On the Influential Books Meme; or, Reading Memoirs

I would like to begin by pointing out the pun in the phrase “Reading Memoirs,” and then point you to Alyssa Rosenberg’s great take on the blogosphere’s recent “influential books” meme, in the new Atlantic culture section. Alyssa presents her titles not as a list but as a chronology, a life history, and I appreciate this: it demonstrates the organic way that texts influence us, and that the life—and not the texts—are the organizing factor here. We don’t live our lives in accordance with a literary canon; rather, we fixate on certain texts that seem to speak most directly to us at different points in our lives. Unlike some of my colleagues, I hesitated to compile a list, because I’m not sure if I’ve analyzed the past twenty years to a point where I could come up with a good understanding of which texts are the closest reflections of me at given, so to speak, historical moments. I would glance at my bookshelf, my eyes would light upon a text—like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or Chauncey’s Gay New York, and I would subsequently realize what little the texts that form the core of my literary personality now have to do with the sort of prelapsarian state of my intensely literary, inward-looking, shy, antisocial, alternately self-proclaiming and self-doubting childhood.

One of the biggest themes this academic year in my self-psychoanalysis has been revisiting a world I very much feel as if I left behind when I entered high school. I’ve spoken on this blog before—particularly last fall—about seeking to reclaim that particular romanticized-childhood version of myself, and only now coming to understand my first decade or so as highly relevant to my second. Last fall, for a class on biography and autobiography, in which we read many memoirs, I wrote a reading memoir about my first decade, and the degree to which it was shaped (in ways both within and outside of my control) by books. This spring, I am taking a class on children’s literature, revisiting other books which I haven’t touched since my fall from childhood innocence. I’ve dealt a lot with Alice in Wonderland in both these classes and in my own cogitations—it was the book that, as I wrote in my memoir, provoked my first visit to a university library, but it wasn’t until I read it again in one of the many times I’ve done so this year that I realized that the fact that Alice is also the child of a professor gives me a kinship with her I’d never identified when I was her age. Likewise, my increasingly complex relationship to gender norms as I’ve grown up caused me to identify much more strongly with Little Women‘s Jo March when I read the novel for my children’s lit class. Back when I was Jo’s age, I thought she was cool, but not as cool as the talking rodents in Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, or even as cool the seductive beauties of the Celtic-inspired romance novels I read in middle school, who represented a fantastically unattainable state of perfection to a clumsy, nerdy, unattractive girl confronting the awkwardness of puberty and teenagerhood. And it is largely retrospectively that I have come to appreciate my childhood in the romantically innocent sense I ascribed to it in my reading memoir: when I was in Montessori school and knew nothing else, it would not have occurred to me to think that my parents had done something special by raising me in an academic bubble with books and no television, encouraging my overactive imagination, and supporting me in my first forays to imitate my favorite children’s (and adult) literature and begin to produce my own creative writing. And so it is only now with the proper context—and having run the gauntlet of high school—that I feel calmly reflective enough to come back, and to begin to understand the literary tradition in which I was raised and to which I feel that I in some sense belong.

The greatest discovery I made in this arena came when I was working on my reading memoir in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Some of you may know that I was named Emily not because it was the most popular name for girls in 1990, but because one of the most influential texts in my mother’s girlhood and adolescence and young adulthood was a novel called Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, who also wrote the Anne of Green Gables books. I was unimpressed by Emily of New Moon when my mother read it to me 13 years ago, and didn’t revisit it until it occurred to me that the novel which gave me my name (and the accompanying sense that I by my very existence belong to a literary tradition) deserved to be included in any discussion of the books important to my childhood. Talk about the word “memoir”: as I wrote in my memoir, when rereading the novel, I saw moi-même reflected back at me:

I read Emily of New Moon when I was seven, but I may have been too young to appreciate it properly—at the time, Emily didn’t enter the inner circle of fictional girls whose worlds I recreated in backyard and playground. Rereading the book years later, though, I am bowled over by the similarities between her world and my own. Like Emily, whose father takes a Rousseauian approach to her education, and smiles to himself when she personifies the trees in front of her house, my parents encouraged me to construct a world constrained only by the limits of my imagination. Like Emily, I didn’t let less imaginative adults or children stop me, but I did recruit sympathetic peers to co-star in my fantasies. Like Emily, I wrote pseudo-Romantic poetry about the seasons; like Emily, I claimed to (or at least wished to) remember my own birth. Emily reads Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lines from which (in addition to Macbeth and Hamlet) I would habitually recite to my parents from a precarious perch atop a red-and-yellow toy car. Montgomery wrote Emily of New Moon in 1923, after the First World War had tarnished the Romantic glow of childhood, but Emily’s innocent youth—like mine, perhaps—is a throwback to an earlier time. Twelve years after I put Warriorism [a set of religious rites I based on the Redwall books] to rest, I read Emily of New Moon again. When Emily’s father’s housekeeper says, “You talk queer—and you act queer—and at times you look queer. And you’re too old for your age—though that ain’t your fault. It comes of never mixing with other children,” I felt as if she were talking to me.

Shortly before Emily’s father dies of consumption (another rather Victorian thing to do), he says to her, “Your mother thought Emily the prettiest name in the world,—it was quaint and arch and delightful, she said.” I can see, now, why my mother might have thought the same; why she might have wanted a child with the ability and the freedom to, like Emily, listen for the Wind Woman, feel “the flash,” and squint until she could see the wallpaper suspended in the air. Monastery Effect and all, my mother might just have wound up with an Emily to live up to the name.

I didn’t discuss this in my memoir, but one of the reasons I like the sentence I quote in that first paragraph is because of its use of the word “queer.” In high school and beyond, I began to make a professional persona out of what I like to facetiously call “saying ‘sodomy’ at the dinner table”—the academic study of sexuality and identities and communities which construct themselves on sexuality terms. In my life as 20-year-old Emily Rutherford, writer, activist, and proto-historian, “queer” means something supposedly so very removed from the sense that Montgomery ascribed to it in that sentence. There is little to tie together the work I am learning how to do now (a field, I should mention, which I first entered through the lens of Kinsey, Krafft-Ebing, and others with early scientific approaches to sexual practices and behavior, the most literal sense I’ve ever dealt with of actually “saying ‘sodomy’ at the dinner table”) with a childhood where “queer” meant any kind of misfit. But I like to think that, recently, as I’ve tried to synthesize a child who wore funny clothes and believed in fairies and had a penchant for historical romanticism with an adolescent who became practiced at bringing sex and sexuality out of furtive teenage internet forays and into the legitimate public discourse, I wind up with a young adult to whom “queer” can mean many things at once. I might even go so far as to say that my present academic passion, the emergence of homosexuality as a cultural identity, exists so very conveniently on the cusp of that change in meaning, when “queer” takes on such a specific sexual connotation that to subsequent generations it actually loses that original meaning of “aslant,” unidentifiably out of the ordinary. While I know that we are all much more than the work that we do, there is something appealing in the notion that my interest in a cultural moment in which “queer” could simultaneously contain both meanings mirrors my desire to revisit a time in my own life when I, like the girl who gave me my name, was “queer” without respect to my sexual identity or politics.

I have, I supposed, deviated (heheh, get it?) rather far from the initial germ of this post, but I’d like to end by noting that Alyssa’s post also ends on the cusp of sexual possibility, with an allusion to her first kiss. It is not wildly outlandish overreading, then, to suggest that our childhood ties to literary cultures prepare us for how we will engage with the world as adults, no matter whether that preparation lies in the physical first overtures of romance or in the intellectualized realm of semantics of identity.

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