Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blessings in Disguise

Day 2 in the "What are people reading?" project, and I am glad I made a list on Day 1, because lots of people responded to the question over on Facebook! Glad to see people commenting and following up here, to say more about why they are reading what they are reading! And our focus here is print, hard copy! What are people reading while holding the actual book in their hands?--though really I am happy about all reading, as it seems to encourage reflection. I am just interested in how print is doing these days, and why some people still read it, want it, etc. As well as our general choices, tastes, peferences, and the variety in them.

So today I will riff on biography, autobiography, and memoir, as several people are reading those! At Babbitt's Books, where I work, people often come and ask for the Biography section, and we don't have one. The biographies are interspersed in the various other categories of history (by era), science, literary criticism, etc. We do have a Belles Lettres section, a catch-all for actual letters, memoir, essays, and, yes, "beautiful letters" of all sorts. (The Frederick Busch book, Letters to a Fiction Writer, would have gone in Belles Lettres, but I snatched it before it could go either online or on the shelf. Sorry! Sorry for you and for me, job hazard: very deep, very empty pockets. Not sorry about the reading. Lovely book. I'll try to read a letter a day.)

In our sports section, which has categories for different sports + miscellaneous, Fred might have found the biography of Vince Lombardi that he's reading now. Bob would have looked for the biography of Raymond Carver in our lit crit section, although we might not have it yet, as it is still new, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka, and we are a used bookstore. But we do get some very recent biographies right after people read them, and I found Personal History, Katharine Graham's autobiography at Babbitt's, along with A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey, hardcover, first edition, first printing, signed!--published in 2003, before the release of the film Revolutionary Road, based on Yates's novel. Poor Yates--it is a life so bleak I cannot yet get through it...and thus, poor Bailey! But I will return to this one, to learn all I can about how to live in this world.

And I want to know that, too: Why are you reading a memoir, biography, or autobiography? (And what is the difference between memoir and autobiography? And--that Oprah show incident, and other cases, too!--what is the difference between memoir and fiction?!) I know I read everything, but especially accounts of real lives, to learn how to live in the world.

Beth is reading Christopher Plummer's memoir In Spite of Myself, and I imagine it is because she admires him as an actor and is herself immersed in a life in the theatre. This summer my dad, also a theatre person, was reading one of Alec Guinness's memoirs--he wrote more than one--and I picked it up when he was done. Blessings in Disguise--a charming, gentlemanly memoir, told in vignettes. I was delighted by Guinness's balance of honesty and discretion in talking about the people he had trained and worked with. This was the out-of-print paperback, by the way, and my mom had picked it up for him at Babbitt's, but there is a new softcover printing out now, too. Celebrity memoirs can be those kiss-and-tell books, or otherwise sensationalized, but they can also be honest and sweet accounts, pithy, funny, full of quiet revelations.

Babbitt's also has a Star Bio section for those celebrity books, but in it you might find A Star Danced by Gertrude Lawrence, a book I first read as a teen, published in 1945, so my mother had recommended it to me. It was on our shelf at Babbitt's the last time I looked, but things come and go... My parents gave or recommended to me several books about writers and actors when I was growing up...and entering adulthood...hoping to help me make decisions about how to live in the world, what career to pursue, whether to be an actor or a writer. My "ambition" (and I rather lack ambition, as outrageous as the coming confession will sound) was to be like Shakespeare--write, and play small parts on the stage. Hmm...

In crucial years, they gave me Respect for Acting, by Uta Hagen; The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life, by Marian Seldes; and Notes, by Eleanor Coppola, about her husband's making of the film Apocalypse Now. This along with the advice about a life in the theatre: "If you can do anything else, do it." And, all along, they encouraged me in a writing life... Hmm...

Recently, I found this quotation by writer Paul Auster:

Becoming a writer is not a 'career decision' like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.

I love this long, hard road, and it feels joyful, in a peaceful way.

In college, I played Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst by William Luce. There is a poignant moment when she says, "It seems I am going to be famous!" when Thomas Wentworth Higginson is coming to visit her. It seems she was not. But that, too, was a blessing in disguise.

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