August 11, 2013

"Mother — crazy as she was — had an exquisite sensibility. She read nonstop."

"Loads of history, Russian and Chinese particularly, and art history. There was nothing else to do in that suckhole of a town."
You go outside, you run around, people throw dirt balls at you, you get your ass beat. But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.

People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.
That's a random excerpt from an interview with Mary Karr in The Paris Review, which I found via Andrew Sullivan who excerpts a completely different section about why and how Karr prays.

Is that SAT story true? I don't know. What a vivid detail! Today, you'd only have to remember a couple key words, and you'd be able to find the poem later by Googling. And it's interesting to think about the psychology of reading. You may think it's a shame that people — including you yourself — don't read whole books the way we used to. But many people were meeting psychological needs through book reading because there was no other option, and the internet works better for the purposes people really have.

And yet, we worry that the internet is degrading us. We don't read books. We don't memorize poems. But stop and think: Why were we doing those things in the past? Why, other than: there were no alternatives? If we've chosen this internet alternative, it could be that it's better — better for our true purposes.

It's not a better way to learn, say, Russian and Chinese history, but Mary Karr's mother's true purpose was not to learn Russian and Chinese history.

Do you wonder why you spend so many hours reading on the internet, when there are so many worthy books you could be reading? Do you tell yourself you should be reading books? Consider the likelihood that what you are doing is what you should be doing. Assume it is, and put into words why it is.

As for memorizing things that, these days, can be looked up: Is there ever good reason? I say yes. It's no longer out of fear of losing something forever, but there are other reasons. What is the last poem you memorized? (Don't tell me about song lyrics. You don't have to memorize them. They just get imprinted by some magical musical process.)

ADDED: I loved Mary Karr's memoir "Liars' Club." It transformed my thinking about what a memoir could be, and I toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for many years, mostly before starting this blog. There's some line between truth and fiction in these things. No one remembers all those quotes and details. How do you get into the imaginative zone to do this well and not get dragged down by the ethics of what you are saying about real people? I thought Karr's answer was: Don't flatter yourself. Be even harder on yourself than everyone else.

29 comments:

El Pollo Raylan said...

What is the last poem you memorized? (Don't tell me in Russian; don't tell me in German)

The last poem I tried to memorize was in German, and I made a recording of it in my pre-Chirbit days: Goethe's Der Erlk├Ânig

Apsofacto said...

What are your thoughts about the magical musical process?

edutcher said...

Probably Poe's "El Dorado".

Exurban Bourbon said...

The Winter Palace, by Philip Larkin. Suffered a bad bicycle accident while reciting it hands-free on a bright spring morning, and have since lost a line or two, but if I understand the poem correctly that's all to the good.

chuck said...

The last poem I memorized was "Sweeney Among the Nightingales", but I've forgotten it ;) The impetus was an Orwell review that quoted the lines

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,

somefeller said...

Anyone who gripes about Amazon.com and how it supposedly has hurt local bookstores should read Karr's comments. A whole world of reading opportunities has been available to those who want it because of Amazon and those following its lead.

William said...

I never set out to memorize a poem, but there were some that I read and reread so frequently that they were almost memorized. Fern Hill and bits of Yeats and Frost stick in the memory.......In a book, the information is organized and subordinated and, the author allows you to share his expertise and mastery of the subject. (But, of course, he may have gotten it all wrong.).... The internet is an anthology of everything, presented in digestible bits and pieces, and the only unifying thesis to which the information is subordinated is one's own consciousness...Reading a book is a more focused and economical waste of time.

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...

Reading a book all the way through to the end is overrated. My father, a tool and dye maker who graduated high school in 1931 or so, usually had three or four books going at once. Many a time, I'd find one of his books on the shelf and the bookmark would be 2/3 of the way through. He finished books-- the family once had a bet going on when he'd finish Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich-- but for the most part, he grazed. I have inherited his habit. I finish the occasional book, but I mostly graze. A day or two or three before he died (somewhat unexpectedly) at the age of 80, I showed him the WWW. 1996... not a whole lot to see yet. He would have absolutely loved the internet. It would have been right up his grazing alley.

