Food for Thought

Living in a bookstore is cozy and fun, but also challenging. At night, trolling for a good read, my fingers ripple across the shelves, seeking back cover blurbs that make sense, authors’ names I trust.

Because I know what I like. I know what I want to hear–and what I don’t, going off in my head, voices planted by print that will chase me down hallways, seek me out in quiet moments, and start in: “Yes, but” or even the dreaded “What if?”

These voices ask us to re-examine not so much what we believe as why we believe it, a far more intense scrutiny. What did we inherit, and what did we swallow without question, and what have we observed that supports or belies these things?

A wonderful book called Women’s Ways of Knowing says the continuum of human wisdom runs from a person who “stands in her shoes and looks out” to synthesizing pieces of knowledge to create new knowledge.

Do we only read the books that agree with us? No, probably not; most bibliophiles don’t. But do we only want from books we disagree with a sense of why their argument is wrong, invalid? Or do we listen to viewpoints we would never seek out in the greater world? Is that what bookstores are for, to let us experience–at somewhat lower risk than attending a rally or visiting a friend’s church–ideas that don’t rock our world, but could sink it?

I read certain books in certain moods. Some days I want challenge; bring on Simon Schama and Jonathan Safran Foer; yes, I will try the sushi today, thanks. Other days I want comfort; yesterday, seeking familiarity, I reread Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt. It’s as comforting as veggie lasagna, with an equal amount of thoughtful chewing.

Books make us think, and a healthy diet includes the ones that ask us to consider another’s viewpoint. I used to teach my students, back when I was teaching, that the job of the anthropologist was to help society live with ambiguity, to put two people who believe oppositional things into a room and help them shake hands and agree not to order their subjects to kill each other. Live and let live is the motto of the ethnographer.

And the bookshop owner.

Who would you rather emulate: Lee or Rowling?

Okay, writers: who would you rather be Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling?

No brainer, right? We’d rather be ourselves. That’s why we’re writers. Yes, precisely, and now that we have that established, which of these women changed the world (more, or at all)?

J.K. Rowling went from1.50 (can’t get the computer to make a pound symbol) for a pot of tea, pushing her child’s pram back and forth with one hand while pouring out words with the other in an Edinburgh tearoom, to seven mega-hit books–books so powerful, she dragged a friend of mine along in her wake.

Theresa Breslin published one of her Dreammaster books in the year that Rowling actually dipped the annual projected publishing earnings by delivering her manuscript late. Ottakar Books, a chain in the UK, put up a display with Theresa’s YA fiction, and a sign: “Going potty waiting for Harry Potter? Try this instead!” And Theresa’s well-written, charming stories of a young boy and a crotchety old non-mortal who oversees his sleeping moments shot into bestseller status as well.

Did it bug her, a woman of great talent, to be handled this way, when her writing deserved recognition in its own right, I asked Theresa as we sat over our own cups of tea in Edinburgh one afternoon. I was fully prepared to be indignant on my friend’s behalf, but “I have no regrets,” Theresa said, smiling. A brilliant, savvy and kindhearted woman, Theresa is; if you haven’t read her books, you’d enjoy them.

The point being, J.K. Rowling broke into a rigidly self-contained industry and dominated it–but good.

Then there’s Harper Lee. A friend to the damaged (Truman Capote, among others) and a quiet woman, she coalesced a generation’s confusion into one heartbreaking, eminently readable novel. Did she change the American mindset? Or did she just describe it so well that we all got ashamed of ourselves and sought to change it? It’s well-known, that pop-psych wisdom about the first step being defining the problem and wanting to get rid of it. Did Lee launch that vessel? (Didn’t Samuel Clemens do that with Huck’s raft, some 75 years before? Perhaps Lee gave it a fresh head of steam.)

Mockingbird is loosely based on events Lee witnessed as a child growing up in Alabama.

Author Joan Didion says we write to get our thoughts in order and make sense of what’s happening around us. Did Lee ride the wave, or create it? And does it matter? She never wrote anything else (at least, not that her name was put to) but what she set down is still being read and studied and analyzed and held up as the Golden Mean. And it deserves to be.

Did Rowling ride a wave, or create it? It certainly looks as though she created one: a tsunami of interest in the supernatural, neglected children, and national health service owl-frame glasses. Seven waves, each white-topped with money, each exploring ever-darker themes of what it means to be loyal, to grow up, to go from a cupboard under the stairs to the most important person in the universe yet still be a nice guy.

Lee only wrote one, and also hit instant success. She won the Pulitzer. She was lauded as the voice of a generation about to change itself. And she stopped accepting public appearances about her book.

Did America change itself? Did she help? People with white skin and people with black, people who are paid to analyze what others write and people who don’t care to analyze much of anything, would answer that question differently.

But they’d all know what To Kill a Mockingbird was about, too.

I asked the “Rowling/Lee” question of a friend at lunch the other day–a woman high-powered in her profession but not a writer–and she said instantly, “Harper Lee. Duh.”

“Not duh. Think about it,” I shot back, launching into my diatribe: the waves were too murky, the issues less black-and-white than one might think. Marketing, money, the conscience of one generation to change the world, the longing of another to be special….

After five minutes of my onslaught, my lunching friend’s brow furrowed. “Hmmm,” she said.