Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

January 2015, In My Bookbag

Isn’t there something satisfying about beginning to read someone’s published diaries in a January, when those diaries begin in some other long-ago January?

Dawn Powell’s diaries have been on my shelves for more than a decade but suddenly, in this January, I felt compelled to begin reading them.

Diaries Dawn PowellIt sat beside other diaries (including Sylvia Plath’s and Sophia Tolstoy’s) but the pose on the cover of this volume, the cat in arms, drew me into New York City of the 1920’s and, now, 1931.

The city and her acquaintances offer considerable inspiration, but the writing life is not an easy one for Dawn Powell, and she faces many disappointments alongside her successes.

“As a class, writers are only nice in their early stages. At the semi-success period they are either asses or envious sons of bitches. April 14, 1931

Another reader would possibly find greater meaning in the talk of other NYC writers, but I do enjoy the entries a great deal without that context. And I appreciate her commentary on writing.

She is ever-industrious and discussion of her decisions to pursue/decline various potential contracts is fascinating.

Although she is observing the publishing world more than eighty years ago, her observations are still relevant.

“To convince others of our faith in ourselves as artists is pure salesmanship and in no sense part of an honest artist’s equipment. March 9, 1931

She is deeply in love with her husband, but their relationship is complicated and she feels an intense pressure to earn from her writing, which leads to some intriguing comments.

“Women seem to me the greatest opportunists, the most unscrupulous artists in the world – they turn any genius they have into money without a pang – whereas the man artist, supporting his family by distortions of his genius, never ceases to bemoan his lost ideal. June 22, 1931

A diary is perfect commute-reading, in that it can be enjoyed in the briefest moments (some of these entries are only a few lines long), but this volume is a hefty one, and when I am looking for a slimmer volume to slip into my bookbag, I have selected Jean Burden’s Journey Toward Poetry instead.

She, too, considers the differences between female and male artists and, specifically, the reviewing world’s reception of female poets. One excoriating review that she mentions specifically was one which singled out May Sarton’s work, which reminds me that one of the reasons I was keen to read this odd little once-upon-a-time-library-discard was its blurb by May Sarton.

Although she did not achieve the kind of success that May Sarton did, Jean Burden’s name remains attached to an annual poetry lecture at an Amercian university; she published two volumes and she was a poetry journal editor for much of her life.

Jean Burden’s experiences as an editor and (later) a teacher, will be of greatest interest to those with an interest in writing (of any sort, though she does focus on poetry) and she illustrates the process of writing one particular poem with a series of photographs of the various scribblings (one on the back of a receipt, for instance) that, ultimately, came together in verse.

Jean Burden Poetry(For those fascinated by the writing process, this never gets boring, as one continues to expect that a secret will be revealed at any moment — though ultimately it remains as mysterious a process as ever.)

The poet Mary Swann is at the heart of Carol Shield’s Swann, another volume travelling with me this month. Although she scribbled her poems in pencil and hid them beneath the kitchen linoleum because her husband disapproved of her bookishness, the unassuming poet Mary Swann has become the subject of a convention. Swann presents a series of characters, each of whom has a vested interest in Mary Swann’s works, which may (or may not) soon be “discovered” by poetry lovers everywhere.

This is the fourth or fifth time that I’ve read this novel, but I haven’t reread any of this favourite author’s works for more than 10 years now, so I am particularly interested to see what I find here. In some ways, I am a little anxious about re-entering this territory: what if I do not adore the book as much as I once did? But so far, about halfway into the novel and getting reacquainted with Rose Hindmarch, librarian (yes, of course), it feels just as I remember earlier rereads feeling: deeply and wholly satisfying.

My pocketbook copy is yellowed through and through (even the cover), and the print is tiny (I doubt that I commented on that when I last reread Swann), but I am happy to slip it into my bag in any reading mood.

So far my reading year is characteristically home-based (every year I swear that I will read more books from my own shelves: you too?) and my choices eclectic (I haven’t even made a list yet: what’s wrong with me?) and I notice that I am missing a volume of short stories in my stack, but January’s bookbag is good company these days.

How is your reading month so far? What books are you carrying around with you today/of late?

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2 comments to January 2015, In My Bookbag

  • I read a few of her novels enjoyed them very much, I like diaries and memoirs of writers. Happy New Year:-)

    • Happy New Year to you, too, BB! I bet you’ve love these. She refers to the novels often, and sometimes shares stories of their genesis, and occasionally discusses how much of a trial/chore it was/was not to produce. I have Angels on Toast on hand, so I’m tending in that direction, but I think there are two others buried in a back-stack on that shelf. Do you have any favourites?

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