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July 11, 2013 / Kate Gross

Library for Life

There is a particular smell to the rooms of English Dons. Rooms lined with books and obscure feminist curios, hard chairs for uncomfortable undergraduates and something softer for them. A musty, pompous smell of old coffee and obscure tracts. We were obviously going to snicker when, gathered in one such room, our tutor told us to invest in books whilst we were at University, because we were building our own “libraries for life”. Wot? Spend my student loan on books? When would I ever want to read the Faerie Queene again, seeing as I didn’t quite finish it first time round? But, like gardening and the National Trust, the rightness of what he said has come upon me with my advancing years. And now we live in a house of books. Even Billy’s efforts to exist only in the Cloud don’t extend this far. Our home is like the inside of my head. Full of words which have walked alongside me, lit my way and reminded me that my own life treads over experiences others have shared before me right back to the beginning of the beginning.

If there is a theme to my writing this blog, other than the obvious one, it is sharing some of these words. And if there is a theme to what those near and far have done for me since the Nuisance arrived, it is helping to fill up my life-library, giving me so many more.

Because you know me, you have sent me books. Neatly piled against the wall in my attic, waiting patiently to be read, because there is a bit of a queue for my attentions. Now, I love this. But there is a cautionary tale. There is someone dear to me (he shall remain nameless), who sent me three books back in the darkening days of November. When I thanked him, I asked him to explain to me why he had sent me those particular books. What was it about them that spoke to him? Why did he think I would like them? What would they bring me? The nameless one, being not as good at emails as picking books, didn’t reply. So those books sat at the bottom of the pile, unloved over the winter. It was only when another friend recommended Raymond Carver’s poetry that I realised Book One was his short stories. And someone else gave me Sloane Crosley and told me if I liked her, I should really read David Sedaris. Which was Book Two in original parcel. And book three? Oh, just Billy Collins a pithy American poet I hadn’t come across. So when I last saw my nameless friend, I explained this to him. And to you now. The best books you have sent aren’t just paper, but have come with pieces of you. A note which tells me this was your favourite book as a child because it scared you senseless. Or perhaps I might need some comforting, gentle reading and here is the Darling Buds of May, a book to turn to when you want happiness on a page. Or, now you have time on your hands, perhaps read this short biography of Deng Xiaoping because it will teach you all you need to know about the modern world. So each book has been a double treat. First, reading the thing itself. And second, thinking as I read it about the person who sent it and what it meant to them. Sometimes this has been a puzzle and I’ve wondered whether I knew the sender (or they me) at all. It’s very personal. There is something in offering a beloved book which is like offering a bit of your soul up for scrutiny. The really good stuff touches on some big themes about life and what it’s all about, and in the books you’ve been drawn to and sent me, I’ve sometimes seen glimpses of lives which perhaps aren’t as Facebook-perfect as they might outwardly appear. Which suits me just fine, because mine sure isn’t.

If there is a justification for the extravagance that is a three-year English degree, this is it. Good writing is “the human voice/And do we not find each other interesting?” . Reading is an experience by which we can connect ourselves to what we are, to a great web of life, the same grooves being scored over and over again across the world in different times and tongues. John Berger: “The poet places language beyond the reach of time; or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and constrained”. Life, death, love, loss, war, “god in the details”, men are like buses, they fuck us up our mum and dad, and so on. It’s all there.

We look for different things at different times. I have already written about the books I loved as a child. But there is nothing like the tormented adolescent discovering Shakespeare (though some people higher on the cool-o-meter than I say that music was big here, too). “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time”. What does it mean? Who knows, but oh, when you are fifteen with glasses, lankly hennaed hair, a bit of puppy fat and far too much unrequited love, it suddenly means so much because LIFE IS SO HARD. Perhaps you are Prince Hamlet (or were meant to be? Your diaries suggest this may be the case). And the writings of African-American feminists raised on slavery, share-cropping and segregation somehow speak to the oppression of A-levels and middle-class life deep in west-country England like nothing else. And then university, work, proper relationships, and John Donne. Motherhood: more Sylvia Plath and Rachel Cusk (and some less mopey stuff too). I could go on. There has scarcely been a period of my life which hasn’t been accompanied by reading something which helped me make sense of it.

It is hardly surprising that since the Nuisance I’ve been reading what I can about the experience of illness. But here’s the thing. There ain’t much there. More accurately, there is less there than you would imagine given that it is a pretty universal experience. Unsurprisingly I’m not the first to spot this, and in fact Virginia Woolf wrote a whole essay about it:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go out, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy as one of the prime themes of literature.

