Friday, June 03, 2022

'Lonely Impulse of Delight'

I tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday, which gave me a believable excuse for lying in bed all day reading and not feeling guilty about it. Most people cut you a lot of slack when you’re certifiably sick. 

Among the books I took to bed with me is Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life (Paul Dry Books, 2021) by Dana Gioia, who recounts his experiences with Elizabeth Bishop, John Cheever, Robert Fitzgerald and others. His opening essay is “Lonely Impulse of Delight: One Reader’s Childhood,” in which Gioia confirms my long-held conviction that reading and “real life” form an almost congruent Venn diagram. For serious readers, the part that doesn’t overlap is a closely guarded autonomous region:


“[E]very true reader has a secret life, which is equally intense, complex, and important. The books we read are no different from the people we meet or the cities we visit. Some books, people, or places hardly matter, others change our lives, and still others plant some idea or sentiment that influences our futures. No one else will ever read, reread, or misread the same books in the same way or in the same order. Our inner lives are as rich and real as our outer lives, even if they remain mostly unknowable to others. Perhaps that is why books matter so much.”


Gioia describes his “odd and bookish” childhood growing up in a working-class family in Los Angeles. The house was filled with books, a posthumous legacy from his mother’s brother, Ted Ortiz, who died when Gioia was six years old. He recounts the history of his childhood reading in fascinating detail. Much of it matches my own, in particular my early devotion to the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Ace and Ballantine paperback editions, and the biographies of great men and women – in my case, Lincoln, Marie Curie, Edison, Louis Pasteur. The first book I wrote as a kid was a collection of potted biographies of the presidents through JFK. The second was a life of John Glenn. Gioia’s experience resembles my own: “no one—neither a relative nor a teacher—ever encouraged my reading or intellectual pursuits.” My parents never knew what to make of a kid obsessed with books. Gioia writes:


“[M]y love of books was clearly excessive, indeed almost shameful. Not able to control this passion, I needed to hide it, if only to keep it pure. A private passion is free from public pressures. Then I could follow this ‘lonely impulse of delight,’ to borrow a phrase from William Butler Yeats, wherever it led.”


The private life is precious and always under threat. “Thought control” used to be a metaphor. A dedicated reader is peculiarly inward-turning, and thus worthy of suspicion in certain quarters. Gioia celebrates the autonomy of readers, the spirt of autodidacticism some of us grew up with and sustain:


“Childhood and adolescence form our sensibilities. By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure. Surely, this conviction developed from my own self-education in books, and in particular from exploring them with little tutorial assistance—except from an uncle who could not speak to me, except though the mute juxtaposition of subjects in his book collection.”


Thomas Parker said...

Funny - I too loved ERB (his Barsoom books were my favorites) and treasured a set of biographies for children that I inherited from my sister; the ones about Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Houdini were my special favorites. I read those particular ones over and over.

Hai Di Nguyen said...

Get better soon.
I also had Covid a few months ago.

Harmon said...

If you aren’t taking Paxlovid, get it right away. There’s a window of efficacy. You will probably need a doctor’s prescription.

If you have anyone living with you, I suggest taking vitamin D. It’s not officially approved, but there’s Anecdotal Evidence that it’s effective, & I’m here to tel you that I’ve been taking it for a while & did not get Covid when my wife had it, despite our general disregard of distancing.

Tim Guirl said...

you recover quickly and fully, Patrick.