Sometimes you come across a blog post that makes you want to stand up and cheer. This was one of those for me. Claudia at Lit Hitchhiker writes about how her favorite books are those she stumbled upon by chance.Ode to Books Discovered by Chance She is definitely onto something:
I ended up loving all of these books and so many others I found by accident. I will always remember the feeling I had reading the first page of Absalom, Absalom, the almost painful wonder that there was someone who could write like that and I hadn’t known he existed, the fear that I might have never found him, the gratitude that I did, the hope that there were others out there to be discovered. And that, I think, is large part of why these books became my favorites. These feelings are now embedded in them. I can’t read Faulkner without remembering that first rush of breathlessness. I can’t read Possession without remembering how admiration for Byatt crept on me that first time—I hadn’t known you could write about that.
I don’t read for the moments anticipated in study guides. I read for those moments when you read a book that everyone had dissected to death, a book you know by heart through cultural osmosis, and suddenly there is a passage that no one mentioned, but that speaks to you like few things ever did. I read for the moments when you open a book you hadn’t heard much about and it satisfies a need you didn’t even realize you had. I read for the unexpected moment of beauty.
Of all the literature classes I’ve ever taken, my first literature class in college, Literary Traditions I: the Epic Poem with Father Robert Maguire stand out primarily because of Father Mac’s way of reading student essays. He said he always read while looking for what he called the “aha! moment”. He wasn’t looking for well polished essays or essays that delivered new insights. He was teaching a required class to incoming freshmen, after all. But he did look for the moment when the student made a connection with the work, when suddenly the bulb clicked on and the connection was made. He wanted us to connect to the books we were reading. He wanted Homer and Virgil and all the rest to matter to us. Perhaps it isn’t overstating it to say that he wanted us to fall in love.
I think what Lit Hitchhiker describes is very much akin to what Father Mac was looking for in our compositions: the moments where we find that thing that speaks to us as few things ever have. He was wise enough to realize that this moment can happen not only when we are reading books but also when we are writing about them. That moment when I was writing an essay on a final exam for an upper level English class, years after Lit Trad I when suddenly I encountered Beowulf all over again and knew him for the first time. I don’t even recall what the insight was that found it’s way into my essay, what books I was writing about or what the question was that I was answering. But I recall which classroom I was sitting in and the feel of the air and the sound of my pen on the paper and the scritch and scratch of it and I can feel that gut clenching moment when suddenly my world shifted and I knew that in some subtle way it would never be the same again. The aha sounding like trumpets that only I could hear.
But back to the notion of stumbling upon books. There really is nothing like reading a book with no knowledge or expectations and then finding that it is one of those books. Discovering that indefinable something that shifts your world to its very foundations. Such an amazing rush. There really is nothing else quite like it.
For me the book that is the epitome of the phenomenon Claudia describes is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I grabbed it off my mother’s bookshelf when I was a high school student. I needed a book to read in the car on the way to my first visit of the campus of the school that was to become my university, the University of Dallas. Don’t you think that adds to the poignancy? It’s the story of the beginning of a love affair with a book but also with a place, a school, a community and a culture and eventually with the entire field of Irish literature. (How was I to know I had somehow most aptly stumbled upon a book that already had a place in the canon, a classic.) All that adventure and romance of my entire undergraduate and graduate careers is still somehow encapsulated in the covers of that one book. I can still see the odd cover with a black and white image of what I now know was Joyce himself with three shadows, one blue, one yellow and one green. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Joyce at that point. I just liked the name of the book. It intrigued me in a way that’s hard to recapture once you’ve heard of Joyce and have heard of the book. Oh those first few pages were a revelation to me and still have that sense of wonder. The way Joyce captures those first literary moments of the moo cow. To my mind it’s one of the great book openings in all of literature but I know so much of it has to do with being that high school student in the car meeting a great work for the first time on it’s own terms and with no expectations at all.
But I think the first time I had that moment of discovery was when I first met Louisa May Alcott. I still have that cloth bound copy of the three novels in one volume: Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men. I had to have been younger than ten when I discovered it on the little shelf under the window in my bedroom. I can still see the shelf and feel the sunlight pouring through the big window with the white paint on the double frame. I had no idea how the book got there or how long it had been sitting there. I was enchanted by the dust jacket and even more by the gold embossed lettering on the book’s red cloth cover. I fell into the story feet first and I think a part of me is still there. I still have that book on my shelf thirty years later, faded and broken but loved all the more for that, and I still cherish it as one of the best books ever. And I still have that sense of wonder and discovery about the mystery of its origins, which have never been properly explained.
I do also feel the same way about Possession, the first book Claudia mention in her post. I knew next to nothing about it when I picked it up. Only that a friend and fellow English major had loved it. I still swoon over the brilliance of Byatt’s characters. I kept having the urge to go and make sure that both LaMotte and Ash were really just made up characters and not really obscure Victorian literary figures I’d just somehow missed. I think that novel most perfectly captures the romance of reading, of discovery of literature. I think it is the quintessential book lover’s book. I tried to write my senior thesis on it. A terrible travesty of a research paper with no focus at all. I was too much blinded by love to be able to be ruthless enough to write a decent essay. But somehow that experience can’t mar Possession for me. Nothing can rub off the wonder I still feel when I catch a glimpse of the cover with the sumptuous Burne-Jones painting of the beguiling of Merlin. What a revelation that book was indeed!
Like Claudia, I have no conclusion or resolution to offer. Only the hope that that kind of wonderful discovery will never cease. The treasure-hunter’s love affair with the unexpected clue, the child’s wonder at the marvel of a sunset. Oh please, let it happen again!