#WellBehavedReaderWriter

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There are cafe cultures and there are cultures that are still struggling to be cafe cultures. I’ve written and read in public in four different geographic areas in my lifetime, and lived in five different geographic areas; when I was growing up in rural Ohio there was no writing in public unless you were in school, and even then one needed to hurry up and finish the damn writing so that I could do some kind of domestic work or farm work or sport.

I didn’t start off in a creative writing atmosphere, and insisted on one anyway. The later I progressed in high school the less I used my free periods for music and the more I used them for writing, reading, or combinations of the two. When I left home after high school (and before I was talked into going to college) I went to a local college library and read the “snooty” magazines with fiction: Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I wanted to write and read in public, but doing either at all was a source of attention-drawing that I struggled with; I read at lunch at work and my manager suggested that I go back to college to…read. So reading in public opened the door to that support network, but, again…attention-getting.

Any writer will tell you that attention is the last thing they want. Most readers are defined as introverts. Keeping these things in mind, it’s important to note that I loved college so much because I could read and write in public and could avoid most other activities because of the commitments of homework and balancing full-time employment with full-time course load.

After college, though, I wanted to keep up the practice. I would go to a coffee shop in Springfield, Missouri called The Mudhouse (the owner made his own coffee mugs on a pottery wheel), and I would write in a corner in low light, trying my best to write fiction in the face of fresh memoir material from my mother’s illness and passing. I didn’t receive any kind of attention for it, and started to breathe a little; maybe I could in fact write in the Midwest. I had to give up teaching, though, as my work (due to the compensation), and took a job I hated that required a lot of psychological work to maintain performance. I gave up writing for a bit, I hoped.

Flash forward to 2004 and an opportunity to move to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area there are an acute concentration of book stores and cafes and I was a writer and/or reader at a table again. I joined a book club, I joined a writing group. I found myself among my people, published or not, and talking about books, talking about writing, participating in city-wide literary festivals.

And then I moved to San Diego County.

*****

See the picture, above.

Shortly after this picture was taken, someone walked past me on the sidewalk and commented on the fact that I was writing in a journal. Something about what a pretty picture that made. I looked up an smiled, which jarred the person commenting, as though I was a performance artist drawing letters as opposed to someone who was tired of writing in the confines of her apartment.

In seven years of residency in San Diego County, I have managed to find a book club in the last couple of years, which has saved my life. However, if I go out in a bar or in a coffee shop, overwhelmingly there will some sort of comment on either the material I’m reading or the fact that I’m reading at all. I love the comments on the material (one man wanted to know if H Is For Hawk was chick lit–not really, sir–and a woman in a coffee shop two weeks ago predicted that I would read My Sister the Serial Killer in one day, and she was right), but the comments on reading at all take me back to the space between high school and college.

There appears to be something abjectly strange with reading in a bar. There are memes about these things. They weren’t strange in San Francisco, but here it makes other patrons edgy. I occasionally take a book into what I call my watering hole, but it’s closing for remodeling in a week and every other bar I’ve read in thinks I’m going to camp on one drink for a day. With writing it’s worse; when I first moved to North San Diego County I tried to continue my San Francisco writer’s group there, but people were upset with the cafe venue (“There’s no place to park”) and didn’t want to give up their cars to take the train, which was two blocks from the cafe. I ended my involvement with the group, and lost touch with them when I got a different day job.

But writing in public now, particularly at chairs and tables on the sidewalk or (gasp) at a bar, makes other patrons and people passing believe that you are writing about them. Honestly, sometimes I am writing about them, but most of the time I am writing what I would always write about, I’m just getting out of the house to do it. But I don’t want to make everyone else uncomfortable, so…I “behave” myself. I put the book away. I put the notebook away. I tap ideas into my phone, like the rest of the folks at the bar, or the rest of the folks in the coffee shop, and go back to hiding my passion under a bushel or book club.

