My Life’s Sentences

Buying a used book might offer unexpected bonuses – highlighted phrases, dog-eared pages, notes in the margin, and underlined sentences. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of some of my favorite books – Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies – in her article for the New York Times, My Life’s Sentences – wrote about words that she needed to underline to isolate and remember. Oh, how I would love to have one of her used books.

Having just finished Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, Ward’s concept of the impact of words in a real book was still with me when Lahiri wrote…

“…it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

Katie Ward time travels through seven eras with books as the catalyst, but Lahiri confirms that readers can do this any time they open a book. Some phrases in books are so resilient, we never forget them. Like Lahiri, I underline sentences I want to remember, usually noting them in a journal, not trusting my memory. Words like…”A screaming comes across the sky.” (from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

For Lahiri, it’s Joyce’s ” The cold air stung us and we played til our bodies glowed.”

Do you save favorite words from your reading?

Lahira uses the rest of her article to explain her own writing process – not as a primer for prospective writers – but as a testament to her own struggle with words – which she has clearly conquered.

Girl Reading

In a series of vignettes from 1333 through to the twenty-first century, Katie Ward examines the feminine mystique in Girl Reading. Each story stands unconnected and alone, assessing different roles of women – mother, child, victim, lover, object, caretaker, professional. The common element is a picture of a woman reading, but at a different stage in history. Without knowing this, and with the absence of quotation marks to identify when the character is speaking, the book can be confusing at first, with some chapters more engaging than others.

Immediately clear is the underlying role of women throughout history – from subservient supporter to independent decider. The first story, set in a medieval town, focuses on an orphaned girl who is chosen by the clergy to pose as the Madonna for a politically dangerous fresco. When the artist discovers that the girl, who is destined for the convent when she comes of age, is pregnant, the author poses anachronistic choices, and frames the argument about her future as well as a modern debate. The chapter ends with nothing decided.

The book then jumps to 1668 with a deaf and motherless servant girl as the focus of an artist’s love. Comparison with The Girl with the Pearl Earring may be tempting, as the artist, a contemporary of Rembrandt, immortalized the girl in his painting.

Other stories include a woman painter in 1775 who helps a lonely Duchess reconcile the death of her female lover, followed in 1864 by a story that includes a photographer, a medium, a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s book on “Household Management,” and a twin with a unique gift. As Ward proceeds into current time, her story set in 2008 is hard to understand, until you read the last one set in 2060. If you’ve wondered how the world will cope with the continuing explosion of technology, and its effect on reading in the not too distant future, Ward offers a clever response through her seventh and last story – one that finally explains the preceding six chapters.

Each episode carefully reveals accurate historic context, as new characters appear with each story and into the future. Using stream of consciousness and first person narrative, Ward effectively reveals her characters, but their disjointed thoughts sometimes make the action difficult or nonexistent.

More like a series of short stories – with O’Henry endings (ambiguous and sometimes surprising) – except for the resounding theme underlying the whole, Girl Reading is worth examining. Ward offers a contemporary voice within this historical framework. Sprinkled with a little romance and intrigue, the stories are good too. And her message is clear – reading books is important.