May 29, 2005

Oh Bak, really. Living in New York I’d expect you to know better. When you leave your key under the flowerpot, all manner of riffraff will let themselves in. Dears, Bakerina recently accused me of *not* being self absorbed. Next thing you know, she’ll claim I’m not long winded, either. I’ll show her.

Total number of books I’ve owned:

Total number ever? We’re not even going to go there. It’s too sad. I might start crying about that second copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I sent to the used bookstore like a girl hawking her wedding ring for grocery money. Lets just say that, right now, I’ve got 60 linear feet of full bookshelves in my five hundred square foot apartment.

The last book I bought:

That would be From the Frying Pan to the Fuel Tank. Maybe this doesn’t count, as it was technically a gift for my teenage cousin who lives on a farm and has a car-fixing hobby. I’m counting it, though, because I would like to own it. One of the larger collections on my bookshelf is the homesteading how-to section. I own quite a few books about caring for livestock, mostly goats, because goats are the best animals ever, in myth and life. Also, if you are ever in a first little pig sort of mood, and need advice on how to proceed, I am quite the resource on straw bale building. Don’t even get me started on digging root cellars or making soap.

Do I own a diesel automobile? Why no. But someday I might. And when that day comes, I will be fully prepared to convert it to run on used vegetable oil. The smell of eggrolls will then follow me throughout this great land.

Five books that mean allot to me:

Little House on the Prairie Series, Laura Ingles Wilder

I taught myself to read at a very young age, and for some reason felt the need to conceal the fact. My mother read these books to me at night during that time, and after she went to bed, I’d read another chapter. At some point she commented on how disjointed the plot was.

Mossflower Series, Brian Jacques

A huge influence on my elementary school imagination. The main characters are mice living in an Abbey. It’s embarrassing to say this may have planted the seed for the communal living I did in my late teens and early twenties. If you’d asked me at the time, I might have said that I was trying to create a world free of hierarchy and oppression, but its possible that this was just as close as I could get to being a rodent monk.


New Years Eve at my grandmother’s house, I am twelve years old. My dad’s eleven siblings and their respective romantic partners are drunk. I am angsty and bored, as I have underestimated the amount of reading material I will require for the evening and find myself bookless. I seek out my favorite uncle, a college student, and beg him for something to read. He hands me The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. Horrified and thrilled, I devour it without coming up for air. It’s just so gritty and *real*. When I grow up, I’m gonna drink just like that. (Yet another unfulfilled childhood dream.) A few hours later, or maybe the next morning, my hungover uncle sheepishly asks for it back. “I think you are probably too young for that book.” Handing it to him I smile, “I’ve already finished it.”

1984, George Orwell

I read this the first night of my involuntarily stay in a mental institution. I often read feverishly through the night when I am under the spell of a particularly good book. Thus, it was about three in the morning when I got to the part where Winston’s head is put in the cage full of rats. In one of the universe’s uncanny collisions of events, it was at that moment that a loud crashing sound issued from the room down the hall. Seconds later, burly male nurses ran past my door, then back again, hauling a screaming young girl down the hallway, and into a poorly soundproofed padded room. (Yes, friends! A padded room! They really do still exist and are used on children!) A constant barrage of muffled screaming issued from that room until breakfast the next morning where I found out the girl in question was also put in a straight jacket.

As if my fourteen-year-old budding anarchist mind wasn’t already inclined to see the world as a hostile Orwellian hell, now those fears had been confirmed.

Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone

By fifteen years old I am an accomplished degenerate, having accumulated by far the most detentions and suspensions of any girl in my school, holding my own against the baddest assed of bad ass boys. The last day of ninth grade, the teacher who runs the classes for gifted kids pulls me and some of her other favorite students aside to tell us that there is a room full of books that are about to be thrown away. She is certainly not suggesting that we go into said room and take anything we like because that would be completely against the law. Here are some hall passes, we look thirsty and should get a drink.

Among the overworn copies of various literary classics that I end up taking home with me is Bread and Wine. It’s the story of a communist exile returning to fascist Italy to attempt to jump-start the revolution there. He becomes disillusioned with the party, and struggles to find a way to be true to the ideals that led him to communism in the first place. I reread this book once a year throughout my teens: when I leave the political punk rock subculture, when I drop out of high school to be an autodidact at an unschooling cooperative, when I leave that much loved freeschool to attend college early, when I move into an anarchist exsquat, when I move out of said collective, when I leave college.

One of the first things that endears me to Silone's book is that it was clearly the personal copy of the vice-principal who handed me suspentions with a vengeance. He had made notes all over the pages, something that I usually despise and find distracting. In this case, though, it gives the object a history. I imagine Mr. Yokum, a young idealistic English teacher, sympathetic to the nonconformist main character, not yet grinded into the belligerent defender of the status quo he would be by the time I knew him.

This would have been a perfectly good history for me to have with one lovely book, but Bread and Wine was not satisfied to merely facilitate my adolescent reinventions, so appeared again a few years later.

In college there was this Spanish teacher from Nicaragua who was rumored to be a former Contra and one of the sources for this book. His surname was the same as that of a prominent right center post-Sandanista politician, sure, but one doesn’t like to jump to conclusions about these things. It’s a small school; rumors fly.

There was a three-week school trip to a language school in Nicaragua. It was actually cheaper, per credit, than taking the class at my college, so I went. One weekend, all fifteen of us went to the palatial beach house of a wealthy cousin of our professor's. After a day of swimming, we sat around on the porch and the conversation meandered its way to literature. Somehow Silone came up, and I mentioned that the book had changed my life several times, that I return to it whenever I need help figuring out how to strip away the superficialities.

Edgar’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, yes, I've had that same experience with Bread and Wine. I was a Jesuit priest for a few years, and Silone helped me to realize I couldn't do that anymore. After that I was part of this... party. You know, this is a small country, politics here is so often about family. I found myself a part of this organization that was doing things that were not really... good. I reread Silone and decided to leave that group. This guy interviewed me for a book he was writing about the organization, some people in my family were not happy when I did that. I have been accused of changing sides, of turning on people. But to me, its about always trying to find the best way to be true to the same things, to be kind to people individually and institutionally. It’s the organizations that change and fail to meet their own ideals; to stay with a corrupt group does not honor what is good in the world.”

My professor admitted to me that he’d been a Contra and that he’s turned on the Contras. As far as I know, the entire student body had been waiting for such an admission for years. Reading has changed my life repeatedly, but here was an instance where a book had changed one man’s path so profoundly that it may have affected the course of history for an entire country. It all seemed so important at the time, and talking to him I became part of that. We loved art together over a waning equatorial bonfire in the last days of a tired millennium, he having left so much behind, me with so much heartache and possibility still ahead.

Tag five people:

No thanks. One of the benefits of this whole breaking and entering thang is the general license to defy rules. wink

Posted by Bakerina at 11:35 PM in Books • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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