Uncovering the Universal

 

From the moment one of my grandmother sent me and my sister a boxed set of the Little House books (remember when you could get them in hard cover?), I’ve been a book addict.

Aside from the Big Guy and my kids, reading has been one of my few healthy addictions, and, even though now my schedule and energy level rarely align enough for much more than a quick novel here and there, I actually relish getting sucked into another world or era even more.

When I was younger, other worlds were my drug.  I loved fantasy and science fiction.  As I became a real aficionado, I found that it was not just the escape I loved, but – especially with the science fiction – it was the way other writers explored what it might mean to be human in a technological landscape.  The covers of my Tolkien collection turned to ash as I followed Baggins and Frodo on their journeys and finally realized that Tolkien wasn’t writing about elves and hobbits – he was writing about what it meant to be human and to make moral choices.

We didn’t get the classics at our high school much, but my grandmother and one of my aunts were also voracious readers, and most Christmases my sister and I found books we never would have chose under the tree.  I got a three inch thick encyclopedia of classical mythology one year.  I had plowed through everything else on my shelf, so I opened it, and found another realm to explore.  Another aunt sent a collection of mysteries along with the text of a speech on women in writing given by author Sarah Paretsky at her alma mater.

Paretsky’s speech discussed the challenges faced by female authors –  the Bronte’s and Jane Austen never married and wrote in a climate that told women it was unladylike – as well as the often deprecatory ways in which women are depicted in literature.  She exhorted her listeners to read for themselves and then go out and create – whether or not they could find rooms of their own.  It was my first ‘I could do that’ moment (I went to my graveyard shift with a pad and pen that night), and I got hooked on detective novels for a while – especially when they included three dimensional female characters – something that is sadly lacking in some of the otherwise wonderful classics of science fiction.  To be sure, there are many amazing female Sci-fi writers, and they have been fleshing out the female residents of that realm for some time now.

As my aunts and mother and grandmother continued their suggestions my way, I wanted to find characters that reminded me of them.  I wanted to find strong women.  I wanted to find people who were passionate about family but also ideas.  I wanted to find flawed women.  And I wanted to find their histories and the people in them.  And then I met Austen.

I don’t remember if it was watching one of the zillion remakes of Pride and Prejudice before heading to the used bookstore or if it was the now deceased copy of Sense and Sensibility that altered my addiction so profoundly.  For some reason I had finished Brit Lit in high school without reading her or the Brontes, but from the words “It is a truth universally acknowledged…,”  I was hooked.  I think it took two weeks to get through all of her bo

oks and then onto the Brontes.  Then I came back and read them again.  And again. And again.

 

At first I thought I loved the manners  (Doesn’t everyone say they love that first?).  Then I decided I loved the window into the way things were done once upon a time – I had always loved the how-to segments in the Little House books.  Then I thought the tortured romances were the attraction.  But as I’ve replaced copies of my Austen novels since I’ve become a wife and mother myself, I realized that I was attracted to a deeper universal truth.

 

Ultimately, Austen was writing about family and the ties that bind.  Their ties were stretched by the demands of making one’s fortune through marriage, but in the little circles of Bennets and Darcys and Dashwoods the knots were tight – despite the internal squabbles that all families have.  I’ve thought about those ties and those knots as I’ve gone back and re-read my favorite novels and discovered new favorites.  And I’ve discovered that even though the configuration of the circle may change from author to author or book to book, classics (regardless of age) are classics because they managed to uncover that universal, even if the pimply kid that was reading them didn’t know it.

 

Now I’ve got less pimples, and I’m hoping to be the author.  For the last eight months, I’ve been chasing the stories close to my life, and it’s helped me focus on what has brought the most meaning to my life.  I’ve just begun sifting through those stories, and while, at the beginning, I worried that the stories about my family and what often seems very drab life would be boring, I’m just now realizing that I haven’t enjoyed writing them in spite of the topic.  I’ve loved it because, like so many of my favorite writers, it’s the the pursuit of something universal.

 

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