She cried out in fear as the sky and the lake met; the daffodils, trees and clouds returning to their place in the poem, individual words, sounds, squiggles on paper with no meanings other than those with which our own imagination can clothe them. She let out one terrified scream as the darkness swept on and the poem closed on top of her.”
In this scene a woman has become trapped in William Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. She’s transported into the poem through a nifty machine and meets an old man in a black cloak, who is Wordsworth. He speaks mostly in lines of the poem while adding a bit of his own personal gloom. This place is a paradise for her, a purgatory for him. Then something goes wrong and the woman becomes trapped in the poem.
It’s not the worst poem to be trapped inside. How would you like to be trapped in William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, along with those poor, lost elephants?
The Eyre Affair imagines a world where literary works are threatened and special operatives, like Thursday Next, are needed to defend them. It starts when a minor character from Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is killed, and then the criminal sets his sights on destroying Jane Eyre, which I love. The Eyre Affair is a mystery/goofy/romantic book makes us consider what stories mean to us and why they must be preserved.
The copy of Jane Eyre that Tamworth had given me had saved my life. I had placed it in my breast pocket.”
Our heroine placed the book right next to her heart, so of course it saved her (in this case, from a bullet). But it also saved her emotional heart. It kept her going until love was ready for her and she was ready for love.
That’s why we read: to be saved.
In between The Eyre Affair’s many jokes meant to delight English majors like myself, I appreciated the way the story smushed book reality with real reality. How would our world be different if Jane had married St. John Rivers instead of Edward Rochester? Would we, the readers and lovers of Jane Eyre, somehow be different? Or to put it another way, what happens if the elephant in front of us wanders? Are we then truly lost?
On New Year’s morning my husband I were discussing a story that in the world of The Eyre Affair would surely be on the bad guy’s hit list: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. (We’d just seen its latest movie incarnation, and this is Karen Swallow Prior’s insightful take on it.). The end of the movie plays with the line between fiction — Jo March marrying Friedrich Bharer — and reality — Louisa May Alcott marrying no one, ever. That line, it’s a bit fuzzy, as we learn in The Eyre Affair:
The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake.”
Reading a book or a poem is like falling through soft ice. Plots and characters and elephants and daffodils become part of who we are. Each time we read, we plunge into the invigorating slush. And each time we are saved.
Maybe not from a bullet, but then again, you can never be too careful. Keep your classics close to your heart.
Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen
The Great Silence, Ted Chiang (Short story I will return to for Poetic Earth Month.)
Sun Shine Down, by Gillian Marchenko (a Tweetspeak title)
Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter (Three short novels. Porter did not care for the word “novella.”)
Middle Grade and YA
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, Jessica Day George
Junie B. Jones and the Mushy Gushy Valentime, by Barbara Park (Join us for Children’s Book Club, next Friday, Valentine’s Day.)
The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis (Patron-only book club starts February 12)
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden, illus. Garth Williams
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Browse more A Ritual to Read to Each Other
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro