Friday, April 15, 2011

The really great outdoors

After dashing off last week's missive on the subject of my modified reading habits, I came across this insightful, finely written book review that addresses the question of why we read literature. (Spoiler alert, the answer is an incisive, if rhetorical, second question: why live?)

Besides read, I do a couple of other things when I’m pinned to the rocking chair all day. My second diversion, after novel-reading, involves furtively probing the Internet -- on my precariously positioned laptop -- for a) Facebook activity, b) answers to my family’s embarrassing medical questions (thanks, Dr. Internet!), c) mommy blogs, and d) geographically convenient Cragislist bargains. And furthermore, e) whatever strikes my fancy at 2:30 in the morning with a sleeping baby in my lap. But why "furtively"? Well, you know… somehow, checking my Gmail, looking at patterns on Ravelry,* and blogging just don’t seem like things a mother cradling her peacefully dozing baby should really be fiddling with in the wee small hours. I know, that’s ridiculous; mothers need and want to do stuff other than/while breastfeeding their babies. I mean, obviously. But I guess I feel a bit delinquent because I always have the unshakable impression that it’s supposed to be totally Mary Cassatt-y up in here -- nothing but sweet, quiet, peaceful moments of gazing at my little one’s cherubic sleeping face,** surrounded by beautiful fabrics inspired by nineteenth-century Japanese pattern design. Instead, I’m all trolling eBay for Halloween costumes. 

Away from the rocking chair, Bee and I have been spending considerably more time outside lately -- a colossal improvement over the gloomy, winter-long situation of affairs to which we have been accustomed here in the frozen north. Where we live, you know, winter really does freeze your soul, just a bit. But the snow has mostly melted and the grasses and flowers of Minnesota are beginning to wake up. Temperatures have risen enough that one can take an infant outdoors without imperiling its life! If that celebratory statement doesn’t deserve an exclamation point, I don’t know what does! So, yes, Bee and I have been tramping around town on little errands, taking long-ish walks on the campus of a certain liberal arts college, and even embarking on High Adventure at the public library’s storytime for babies. (It involves more singing, crying, and curbed pandemonium than actual stories, but it’s fun. Come to think of it, storytime deserves a post all to itself, and a post all to itself it shall have, Dear Reader.)

So, to sum up: we go outside now. Thanks to the Björn, in fact, the baby and I have walked our town's sidewalks so doggedly that Bee could probably find her way home on her own at this point. But, I promise, I am still reading with a fierceness and vigor, because even in springtime there are books, and hours in the rocking chair, and middle-of-the-night awakeness. The difficult things, like NEVER SLEEPING, become a little easier in April. They just do! But Ben and I are still tired. The emerging tulips and the bunnies and the chirping birds haven't totally moderated our exhaustion. Not yet. Maybe in May.

* If you don’t know what Ravelry is, and you’re a knitter, you should probably get your ass over there. Me, I’ve basically accepted Ravelry as my personal lord and savior.
** Not sarcasm. Bee does actually have what we consider an unmistakably cherubic face, all roses and crème fraiche. You could just kiss it forever! Mwah mwah mwah mwah mwah!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Hard books and easy

One could accuse me of acts of snootery when it comes to the kinds of books I prefer to read -- or have liked to read in the past. You see, dears, ever since Bee was born I’ve had to stick with texts of the not-terribly-taxing variety. Why? Well, I do have plenty of time to read books, because Bee only sleeps when she’s being held by Ben or me -- so I spend hours at a time, at all hours of the day and night, camped out with a baby in my lap and a novel in my hand. HOWEVER, I’m also extremely sleep-deprived, so I find myself turning my attention to a) story-driven works, b) writing that’s fairly easily digested, and c) a variety of undemanding stuff that can be comprehended on four hours of sleep. Oh, and the books should be d) ones that are lightweight in more than one sense, because I need to be able to support the book in a single hand while cradling Bee with the other arm. At three in the morning, I can’t handle the intellectual rigors of Bleak House or, Dear Reader, the physical poundage of it.

So, less Clarissa and more Rilla. An absence of Brontë, but a little bit of Finney. And I must give a weary nay to historical fiction -- for now -- and a hearty yea to time-travel love stories (the line between the two being somewhat blurrier than you might expect, by the way). Anyway, lately I’ve had no lack of time to gulp down some Barbara Kingsolver and finish up one of my favorite things in this world, the Anne of Green Gables series (who knew there were eight books?! I always thought there were only six!). Wonderful, leisurely volumes, I assure you. And this week, I’m sailing through a painless sequel to The Bean Trees and eyeing a library copy of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute – because I daresay I can handle short stories, even postmodern ones, as long as they are in fact short, and not too toilsome. After that I’m likely to re-read some of my YA fiction faves, like this and this. (Man. You know, I really should just dig out my old copies of the Baby-Sitters Club series and have done with it.)

Of course, I miss capital-L literature. There are so many reasons read, and to love, Difficult Books, and the rewards of that reading, and of that loving, are not always to be found in easy books. I mean, I’m sorry, they just aren’t. That’s why people labor (but it’s a joyous labor!) through Tolstoy, you know? Your reward is comfort, and a timeless comradery, and encouragement for holding on in this life as your betters before you have held on. (I also tend to think that the best Difficult Books are instructive on the general subject of how to conduct oneself in this world. My own comportment, inadequate though it continues to be, owes a debt to Charlotte Brontë and Samuel Richardson that I feel sure I can never repay.) And then there’s the beauty of brilliant prose, often a reward unto itself. There are all of those things, plus the satisfaction of knowing you’re so much smarter than everyone else. (Joking! Totally joking!)

But when you’re tired, you’re tired; maybe this is what people mean when they talk about Mommy Brain. The phenomenon, if there is one, is always made out to be some sort of physiological occurrence, as if producing an heir actually melts a woman’s cerebrum. You’ll never do physics again. I mean, of all the cockamamie ideas! If Mommy Brain is anything at all, in my view, it’s just a vastly reduced quantity and quality of time and energy. You’ve got less time to read novels (or do freelance work, or translate ancient Hebrew texts, or paint, or revise your novella, or study for the bar exam, or INSERT YOUR INTELLECTUAL PURSUIT HERE). Plus, you’re fatigued. And the time you do have for these occupations is total crap compromised. As my friend Kara phrased it, “Doing any mentally immersive work with a baby in the house is a fantasy.”

Perhaps things do get better, as everyone swears they do (and as a few things, in our first several months as parents, already have), and I’ll be able to resume reading hard books at some point -- probably around the same time that I start combing my hair again. I don’t know. But I hold literature as one of life’s great comforts and pleasures,* so I sure as hell hope so. For now, though, I’m embracing easy books. Easy books are better, as I do not need to tell you, than no books at all.

* And that is why being an English major pays for itself hundredfold over the course of a lifetime. Comfort and pleasure, I tell you! Comfort and pleasure!