Oh the pages you’ll go!

What you read and where you go can sometimes be the same thing.

I was scrolling through my camera roll, looking for some summer snaps to send to my grandparents, when I noticed an unexpected theme. Interspersed among photographs of action, lit by sun, were just as many flat, uncolored images—ink on paper, black on white: photographs of text.

It didn’t come as a surprise; I’ve had this habit for some time. I’ll read a line or paragraph I don’t want to forget—a passage that has moved me or intrigued me; a phrase that sounds especially beautiful or rings especially true—and make a copy I can keep. They’re fragments I might want to ponder further, to reference in my writing, to share with a book-loving friend.

I knew I’d been taking these photos. It hadn’t slipped my mind; but it wasn’t until I saw so many, interspersed with all my summer snaps—young kids cavorting, old friends posing—that I began to see them not as separate from “real life”—as somehow running parallel—but as part of it.

This meant that in recent months, while spending weekends at the mountains and the beach in my home state, I hadn’t solely experienced those places. By reading, I’d been to Queensland and to New South Wales, to Massachusetts, Georgia, London, Gloucestershire—I’d spent time in big cities and small towns; I’d been to a university, a homestead, a convent; I’d even traveled through time, from the ’40s through to present day. The vehicles that took me all had names: Either/Or by Elif Batuman, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan, The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears, Tell Me Again by Amy Thunig, The Bell by Iris Murdoch.

That summer, a dear friend and her son had come to visit us; we’d spent a weekend in the mountains with four other families, and two weekends by the beach. I’d caught up with old school friends several times—but also, I’d met nuns and priests, students, teachers, abusive husbands, disillusioned wives. I don’t like to play favorites, but of the (fictional) characters I spent time with, I found Harvard University student Selin Karadağ from Either/Or, who I’d already met some years ago (in Batuman’s The Idiot), and twelve-year-old Frankie Addams (the passionate protagonist in The Member of the Wedding), most endearing—and most amusing.

Flicking through the (many) photographs I took when reading Batuman’s Either/Or (I loved it so), I pause on one taken at 3:13pm. Selin, who’s been reading The Portrait of a Lady, is reflecting on “how relevant and applicable” it is to her life. She talks about how she and Isabel are the same age, and how only “some” people think her beautiful, too. Isabel’s values also make sense to Selin.

“She valued reading, travel, and relationships with radically different people: the kinds of people who didn’t necessarily get the point of each other. At some point, Ralph asked what Isabel saw in Henrietta, and Isabel said that she liked people to be different from each other, and that, if a person struck her in a certain way, she liked them. I, too, had friends who found each other annoying and incomprehensible, and some of them really could be annoying, but they all struck me in a certain way—and that was why I loved them.” And I you, Selin.

I took The Member of the Wedding on a weekend away with my husband, our kids, my brother-in-law, and two of his children. I forgot to bring my pajamas, but did not forget my book. We were staying at a house surrounded by sandy soil and scrub. A wild beach lay five minutes’ walk in one direction, a subdued lagoon five minutes in the other. I took photos of the kids paddling at the lagoon and catching waves at the beach—and photos of the pages of my book. A few pages here, a square of chocolate there, a board game, a trip to the beach, more chocolate—the stuff of dreams.

Among the pages I stopped to photograph is one I also stopped to read out loud: Frankie, after she’s teased about a “crush,” threatens to throw a knife. When the housekeeper, Berenice, tells her to lay it down, she responds with characteristic defiance.

“The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver any longer.

‘I am the best knife-thrower in this town,’ she said.

Berenice, who stood behind her, did not speak.

‘If they would have a contest I would win.’ Frankie pulled the knife from the door and laid it on the kitchen table. Then she spat on her palm and rubbed her hands together.

Berenice said finally: ‘Frances Addams, you going to do that once too often.’

‘I never miss outside of a few inches.’

‘You know what your father said about knife-throwing in this house.’”

I loved the passing revelation that twelve-year-old Frankie, a child full of confusing emotions—strange ambitions, restless dissatisfaction, deep passion, unanswered questions—not only threw the knife on this occasion, but apparently threw knives frequently. While my husband and I regularly rebuke our kids for such crimes as eating with their mouths open and bickering, Berenice regularly rebuked Frankie for throwing actual knives; the kind that just don’t hit a wall and fall, but pierce it.

I remember witnessing some spectacular sunrises that weekend. One morning, I left the children watching cartoons in their PJs, slipped out and walked along the quiet lagoon, watched muted colors absorb gleaming rays of gold, and come alive.

Later in the day, I beheld Georgia’s summer skies in my mind’s eye. Skies that, “day after day,” are “clear green-blue, but filled with light, the color of a shallow wave.” Light the color of a shallow wave—I read that line again to hear it sing a second time, and then a third. Further on, when it’s almost five o’clock in Frankie’s world—when “the geranium glow” has faded from the sky, when she’s missing a dear friend, when “the last pale colors” are “crushed and cold on the horizon”—the book ends.

The reason I was reading this novel that weekend—a novel far too dark and dated for the usual “summer reading” lists—is that I happened to have read, in Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Gillian Mears, Leaping Into Waterfalls, that Mears was most impressed by McCullers’ novel. Later, it happened to be on the shelf at my local library, and I was curious.

Brennan’s biography, written after Mears’s death, portrays the author as strong-willed, sometimes impulsive, not always a safe person to be around. She didn’t throw knives like a certain twelve-year-old, but she made many who were close to her suffer.

I was astonished, when reading Mears’ novel The Mint Lawn, of the parallels between its abusive husband—the young protagonist’s piano-teacher-turned-spouse—and Mears’ real-life ex, who was initially her schoolteacher. The husband in the novel is increasingly despised by his young wife, who has come to look upon him and his body with disdain. Under his nightshirt she pictures his belly looking like “raw sausage,” his glasses are “smeared with mold and grease.”

Mears’ uncle once wrote to her saying that “artistic license” isn’t “freedom to skewer all those people to whose lives you have access,” and that portraying identifiable relatives with “a curious amalgam of ingeniousness and viciousness” left no trust between them. Her aunt, who used to write to her, never did again. It can’t be easy, walking the line between letting real life inspire fiction, and passing real life off as fiction.

In contrast, the line between real life and reading is distinct—or at least we make it seem that way. But looking through my camera roll, seeing images from the real world and the inner worlds I entered that summer, I realized this: the text that “interrupted” proper photographs, the pages that I planned to file elsewhere, made my record of that time more representative, and more complete.

I think about how Frankie, who is a romantic, and Selin, who is a realist, both, as a result, miss something vital about the world—because both fact and fancy contain essential truth, if not about the world, at least about ourselves. We break so many contrasts neatly into either/ors when so often things are messier: overlapping, gray; both/and.

We pretend distinctions are straightforward when they’re not. Real people, places and experiences inform all works of fiction, while fictional people, places, and experiences inform readers’ imaginations and perceptions—they can even change real minds, provoke real tears.

Perhaps those photographs of words belonged with the photographs of people I had met and places I had been that summertime. The time I spent in inner worlds conjured up by books, while not the same as time spent in the physical world, had influenced me, too. It, too, had taught and shaped and moved me, made impressions, left me changed.

After a summer break, there are people who ask you what you read, and there are people who ask you where you went. But there’s a sense in which the books we read are also places we have been. And thanks to the marvel that is a library, travel can be free. A mind can be expanded, even changed. All it takes is words upon a page.

* Oh Reader, September 2023, Issue 15.

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