the blurry page: the beginning of Didion

22 Apr

I couldn’t read until I was 10 years old.
I mean I sort of could, I could understand the basic concept – that words were symbols to be decoded – but they seemed to shift so regularly on the page that I failed to see how one word would always mean the same thing. And yes of course my confusion grew exponentially when I was told that one word could have multiple meanings; present for example.

These polysemes totally confounded me because they seemed to prove the total flexibility of language, that you could use the same word, with the same spelling, but that someone along the way had decided that it meant something totally (and I mean totally – Present: the moment / a gift / to be somewhere / to give) different. Surely this meant that language was just a tool to be shaped to best fit our needs at any given time? But no, turns out people don’t think so flexibly about the topic and the further along I got at special reading courses the more regimented I became. I was eventually able to read, at a far slower rate than most (as is still the case) due to words calling to me, jumping up from the page and thrashing my face with multiple meanings. I still slowly trace a sentence, it feels to me like a living thing that at any moment might change; how toys come alive when you’re sleeping and shadows take flight.

Part of this is the nature of words on a page, the way they look is often distinct from what they mean or how they should be spoken. I was and still am a big fan of phonetics (my father used to play phonetic scrabble with me). Phonetically speaking words are far more accessable and easier to imagine taking form. When you use language to explain feeling and meaning as writers do, phonetics is a wonderful thing.
As a consequence I’ve made up hundreds of words. Lilisms as they’ve been dubbed. I know I’m not alone in this, I’m not mentioning it to isolate myself as special but rather to point out that when a book’s use of words is so completely ‘right’ so unequivocally necessary in that place on that line in that order that they don’t shift for me (as though that authors placing has giving weight to the word & grounded it) then a sort of magic happens. It’s like I can read normally. Joan Didion does that for me. But more on her later.

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One Response to “the blurry page: the beginning of Didion”

  1. Naomi April 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    I love you, Lily. This is really (really) beautifully written. Could be pulled from a page of McSweeney’s. I want to know more about this amazing character that sees words so differently from me!

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