they were. May we as a people remain an open book.

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