Living in the family I do, my TBR stack of books is well larded with Christmas and birthday presents – things others think I’ll like or should at least tackle, as well as volumes they’ve already enjoyed and wish to tempt me. I’m not complaining, mind you, though I can be perplexed by their choices, at least until I’m moved to open the cover and dig in.
Sometimes it takes me several years to get around to that, which was the case with The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski.
The tome surveys the Inklings, a literary circle established at Oxford University by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, an affiliation that lasted their lifetimes and paralleled the more progressive Bloomsbury elite.
As I read of the budding authors’ early years and passions, my eyes were opened to how different their reading habits and expectations were from mine. They were steeped in a desire to recover a mythos of elves and other realms arising in ancient Britain but lost over time to the teachings from the Continent. There was also a fascination with invented alphabets and languages and secret communications. In contrast, apart from an early round of Tom Sawyer and English shipwrecks, my tastes ran to non-fiction – biographies, histories, and science, especially – and to visual arts and classical music. I still love to read maps, by the way. As for language, English still holds plenty of room for exploration, and Spanish and French are challenging enough.
Fiction returned to my lineup my senior year of high school via an essentially political route – Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 on the leading edge. Besides, that was the time when I was finally getting serious about writing and editing, too.
In short, I read to learn things, and still do, for that matter. Rarely would I admit to reading for pleasure, as such.
But the first years after graduating brought a change, including The Lord of the Rings (which struck me as a rehashing of Wagner’s Ring Cycle material), Samuel Johnson, and Virginia Woolf before getting to Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and Kerouac and, after college, Brautigan.
My preference soon settled on contemporary and American, here and now, even if I have a fondness for baroque twists and long sentences.
I have to admit having little in common with the Inklings. Even our religious leanings veer in opposite directions – their thick Catholic and Anglican wrappings versus my Zen and Quaker ascetic.
At that point, while cleaning a very dusty bookshelf, I chanced upon Becky Gould Gibson’s Need-Fire, a poetry chapbook elaborating the life of Hild, a 7th century abbess who founded a monastery for men and women in Whitby, North Yorkshire but at the time Northumberland. It was a time when some women had more authority in the Catholic church than would be the case later. That, in turn, led me to learn more of the history of Britain in that period, including the reality that much of the land was openly pagan perhaps into the 9th century, much later than I’d assumed.
With another leap of thought, I realized that much of what I’ve found puzzling in the English folksongs, mummers’ plays, and the Abbots Bromley and Morris dances I’ve encountered through Boston Revels is thinly veiled pagan tradition living on, part of the deeper culture of the land and its earlier peoples.
Well, as we say, the plot thickens.
My next question returns to these shores and an awareness of what this land means to its inhabitants. For me, that’s a blending of science, economics in the broadest sense, spiritual awareness, and the arts.
So how would you define the grounding of your own reading habits and interests? Has it changed over time?