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#TimeTravel

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Make America Read Again, says the hats that are a take on The Hat Slogan. While a certain voter base looks to go back to a “happier” time, a certain reader base wants to go back in time for a different reason.

It’s not just readers, either. There are certain television shows, movies, music, and art that are problematic. (I almost put problematic in quotes, but they are problematic, so let’s stick with less nuance and more commitment.) I could list all of the literature and other art that we aren’t supposed to consume, but even in the list there is a distinct drawing of lines for some and not for others. You, as a reader, may read certain books that are considered problematic because you like the narrative, even if character depiction runs to nauseating; I love The Great Gatsby, but I hate what Daisy has to be for Fitzgerald to write it.  I love some of Hemingway’s stuff and hate other stuff of his…sometimes within the same book. I have more than once relished white wine and oysters with a fond memory of A Moveable Feast, but I don’t think Hadley really sounded like that.

When I first started to commute to Oakland from San Francisco I went back to the habit of reading…and I was one of the first people to indulge in a Kindle. Seat mates on trains and buses would ask me about the Kindle, but they never asked what I was reading. As a I was transitioning from San Francisco to San Diego there used to be an account on Tumblr and Twitter that would show pictures of people and what they read on mass transit, and even now there is an account on Instagram called Hot Dudes Reading that shows dreamy men and their transit tomes. Now I get the feeling that those subjects would be ostracized; someone sees them on transit as well and gets in their face, asking the reader if they are aware of what that book means to someone in Northwest Ohio or to women or to anyone over 40 or etc., etc., etc.

“Don’t you know what that book means?”

What if I had an idea what it meant and read it anyway to learn how to improve on it?

*****

I’m guilty of it, applying a sheen of my prejudices. Last month our book club pick was Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. I wanted to like this book even before knowing much about the author; there are three main sections to the book, and I liked their narratives, but when I closed the book after reading the last page I was massively confused. The tease on the back cover stated that all three sections are tied together, and I completely missed how that was so. It must be good; I don’t get it, I could hear my mother say, so I blamed myself and decided to read some reviews: maybe they would tell me what I missed. The reviews told me more about academic writing than what I missed, and they also told me that Ms. Halliday used to date Philip Roth for a couple of years, and how the older gentleman in the first and last section were probably based on Roth, and how brilliant, and…

…Now it was worse because not only did I still not understand the connection between the three sections, but…

…Gulp…

I’m not a big fan of Philip Roth.

That statement in itself would get me shot on Twitter, because when he died not that long ago all I could think of was “Well, he had a good life.” Roth had the luxury to retire, for heaven’s sake. He was fortunate. And, yes, I read one of his books: The Human Stain. I’m guessing that anyone who loves Roth would insist that I should have picked out something else, and maybe my bad luck in picking out The Human Stain means that I need to read something else of his, let me recommend, etc. But I have no desire to read anything else by Roth.

And I held that relationship with Roth against Halliday.

Everything was redeemed when I got to book club, though, as it always ends up. We learned that the middle section was the supposition of Alice’s absent fellow juror, and that the middle section holds one paragraph of feminine rhetorical thinking in the mind of a straight, cis male character, so there ARE connections, but every reader in the room resented having to re-read the beginning or read reviews–any extra reading outside of the book on a straight run–in order to understand the arc.  I didn’t mention Roth; the room seemed full of Roth readers. I’m so glad that everyone picked up on something to explain the book, but I was annoyed that our collective mind had to solve it. I was annoyed that the book had to be solved.

Unlike the books of the prominently problematic (books like Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s), Halliday’s book was just published last year. The need we have to be revisionist of a book written in the 1920’s or 1930’s (or even the need to dispose of it) because our culture was different and overwhelmingly offensive in those days cannot apply to Halliday. I have no desire to sanitize any of them. Asymmetry is set nearly a century after the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but its shine too will fade and turn rough at the edges with time.

One can hope.

Meantime, I read them anyway, problematic or no, because I hope to read something like them but better someday. I hope we keep evolving. There’s a lot to hope…but you never know what the plot twist brings.