nice to meet you, Genet

Thursday, May 24, 2012

If you asked me to describe my childhood, it would be all about the books, since I wasn't overly sociable or sports minded. I don't remember much else about growing up, but I could tell you which books I read at what age (gives new meaning to "bookmarks"). Lots of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary from age 6 to 9. Little Women and the Little House books at age 10. Dear Mr Henshaw and Starring Sally J Friedman as Herself and the Katie John books at age 11. The entire Nancy Drew series and Madeleine L'Engle at age 12. Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Plath, Hughes, Thomas, the Brontes, biographies, and bits of French and Russian lit from 13 through 17. Anne Rice and Kate Chopin and Lawrence and Atwood at 18.

Somewhere along the way after childhood, my daily intake of the printed word diminished quite a bit because I got interested in other things. I discovered art and photography, and then re-discovered knitting (which I'd briefly learned and played with at age 12), and then cello. And writing took up more and more time as well. So did having to work to earn a living and maintain order in my digs once I moved out on my own.

I can still read large chunks of writing fairly quickly, when I get the chance to do it, which seems rare these days. I read Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad in one sitting while the repair person fixed my air conditioner, and I got through a Campion novel during a particularly bad rainstorm that was keeping me awake in the middle of the night. Now that e-books are available, it's made reading a lot more portable, and I get a kick out of being able to carry around the complete works of Oscar Wilde and Shelley and Austen and a few Wodehouse novels and the letters of Sylvia Beach on my iPhone. It means when I have a few minutes here and there, like standing in line somewhere or waiting for the previous student to pack up so I can go into my teacher's studio for my cello lesson, I can read a bit, and the software even marks my place.

Still, that's just reading in spurts when the opportunities present themselves. For awhile, I've been searching for some way to get back to a more regular reading routine. And then I came across a documentary recently on Netflix called Paris Was a Woman. It's about the women artists and writers of Paris between the world wars.

One of the writers featured was Janet Flanner. She wrote a weekly column for The New Yorker for decades called "Letter from Paris" under the pen name Genet. I liked what I saw and heard of her in the documentary, so I decided to check out her writing. It turns out that her New Yorker contributions are collected in four volumes. Because I am a writer, and because I am strange, I decided to get myself some copies of these books for my birthday, and it gave me a reading project idea.

The books arrived last week, and while flipping through them, it occurred to me that I could read a letter a day to get back some of the daily reading habit I used to have. The "Letters from Paris" start in 1925 and go through to 1970, so it will take awhile to get through them. I think it will be a good reading ritual. I might even tweet about them now and then - "on this day in 19__, Janet Flanner wrote about..."

The first entry in the first book is about Josephine Baker's debut in Paris in 1925. While the entry is short, it reads as though Genet was impressed. And in her blunt style, Genet points out that "Paris has never drawn a color line."

This is going to be fun and enlightening.


Full Passport said...

I've been having the same challenge - compounded by the fact that I am generally teaching at least two different novels at a time that I am re-reading while I teach them; needless to say my 'pleasure' reading has dwindled.

I like the book of letters ideas! (Any book that starts with Josephine Baker has my attention!) I'm looking forward to future posts about them!