My theory is that either people are too sick to write and die, or they survive but it is so grim and boring that they can’t bear to write about it, (and no-one wants to read it, anyway. There’s not a lot of sales in sickness). Like childbirth, when over it is erased swiftly from memory: as Emily Dickinson said, “there is a pain so utter/it swallows substance up/then covers the abyss with trance/so memory can step/ around – across – upon it”. There are exceptions. First, what I think of as The Cancer Canon. I’ve rather gorily devoured these autobiographies, usually written by journalists or public figures, looking for some clue in their journeys as to how to conduct my own, or perhaps how mine will end. This is not an uplifting process. Their stories haven’t finished so well. But still, Ruth Picardie, John Diamond and Philip Gould stand out. Brave, interesting, funny and very, very sad memoirs which are written with a light touch, though the endings and after-words are torment. Then, the rest. This is a mixed bag. There is a decent anthology of writing about illness called The Soul of Medicine, though it has a bit too much about shamanic healing in it for my liking. I quite like Julia Darling’s collection Sudden Collapses in Public Places, and her poem about chemo is good. Hilary Mantel’s autobiography is incredible, writing about illness and how it shapes the self both inside and out (and it’s way shorter than her historical tomes). But really, Raymond Carver is the guy I’ve come to love. So here is What the Doctor Said. If you click on one link in this grossly hyper-linked blog, make it this one, because I love it so.

I’m a little way into this reading project, and I suspect I’ve only skimmed the surface. What I wanted, in writing this, was to ask for your help. Out there are people better read and better informed than me. So, send me your additions to the “N” for Nuisance section of my life-library. Not actual books, just “have you read?” messages. And feel free to keep sending me other things you’ve liked reading, I always love it. Thank you.

7 Comments

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  1. Tom / Jul 21 2013 10:54 am

    Kate. I’ve been quietly following your writings for months. They’re wonderful. I admire you.

    You asked about books. Have you read ‘Winter’s Tale’ by Mark Helprin?

    • kateelisabethgross / Jul 22 2013 6:45 pm

      Thanks Tom – that’s really lovely of you to say. I am getting a great deal of pleasure from writing and obviously its always lovely to be admired… I haven’t read Winter’s Tale. It seems I should?

  2. Patrick Raleigh / Jul 23 2013 10:36 pm

    Hi Kate
    Patrick here, husband of Rosie and friend of Ian and Jenny. Beautiful blog post, I look forward to following up the hyperlinks.
    I wanted to recommend two books, both quite wonderful and unique. One is about the experience of illness to a large extent: The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion. Written around the first world war, this journal was recognized at the time as a masterpiece (compared with Kafka) before falling into inexplicable neglect. It has been republished recently in a beautiful edition by Little Toller Books.
    The other book is ‘Seed to Seed’ by Nicholas Harberd. Part author’s journal, part ‘biography’ of a humble weed (thale cress) followed for its year of life, part meditation on the great cycle of life and death, it is a gem of a book.
    Looking forward to your next blog post!
    Patrick.

  3. rory / May 27 2014 9:11 am

    Hello Kate,

    What a funny thing this is- I’m sitting in Dubai, reading a blog by someone I will never meet, thinking that I know you. I certainly know a little about you now; your beautiful writing is so lyrical and balanced and shines with love for your family and for the wonderful friends who celebrate you with such intelligent vigour. I found your blog when I was looking for things that would help to make sense of the terrible news we received this weekend of a friend whose own nuisance has returned. She, like you, is much too young and much too talented to contemplate losing.

    Anyway- thank you for the effort you have made in offering your wisdom and humour. And Mark Helprin, if you haven’t got to him yet, is astonishing. Try ‘A Soldier of the Great War’- it’s a fabulous story of an old man looking back at life and the things he did, the choices he made, and how he coped with choices that were made for him. The first few chapters are a bit stodgy but then it takes off…

    But, most of all, good luck.

    rory

    • Kate Gross / Jun 4 2014 11:58 am

      Thanks Rory, I grew up in Dubai so can almost image you writing this from there! Very best of luck and love to your friend and her Nuisance. Xx

  4. Julian Walker / Sep 2 2014 7:02 pm

    Have you read Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? I couldn’t believe it took me well into my 40’s to find it. Wonderful, wonderful book and how that skinny little white southern girl found the depth and insight to write it as her first novel amazes me still. And a doctor with life-limiting illness is a key character. Thanks for your blog

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