Such was the case last week, when I felt like I was in one of those circus juggling acts where some dude keeps throwing the juggler an extra item to add into the mix--and then lights one of them on fire. My students are in the process of writing a piece that uses reflection on place as a starting point, so during those ten sane minutes of freewriting, I joined them in responding to the prompt, "X is a place that only I could appreciate, because..."
As I wrote, I found myself--mentally, anyway--thousands of miles away, on the south coast of England, in a walk-up flat on the second level of a boxy brick building on one of southeast England's largest postwar council housing "estates." This flat was once occupied by my father's bibliophile brother, Uncle R, who died nine years ago, and I still can't believe it's been that long. (When we think about those we love who have died, it's always hard to believe "it's been that long," no matter how long "that long" is. My hypothesis is that in our minds--the place where most of us actually live--they have never left us, and therefore it really hasn't been "that long.")
Though small and plain, Uncle R's flat was also occupied by no less than several thousand flatmates: fictional characters, who lived in his countless books.
Now these were not orderly stacks of books, catalogued and placed alphabetically upon attractive designer shelves. These books, almost all of them used before Uncle R even owned them, overflowed the shelves, crawling over couches and chairs, sneaking into nooks and crannies, trembling in precarious towers that climbed the walls. I never went there without taking meds for my dust allergies, and whenever I arrived, my first order of business–assuming I wanted to sit down–was excavation. Dig deep enough and I could sometimes find furniture buried beneath the books.
Uncle R would always apologize, blaming our predicament on the books themselves. "Those ridiculous books," he'd complain, "they're getting completely out of hand,” as if they were reproducing themselves in furtive after-dark encounters, unassisted by him. As we drank the requisite "nice cup of tea," Uncle R would shake his head and say, "Ah, well. Something must be done about these silly books.” Occasionally something was done about the silly books–-usually, moving them around in order to make room for . . . more books. He never stopped shopping for them. If you were out with Uncle R, there was always a moment where he would disappear. One minute you'd be walking down the street with him, the next minute he had vanished. I learned not to worry that I was in some kind of sci-fi novel and instead, to scan my surroundings for the used bookshop that must be nearby. There always was one, and he was always there.
If my uncle were alive today, he might have ended up on reality TV. But I didn't think of him as a hoarder, because he clung to nothing else: only his books. And he didn't collect just to have things; he read them, and he remembered them. To him, books were not objects but doors to other worlds, occupied by characters who were in some respects real.
For two decades my husband and I traveled frequently to England, even living there briefly. Our experiences were always far different than the usual American tourist itinerary, not only because we slept in book-infested council flats but because we enjoyed customized tours that can’t be sold or purchased. A pub would look like any other until Uncle R pointed out, “Dickens mentions that pub in Great Expectations, doesn’t he.” Endless green hills dotted with sheep would blur together until Uncle R announced, "Ah, this hill--it plays a key role in an Austen plot."
One of R's younger brothers, Uncle M, taught O- and A-level literature and died tragically young (fittingly, while in the library). Back when both uncles and my father were still with us, they would discuss literary characters and their authors so casually that in my pre-university days, I'd eavesdrop on their analysis of a character's motives and mistakenly think they were gossiping about a distant relative. The same phenomenon worked in reverse, with literary quotes often brought in while discussing family members. "You know what old T.S. Eliot would say about [so-and-so]," one of them would say, and back before I learned otherwise, I thought T.S. must be an old friend of the family.
Some might say this isn't the greatest way introduction to literature--too colloquial, insufficiently analytical, even slightly juvenile. (And that's before we analyze the underlying psychology of the messy apartment). Some might criticize the canonical bent of the literature I was introduced to. (Here I'd add that in later years, Uncle R happily added contemporary authors from a variety of cultures to his never-ending collection--female authors too--but since England was where he lived, the English literary locations were the ones I got to see.)
Quibbling aside, nowadays I consider my less-than-conventional introduction to the British literary canon to be a remarkable gift. Think of what world we might live in if more people had been fortunate enough to receive a similar gift.
Of course personal experience is not a place for literary study to stop. If you want to pursue its study seriously, you need to stretch beyond having an uncle who knows where to find a genuine Dickensian pub and do more than revel in the eccentric chaos of a bibliophile's flat. But feeling a personal connection to some of the most resonant stories that have been committed to writing; deepening your understanding life through the prism of fictional characters who have been rendered real through the skillful use of language; learning a love for literature through osmosis from an enthusiastic mentor--all this is a great place to start, whether you end up pursuing the study of English professionally as Uncle M and I did, or keeping it personal as Uncle R did.
Too many at the helm of education today have imbibed the same ethos as the censorious characters in Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories who ask, "What is the use of stories that aren't even true?" Unable to devise a quantitative answer to a question calling for a qualitative response, such people assume there must be no use; that literary study is superfluous; and that if it doesn't lead to directly measurable "outcomes" or a straight line to lucrative employment, literary study is a disposable budgetary line item. What if such people had had their own Uncle R, or a book-infested flat somewhere in their psychic pasts? Would they already understand the "use of stories that aren't even true"? Would such an understanding foster a different set of priorities and decisions, even for those who pursue other lines of work? (In his working days, by the way, Uncle R was an accountant.)
I miss my uncles, as well as my father--also a book lover, though he worked as an engineer and, accordingly, kept his own books in an orderly fashion. (My husband and I used to refer to the two of them as "Felix and Oscar.") I wish I could clone those who influenced my own affinity for books and stories, sending them out as supernatural emissaries to the technocrats and bureaucrats of the world to whisper like miniature angels in their ears, counter-voices to the miniature devils who whisper in the opposite ear saying that storytelling is frivolous.
Perhaps it's too easy for those of us who "profess English" to dismiss the love of books that started it all. I like to believe that if more of us had been fortunate enough to grow up loving books and stories, we might not be in as many of the collective messes that we find ourselves in today.