Carol said...

I still read books, though it's a struggle to find ones that interest me sometimes. We go to the library every Wednesday and I search the stacks or pick up something that was brought to mind. Reading books is still going deeper than reading the internet. It seems to set off a different type of gamma wave/relaxation response that I don't get from the net and is more thought-provoking.

But then I can't imagine reading Evelyn Waugh or Doris Lessing or Flannery O'Connor on the net even if it's all out there somewhere. I just got to turn that thing off and hold a book in my hands.

Broomhandle said...

"Adlestrop". I don't usually read poetry but I came across this in an anthology and it reminded me strongly of moments in the Columbia River towns of my childhood and early 20's.

roadgeek said...

Mary Carr. I grew up in the same part of Southeast Texas she did, at about the same time. Every word she wrote about the mindlessness of her hometown is true. Like her, I read voraciously as an escape, and became aware of a far wider world beyond the refineries of Southeast Texas.

I cannot recommend "Liar's Club" enough, and I treasure my copy. It's the autobiography I'll never write for myself.

Tom said...

One thing strikes me as just wrong, being a product of the South myself: the bookstore selling big Bibles I get, and sounds authentic. Glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys? In east Texas? No, probably not.

That's Baptist and Methodist country. They abhor the Roman Catholic practice of venerating Mary, and I doubt any bookstore in the area sold them. (At the same time, stores inclined to sell Catholic tchotchkes would not be a likely place to find big Bibles, since the church of the time she was growing up did not encourage Bible reading.)

Either this is a faulty memory (to be charitable) or a fabulist trying to make her childhood home seem more bizarre than it already was, at least to her mind.

Tom said...

One thing strikes me as just wrong, being a product of the South myself: the bookstore selling big Bibles I get, and sounds authentic. Glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys? In east Texas? No, probably not.

That's Baptist and Methodist country. They abhor the Roman Catholic practice of venerating Mary, and I doubt any bookstore in the area sold them. (At the same time, stores inclined to sell Catholic tchotchkes would not be a likely place to find big Bibles, since the church of the time she was growing up did not encourage Bible reading.)

Either this is a faulty memory (to be charitable) or a fabulist trying to make her childhood home seem more bizarre than it already was, at least to her mind.

Tom said...

One thing strikes me as just wrong, being a product of the South myself: the bookstore selling big Bibles I get, and sounds authentic. Glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys? In Texas? No, probably not.

That's Baptist and Methodist country. They abhor the Roman Catholic practice of venerating Mary, and I doubt any bookstore in the area sold them. (At the same time, stores inclined to sell Catholic tchotchkes would not be a likely place to find big Bibles, since the church of the time she was growing up did not encourage Bible reading.)

Either this is a faulty memory (to be charitable) or a fabulist trying to make her childhood home seem more bizarre than it already was, at least to her mind.

roadgeek said...

Oh, and when she refers to a "suckhole of a town" she's referring to either Nederland, Port Neches or Groves, all bedroom communities between Beaumont and Port Arthur in southeast Texas. The towns tend to blur together and it's impossible to tell where one stops and the next begins, and they nestle up close to massive refinery complexes. The word provincial doesn't do them justice.

Mark Trade said...

You remind me of questions in Meyers-Briggs tests I don't know how to answer. "Do you do a lot of reading?" Well I read a lot on the Internet. Does Althouse count? Then there are all those audio books I listen to while running, cleaning, or doing whatever.

I listened to half of Atlas Shrugged while playing an arcade racing game. It turns out that was an activity that helped crystalize certain metaphors, like "the motor of the world" and what "drives men." Does that mean I've never read Atlas Shrugged? Am I not a reader?

I used to read from actual books when I was younger. I was repeatedly punished for trying to hide a novel under my desk at school and read it while the teacher was lecturing. They encourage reading, but only what they say and when they say. I would watch girls do it and get away with it. Maybe they were just better at hiding things.

In any case I am very liberal with my definition of "reading" on MBTI and end up getting a very high "N" score, wondering if it is skewed, but your post does convince me that, if I did not have the Internet, or audio books, or video games, etc., I would read actual books, and if I did not have anything to read, I would write.

tim maguire said...

I haven't memorized a poem since school, but one of my favorites that I read to my daughter is The Jumblies by Edward Leer. I've often thought about purposely memorizing it and one day may.

Mamie said...

From that Paris Review interview:

I’d warned my mother and sister in advance that I wanted to cover the period of Mother’s psychotic break and her divorce from Daddy. She’d inherited a sum of cash that was vast by our standards, and she bought a bar and married the bartender—her sixth husband.

Sixth husband! Mama did more than read about China and Russia in that "suckhole of a town."

Also, I don't think Karr was really all that deprived of intellectual stimulation -- from later in the interview:

If there were no real bookstores in your hometown, where did your mother get the books she gave you?

My mother went back to school for a teaching certificate, to a little college about forty-five minutes away. There was a college bookstore there. She took a class on existentialism and gave me Nausea and The Stranger and The Plague.


This reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's book of letters, Habit of Being, in which she's always talking about ordering books via mail from libraries and bookstores, all while confined to her Georgia farm. There really was life before the Internet.

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

Lately, I've been going back and reading books that I feel like I should have read a long time ago. I do spend a lot of time online that I probably would have spent reading books not too many years ago. I've read Walker Percy's The Moviegoer lately and Animal Farm which I was very familiar with even though I never read it.

Because of the internet, I expect I know much more about more things and in greater depth than I ever would have accomplished with just print. But I do love sitting down with a good book. It's much quieter. I'm always running off to check on something else when I am online.

I read Mary Karr's Cherry, several chapters at a time, sitting by the fireplace in a book store. Never bought it. After that, I did buy and read Liar's Club and even ordered some of her books of poetry. I read Lit when it came out not that long ago.

At the time I read Cherry I was about 2 years sober and that book, and Liar's Club which I read immediately after, had as much impact on me as anything I've ever read other than The Catcher in the Rye when I was about 15. I identified with her but I also really appreciated her writing. Her wit and humor. Loved Lit as well but it wasn't as transformative for me. But the minute I read online that it was out, I walked right out of the coffee shop I was in to the book store a block away and bought it.

roadgeek said...

"...Glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys? In Texas? No, probably not."

Actually, yes. Although East Texas is more culturally akin to the Deep South, there are ample Catholics. Every town with more than 1500 people had a Catholic church. My hometown had two Catholic churches for whites, and one for blacks. Any religious bookstore carried the crosses she mentioned, along with votive candles, although the candles have become commonplace in supermarkets today due to immigration.

Small towns in Southeast Texas, where Karr and I grew up, always had Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and Pentecostal churches; each town also had a Church of Christ, a fundamentalist sect endemic to the South. Larger towns had an Episcopal church. Jews had to go to larger cities, such as Houston. Vietnamese refugees came to Texas in the 70's, and we begin to see Buddhist temples. Lutherans were scarce on the ground, although my hometown had two, one Missouri Synod and one Evangelical.

So, yeah, there were lots of Catholics.

SGT Ted said...

The last poem I memorized is "To a Haggis" by Robert Burns.

Mark said...

Tom, the big bible thing is certainly very Catholic and would not be out of place in a shop that sold Mary-related tchotchkes. Most every Catholic family I knew when I was growing up had a large family Catholic bible in the family/living room. In the front of the Bible important family dates like wedding, birthdates, etc., are recorded. My wife and I received one 19 years ago on our wedding day and it still has a prominent place in our home (literally and metaphorically).

