Saturday, October 10, 2009

Retirement Plan: Read Some Books

I can hardly remember when I wasn’t retired. My career as a paid public relations executive came to an end in 1988 when I moved from New York to my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, at the time of my husband’s retirement from the E.I.Du Pont De Nemours company.

We had enough in his retirement package for me to go from full-time work to whatever I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was begin a professional theatre company in conjunction with Actors’ Equity Association, the actors’ union, and I did that. I launched the venture with some money I got from a real estate sale—planning a big party at Grand Hotel, with a dance band and scenes from plays we might be doing in our first season.

Jubilee Fish Theatre ran for about seven years, and then I decided to retire. The trouble with doing work you love is that you never get a day off—and I still was pouring my own money into the theatre. So after seven seasons I pulled the trigger and shut it down.

I had some free time at last, and had long before vowed if I ever did have time on my hands I’d start reading all the great books I’d missed in my life. I had quite a backlog, and wanted to give the classics a shot—so I started with Don Quixote. It was a tough slog, but I knew if I were to make good on my lifelong promise to myself, I must finish it.

I found much delightful in this heavy, deep tome, and many surprises. The characters leapt off the dusty pages and embraced me. I absolutely fell for Sancho Panza, the well-intentioned sidekick who was promised his own island when the Don found his fortune, but instead his adventures tended to involve such activities as being tossed in a blanket in a scruffy inn in the middle of nowhere—a humiliation that would haunt him forever. As I read, I discovered the Don to be not a noble seeker of truth so much as a violent old loon, tilting at windmills because of his illusion that they were monsters. I learned much from reading this book from beginning to end, and one of the things I learned was that most people haven’t read it. I try not to call their attention to that when discussing the book with them.

My sister, an avid and omniverous reader of the classics, suggested I go to Great Expectations next. She said early in life she had been advised to read the best works of a great writer first, and then you’ll be hooked and read his or her whole oeuvre. I loved Great Expectations, but aside from A Christmas Carol, I haven’t read more of Dickens.

I went forward to Edith Wharton. I bought a wonderful collection of her stories, introduced exquisitely by Gore Vidal. In his ruminations about the redoubtable Mrs. Wharton, he wrote, “I can only say that I envy anyone reading for the first time The Age of Innocence…” and I felt he wrote those words for me. Imagine--being envied by Gore Vidal. I was transfixed by The Age of Innocence, and the “Old New York” stories. The only one I didn’t read was Ethan Frome, the one required high school book that is outside the main drift of Wharton anyway. I still may get to it. I do know the story; I’ve seen dramatizations.

I will say here that one of the advantages to reading at advanced age is that so many people read so much when they are far too young to understand it. The American educational system operates on the misguided notion that the quantity of books one reads is an indication of one’s intelligence. I can see no reason, for example, to force The Catcher in the Rye on pre-teenagers, as is done in so many schools nowadays. It is a book about an adolescent identity crisis and can only be grasped by those who have that behind them. When I was in college, this book was presented as a radical alternative selection by an English teacher, and he was much maligned by his superiors for introducing it to us innocents in those days. Where my friends and I devoured it, I cannot imagine that even a few years earlier it would have made any sense to us at all.

What of all the book clubs? They proliferate in my town. There are literally dozens of them, some theme-based, some eclectic—but they did not approach reading the way that I wanted to at that point. I had lost time to make up, and except for an occasional diversion, I was not going to be sidetracked into reading something as a social activity. I think the book clubs are wonderful, but never really wanted to be part of one. East of Eden was a compelling book that I picked up after hearing that it was on Oprah’s Book Club list. I felt that it qualified as something of a classic because of its author, John Steinbeck. It is an excellent read, thoroughly worthy of anybody's reading list, and I was glad to have found it.

After reading, I got into writing more. I discovered the Internet and put up a couple of blogs. I published a couple of books. I relocated and redirected my energies.

Now I’m past the first phase of retirement reading. Not that I read everything I wanted to, or everything I should have, during that time. I’m not settled into my new digs yet, and I’m not quite sure what I’ll read next. There is a wealth of literature calling me. And a wealth of friends urging me to write something more profound, more challenging, more universal. Something that might make me rich and famous. That is not my goal—I’m retired from all that. I never stopped reading, but I put the classics on hold. Now I’m beginning to hear them calling me again.

Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorite books.


New Yorker said...

I have been a fan of Edith Wharton's since 1971 when I read "The Age of Innocence" on the trains to and from Boston. I have many first editions of her major works because in the early '70s she had not yet become "serious." (That happened in 1975, when the R.W.B. Lewis biography revealed that she had a sex life.) But when I think or talk about Wharton I almost never mention "Ethan Frome." I know how it fits into the other books and into her life, but I find it so atypical of her work that I just oddly shut it out. What is odder still is that this is the one book of hers known to the public at large.

Anonymous said...

I was in your fair city this weekend ; we drove all the way up from just outside of Philadelphia to buy a cake from Carlo's Bakery for our daughter's 18th birthday. The cake was good, the trip was better- Hoboken looks like a really interesting place, I'm glad I took the opportunity to visit.

As for a book selection, I am going to offer a rather off-beat suggestion. I was thoroughly inspired by Thomas Merton's the 'Seven Story Mountain', I hope that if you haven't already read it you will soon have the opportunity to do so.

On a personal note, it is nice to see that you are still writing and thriving in my beloved Garden State. I enjoyed reading your writing once again.

T. Beauchamp

Mary Lois said...

Carlo's Bakery is suddenly a bonanza for Hoboken, altho the locals are discouraged because since "Cake Boss" on television (Buddy Valastro, Carlo's' owner, is a star!) we can't get near the place on weekends.

Glad to hear from this anonymous reader, who once haunted my Fairhope blog. Hope you'll join us in finding me in Hoboken again.

This little city suits me fine.

Mary Lois said...

I'm thinking Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. Where to start?

I'll ponder Seven Story Mountain, but it's not at the top of my list yet. Any other suggestions? For Ron: I know I have to get to The Jungle soon. There's at least a seven-storey mountain I have to scale here.

H. Ted Lesher said...

calkstGood blog. I could relate easily. Thanks.

Linda - SE PA said...

Your choices - Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary or Anna K...

Coin flip on either Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary. Both are very good reads, I would say excellent except that raises a high bar and often to a reader anticipating too much. Different strokes etc.

I read Anna K - beginning to end - after several attempts. I have the translated version that became an Oprah pick which from earlier publishings was easier. I found it to be an okay read and a book I would not put on my recommend list.

Anonymous said...

I'm halfway through 'The Glass Castle' a Memoir, Jeannette Walls, 2005. Love it! Is it/was it a winner or do the literate consider it mundane? Ted

Mary Lois said...

This sounds like the kind of book I need for my upcoming flight to Fairhope, Ted. Airplane reads are a different category--page turners that hold your attention without much effort. I know Jeannette Wall's story and it is fascinating.

Thanks for the suggestion.