October 18, 2015

Patti Smith on the childhood pleasure of reading books too old for you

(Photo Jesse Dittmar)

From Patti Smith's new memoir M Train:

There were red rosebuds in a small vase in the bathroom at 'Ino. I draped my coat over the empty chair across from me, and then spent much of the next hour drinking coffee and filling pages of my notebook with drawings of single-celled animals and various species of plankton. It was strangely comforting, for I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father's desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the Planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colors, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory. Such things that disappear in time that we find ourselves longing to see again. We search for them in close-up, as we search for our hands in a dream.

My father claimed that he never remembered his dreams, but I could easily recount mine. He also told me that seeing one's own hands within a dream was exceedingly rare. I was sure I could if I set my mind to it, a notion that resulted in a plethora of failed experiments. My father questioned the usefulness of such a pursuit, but nevertheless invading my own dreams topped my list of impossible things one must one day accomplish.

In grade school I was often scolded for not paying attention. I suppose I was busy thinking about such things or attempting to untangle the mystery of an expanding network of seemingly unanswerable questions. The hill-of-beans equation, for example, occupied a fair portion of second grade. I was contemplating a problematic phrase in The Story of Davy Crockett by Enid Meadowcroft. I wasn't supposed to be reading it as it was in the bookcase for third graders, but drawn to it I slipped it into my schoolbag and read it in secret. I instantly identified with young Davy, who was tall and gangly, telling equally tall tales, getting into scrapes, and forgetting his chores. His pa reckoned that Davy wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. I was only seven and these words stopped me in my tracks. What could his pa have meant by that? I lay awake at night thinking about it. What was a hill of beans worth? Would a hill of anything be worth a boy like Davy Crockett?

I followed my mother around the A&P pushing the shopping cart.

--Mommy, how much would a hill of beans cost?

--Oh, Patricia, I don't know. Ask your father. I'll take the cart and you go pick out your cereal and don't lag behind.

I quickly did as I was told, grabbing a box of shredded wheat. Then I was off to the dry-goods aisle to check the price of beans, confronted with a new dilemma. What kind of beans? Black beans kidney beans fava beans lima beans green beans navy beans all kinds of beans. To say nothing of baked beans, magic beans, and coffee beans.

In the end I figured Davy Crockett was far beyond measuring, even by his pa. Despite any shortcomings he labored hard to be of use and paid off all of his father's debts. I read and reread the forbidden book, following him down paths that set my mind in unanticipated directions. If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and the stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.


-- Excerpt from M Train by Patti Smith, published by Alfred A. Knopf


Patti Smith on reading books too old for her-- and a lot more, I should have said. 

I've been reading 'M Train' all weekend. It's as singular and as moving as her earlier memoir 'Just kids'. But if 'Just kids' had something of the 'One thousand and one nights' about it, with its magic talismans, enchanted trips to Coney Island, even a young prince in the person of Robert Mapplethorpe, 'M train' would be more akin to the classical era narrative 'Anabasis' by the Greek historian Xenophon.  The term anabasis means an expedition from a coastline into the interior of a country.  Although Patti Smith is of course at least a continent.


Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 13:52
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