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Reading in a State of Primal Innocence

From the Just Finished Reading Department:

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

A lovely story about how the mugging of an older woman named Charlotte changes the lives of the people closest to her, as well as those of several people she will never meet. As Charlotte recovers from a broken hip, she reflects on aging, parenthood, love, and identity. And she affirms the power that stories and memories have to shape our lives.


Here are a couple of excerpts about reading and quotidian memories:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her—then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbor’s wife. All of this was confusing rather than enlightening.

She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.

She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken. She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.

She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American. After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of the matter. She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

~  ~  ~

Today is one of those days, because pain is putting on a bravura act. Her back hurts, and her hip chimes in sympathy. Remember it is not always like this, she tells herself sternly. Tomorrow may be quite different. Tomorrow may be all song and dance, figuratively speaking. Think positive.

It is lunchtime. Rose will not be back till later because she is meeting up with her friend Sarah. Charlotte makes herself a salad, sits down to eat it and attempts some positive thinking. Thought drifts into recollection, as it so often does. But that can indeed be positive. By and large, good memory eclipses bad memory. Tom arrives; they are in the car, he is driving, he reaches over and lays a hand on her knee, which means: here we are, off somewhere, what fun, and by the way, I love you. Where were they going? This thought segues into another, in some mysterious process of free association; now she is pushing an infant Rose in her pram back from the library—her attention is distracted, and when she looks down into the pram she sees that Rose has got hold of the greengrocer’s brown paper bag, there are squashed tomatoes all over Elizabeth Bowen and Irish Murdoch.

Why had these particular moments lodged? Well, lodge they have, and thanks be. Without them, one would be—untethered. What we add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person. Identity, it is called in professional speak.

Savoring identity, Charlotte defies pain, which snarls on, but sulkily. She decides on a fruit yogurt, for afters.

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