Friday, July 13, 2012

Amen, Sister!

That is what my whole body is shouting over and over again as I turn the pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion, a collection of essays written decades before I was born. I have so much work that I should be doing right now, but I cannot contain myself. In the last two days, I have already called my husband and both of my parents to make them listen to lines from these essays, so since I don't want to bother them anymore, I am loosing my enthusiasm for this writing on the internet.
I have never had any interest in reading collections of essays before, nor have I read anything of Didion's before, but this, as it turns out, is my very favorite kind of writing. It is the kind that makes me stop to write down sentences that I wish I had written and that I don't want to forget. It is the kind of writing that forces me to keep my phone nearby because I have to look up a word or a reference every page or two. I collect words like some people collect...I don't know. Coins? Spoons? Do people still collect spoons? Point is - I like a book that requires a dictionary because it expands my collection.

My Slouching Toward Bethlehem word collection so far (apologies to non-word nerds, read: most people):

desultory (adj): lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm
antimacassar (n): a cover to protect the back or arms of furnitre
rostrum (n): a raised platform on which a person stands to make a public speech
analysand (n): a person undergoing psychoanalysis
apocryphal (adj): of doubtful authenticity
cavil (n): a petty or unnecessary objection
Panglossian (adj): characterized by or given to extreme optimism, especially in the face of unrelieved hardship or adversity
aperçu (n): a discerning perception, an insight
donnée (n): a set of notions, facts, or conditions, that governs, and shapes, an act or way of life
anomie (n): social instability caused by erosion of standards and values
mendacious (adj): untruthful
atavisitc (adj): reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type
sybartic (adj): characterized by or loving luxury or sensuous pleasure

And I'm only on page 165.

On a related note, I knew I was going to write a blog on this when I read Didion's description of the rather lost children of the Haight who seemed determined to forgo the bourgeois language of "the man," relying on "groovy" to do the work of a hundred words. She won me over forever with the following, "As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the language..." Preach it, Joan.

In addition to words that are mellifluous or whimsical, arcane or anomalous (see what I did there?), I also collect sentences. Sentences that make make me laugh or nod in recognition. Sentences that I wish I had written. Sentences that make me say, "Yes! That. That is exactly what I mean." Sentences that are just plain beautiful. I know a sentence is one I have to have if I feel an urgent need to read it aloud to whomever is closest. This is awkward when I am alone in public. In any event, this book is full of those kinds of sentences. This post is already too long, and I'm sure, too boring, so I'll share just a few of my favorites.

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. on a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends" (139).

"Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect" (143).

"To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves" (144).

"It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag." (146-147).

As I was reading these essays, I realized that these are not the first of Ms. Didion's sentences in my collections. Two years ago, I excerpted a portion of the essay Los Angeles Notebook in which she beautifully describes the Santa Ana winds. Words. I just can't get enough. Obviously. Apologies for the lengthy book report!

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