Mark said...

I call bullshit on the SAT story. I grew up in a hick town in a hick state (West Virginia), but the nearest town library had a card catalog and I knew how to use it, AND I knew how the state cross-library lending system worked.

She would have been a bright girl who could have done as well or better. Conclusion: self-pitying drama queen.

Mark said...

Oh, and for the record, "By No Means Native" by Adrienne Rich. She could really write before joining the cult of radical feminism.

Carl said...

I find this statement deeply contemptible:

People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was.

It had people, did it not? Real actual human beings, probably at least several hundred of them. In the early 1960s there were ex-soldiers who'd served in the Pacific or limped back from Chosin with a head full of nightmares. There were librarians who'd dreamed of the stage when young, there were mothers of children who'd gone wrong, others who'd gone astonishingly right, there were people who'd experienced amazing good luck and struggled through amazing bad luck. Recovering alcoholics, mothers who'd lost babies, divorcees and those staying together but barely hanging on,

Even with a few hundred people, there would've been an incredible richness of human experience there, which she could have studied and learned from -- had she not considered them mere benighted peasants, people of mud and no soul, far beneath her. A writer with heart and soul could've found material for a lifetime's writing there (and more than one great writer has).

Pfft. To me this speaks of a remarkably vain and myopic person. You need to go to the library to read about fantasy Russian princesses, because you don't realize if you sit down with the old retired cop next door (say) you could learn more in an hour of conversation than in ten years of haunting the library shelves? What a maroon, as Bugs Bunny would say. I have in half a century plus never met a human being who had less of interest to offer, to the inquiring and thoughtful mind, than the greatest poem or novel ever written. (It may not be pleasant, of course, because some people are wicked.)

John said...

I read a marketing book back in March that a client gave me for a project we are doing. The book was great but what a chore it was to read a physical, paper, book. Pretty much the only book-book I've read since Sept 2011.

I've probably read 2 books a week on average for the past 50 years. My son gave me a Kindle 3 years ago and it changed my life. I still read 2 books a week but it is so much easier now. I do not miss paper at all. You will have to pry my Kindle from my cold dead hands.

A year later my daughter gave me a Kindle Fire and my son now has the old Kindle.

So my question is: Does reading a book on my Kindle Fire count as reading a "book" or does it count as reading on the internet?

John Henry

mrs. e said...

From the first page of The Liar's Club, I was hooked. Karr's writing style is poetic, humorous and hearbreaking. She can sure tell a story - the best of her three memoirs, I'd say.

John said...

I don't think I've memorized a poem on purpose since high school. I do know large chunks of a few poems but more by accident than design:

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up,
In the Malamute Saloon,
Off in the corner then piano player
was playing a jagtime tune
...

Also some Blake, Ferlinghetti and a few others.

I've never understood the attraction of poetry. I like some of it OK but it just seems so ephemeral. Give me a good book with some meat in it.

Yet "Poet" seems to be a title that bestows on people some mysterious superiority. Nothing to do with the quality or subject of their poetry, just that they wrote it.

Vaclev Havel, PM of Czechoslovakia seemed like a good enough leader but I seldom saw his name mentioned without reference to the fact that he was a poet.

Churchill wrote millions of words of great history yet how often is he referred to as a writer? Now if he had written 2-3 poems, we would probably hear no end of it.

So what's up with poetry?

John Henry

Carl said...

So what's up with poetry?

Poetry is the refuge of the ambitious but incompetent writer, as well as the emo but dense reader.

With a poem you don't have to explain exactly what you want to say, or what you just read, you can get everyone else to do the cognitive heavy lifting by just hinting vaguely, then sighing and rolling your eyes if they don't get it.

Not a fan of poetry. With the exception of light verse and wordplay, e.g. the immortal "Eletelephony" or the various translations of "Jabberwocky."