I am halfway through reading Mary Karr’s book The Art Of Memoir.
I’ve yet to read her other books (my friend just lent me The Liar’s Club), but this particular book’s title showed up three times in the past two weeks, twice in random emails, and then at my friend’s home where I was visiting. When something shows up repeatedly in my life, it’s a clue. I need to check it out.
I love how Mary keeps moving back and forth between her passion for memoir and the truth of how fugitive our memories can be. There’s a fascination with the words, and how the words make her feel, and how odd memory is when we try to pin it down into a story.
I loved hearing stories long before I started school, yet I know for sure I became a different person the day I learned to read for myself.
I see flashes of this particular memory. Sitting with my classmates at the back of our classroom. New reader open on my lap, the hand-painted pictures, and the words in large black print underneath the images. Words printed so big, they feel like they are yelling. I can smell the reader, its singular dusty, papery odour. I can feel the stiff round edges of the cover in my hands, the coolness of it as it lies on my bare knees.
I don’t know if I took this reader, or the next, home. I do know at some point in Grade One I began taking home each new reader as I received it, and read the whole thing in one huge swallow.
I needed the words and story and how they made me feel. I could not go slowly with a new book. I had to eat it all right away.
A new book burned in me. Fierce anticipation. Curiosity that yelled “Now!” Satisfaction—too dull a word for the fire I experienced. Fulfillment and wholeness are closer, yet again nowhere near the wild, bright joy I felt, and still feel, with each new book in my hands. I understand why ‘voracious’ is paired with ‘reader’. Even the sound of ‘voracious’ when I say it out loud echoes my feelings. The word growls.
I became a different person the day I learned to read. I became hungry for words and story and books. Addicted. Completely.
There was a wild, bright, fiery space in me waiting for words, story, reading, books to show up.
There is always a wild, sharp, open space in me waiting for the next new book. Words have taken over my life. I read. I write. I play with crosswords and Scrabble. I even write on my drawings; plain image is no longer enough. My friends are readers and writers.
Some might mutter “obsessed” with a kind of tsk-tsk tone. I say “Glorious!”
At six years old, in Grade One, I did not know the words I’m using here. If someone had asked me what I felt when I was reading, the word I would have answered with is “Love.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you Mrs. Johnson, for teaching me to read and love words and story and books.
In this post,
Mary Karr, The Art Of Memoir, HarperCollins, 2015; and The Liars’ Club: a memoir, Penguin Books, 1996. https://www.marykarr.com/
It’s true. We human beings can’t help it. We are words and memory and story. We create and recreate ourselves and our world when we say “let me tell you a story.” It happens every time.