May I Humbly Suggest

7 Apr

Here’s some unsolicited advice…actually it’s worse; here’s some unsolicited, untested advice: keep a reading diary. That’s a thought I’ve always had and never acted on – I have many of those – but I think this might be one of my best. I’ve suffered at the hands of my ineptitude in initiating a reading diary, I’ve forgotten valuable pieces of information like why I liked Shantaram so much,  if I ever finished The Silence and The Fury or exactly how much of Best American Science Writing 2010 I skimmed (as in, is what I’m telling this person true or just the amalgam of threads I took as finished and then cavalierly passed on as fact).
More infuriating to have no record of however are the stories I know I’ve read but have forgotten the authors and titles of. Occasionally this forgetting causes me to become a tired version of the ‘book store questioner’ – the well meaning & apologetic customer who comes in all shifty,  who can’t meet your eye, who begins every sentence with ‘now you’re going to hate me but…’ most often followed up by ‘it had a red cover with some of the title in italics’ or ‘it was about horses and a woman who’d lost her daughter.’

I can sympathise; my reading habits are erratic and varied, my memory for thorough detail terrible and there are very few people I can turn to to ask for help when I get stuck. Surprisingly this hasn’t resulted in beginning a reading diary; just a blog complaining about my lack of one. The Tigers Wife has been the most recent cause of woe. In fact I haven’t finished it yet because of my frustration. The first half of the book is beautiful, eerily captivating, provincial – full of a sense of place that place being the Balkans and that sense being of death and dying. Like all treatments of death it’s actually a lot to do with life and the living of it. The author, Tea Obreht, intertwines that cultures predilection for folk law with her narrative and in doing so creates something…not quite magic realism. It feels more earthly than that, these places, these wars that keep breaking the land and shedding the blood in that region, are intimately mixed with the people who fight them and those people are ancient and so their stories are both ethereal and hard caked with dirt. Obreht gives you the feeling that a gun and a curse might have equal value as a defense measure. Maybe I can’t define this, maybe you just have to read her book but say you do and say you’re like me and you get to the part where she begins to tell the title story, the bit about the tigers wife well then you might have a problem.

A problem that flaws you, you stop reading and you chew your lower lip and you skim ahead to test your theory and then you reach this conclusion: you’ve read this before, in another book. You’ve read nearly the exact rendering of this folktale before – not word for word, but nearly, and actually more feeling for feeling. And not as a child, or in a book of fables, but in a literary book. I have read this story, written with the same nuances, in a book that I cannot for the life of me remember. I thought for a while it was in a collection of short stories by Jim Harrison, as unlikely as that sounds. But it’s not. The closest I can get is that I probably read the story of the Tigers Wife at around the same time as I read the Harrison collection. What frustrates me is that nearness to knowledge; it’s not enough to know you know something but not what that something is. That’s the weakest form of knowing; knowing that you don’t actually know. This lingering sense that I had read this story before has made me turn against the book itself, complicit as it is in my own deception.

Do you know where I read the story of the Tigers Wife in such similarly elegant prose?

It’s a common folktale I’m certain but not all folktales are told alike, the twinning of these two retellings is what startles me.

Anyway – I do not wish this suffering on anyone else, so I humbly suggest you keep a reading diary.

Since first drafting this post I’ve begun a list – it’s amazing what you discover you’ve read when you sit down and try to write it out. It’s fascinating what jumps out at you, what lives inside your skin, similar to how actors feel about characters they’ve played. And fascinating also what lies limp on your bookshelf, some titles made my hand ache having to write them (so tiresome) yet another notch on the bed post so they had to be counted. I found that it’s not so much the volume that surprises but the specificity and in some instances smallness of what comes back to you when you think back on the books you’ve read. As you bring them back into the light of memory how much of their content do you actually recall? Some just leave traces, like memories from childhood, a sensation of a place or a smell. Others grab you by the throat and throw you roughly back into their world. Still others taunt you with your own forgetting, all those facts about climate change or geography, history, the world wars…

Because books can be like relationships, we only care about the current one, it can be worthwhile going backwards, glancing at a list and taking a walk down memory lane to remind ourselves of all the richness that lives somewhere inside us, put there by all the countless hours we’ve spent imbibing authorial talent. Now if I could only excavate the title of that f***ing folktale…Auster? No.



One Response to “May I Humbly Suggest”

  1. Jolisa May 1, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

    I often get that eerie feeling when I’ve read an early slice of a novel elsewhere in excerpt form, and then re-encounter it some time much later in the middle of a book… Is it possible that you’re remembering the excerpt from The Tiger’s Wife that was published in the New Yorker in June 2009?

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