Anthologies are odd. They’re compiled of a lot of stuff that someone thinks we should read, and so they have little to do with the real experience of reading. Being a “reader” is as much about wandering down the aisle of a bookstore looking for attractive covers, or downloading an excerpt on a Kindle based on a friend’s recommendation, as it is about curling up in a chair and getting lost. Anthologies are meant to educate us; they are not meant to transport us. But sometimes they do both.
On Saturday, a column by Mireille Silcoff, in the National Post, begins when she goes into early labour, and is rushed off to the maternity ward in such haste that she arrives without reading material. Her husband, hapless when it comes to books, brings her some duds from home, including her old Norton Anthology of English Literature. At least, I’d have called it a dud, but she takes a different approach. She settles in with it, and discovers a lot of things about herself and, most tellingly, about her undergraduate education. All those things are interesting, and I will write about them later, but I was first struck by Silcoff’s unexpected affection for her anthology. It resembles an experience of my own.
When I was twenty-nine and in the middle of my Masters degree, I went off to Ireland for a summer, in order to research the novel I was writing and earn some transfer credits doing a “writer’s course” through, of all things, the University of Arkansas. I planned to arrive a couple of weeks early, so I could spend some time with a friend in Dublin, and drop in on a postcolonialism conference at the National University of Ireland campus in Galway, where my course would be held. I was an experienced traveler, and had learned to travel light. There would be no shortage of bookstores in Ireland, but I needed one good read to get me there, something small but full of stuff to chew on, so that after my arrival, I could put off buying more books for as long as possible.
My “writer’s course” was going to consist of a creative writing master class and a survey on contemporary Irish fiction. The survey required an anthology, the Penguin Modern Irish Short Stories. Perfect, I thought. Or, at least: adequate. A book. Lots of things in it. I have to read stuff from it anyway. It’ll do.
Once I settled into my seat on the airplane, I discovered the first problem: the first fifty pages of the anthology were missing. There was no table of contents; the collection began in the middle of a story by George Moore. There was also no index. The authors and titles of the stories were indicated in headers at the top of each page, but I had to thumb through scores of unfamiliar names to find the names I wanted: Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, and … well, truthfully, those were the only twentieth-century Irish writers I knew anything about. I sighed. All right, fine. What else was I going to do? I settled in, turned to Beckett’s “Dante and the Lobster,” and started reading.
I carried that anthology everywhere with me for the next two weeks. I read from it as I lay wrapped in a blanket, at four a.m., ravaged by jet lag, in the lamplit hammock in the yard behind my Dublin friend’s apartment block. (The hammock was the only place I could read without disturbing anyone. My friend and I were sleeping on the floor of her one-room; there was a chair next to the communal telephone outside her apartment door, but the light switch beside it illuminated the hallways of the whole building for three minutes, after which it shut off automatically.) I read that anthology in cafes in central Dublin, in between visits to Nora Barnacle’s house and the National Gallery. I read it on the four-hour bus ride to Galway, and then during the interminable lonely stretches in the hostel common room as I tried to work up the nerve to make conversation. (For someone who has spent so much time on my own in foreign countries, I’m a terrible solo traveler.) I read it between presentations at the postcolonial conference, and even a little bit during Terry Eagleton’s keynote speech (sorry, Mr. Eagleton). And I kept reading it, marking each story with a dog ear when it was done, until I’d settled into my dorm room at the National University to begin my course.
Flipping back and forth through the pages and choosing stories by whim or chance, I discovered several writers that would stay with me long after that, Elizabeth Bowen and John McGahern in particular. (McGahern would show up as a speaker during my survey course, along with Patrick McCabe and Dermot Healy and a number of others, whose names I would probably recognize if I met them now. Our teachers kept telling us what an honour it was to spend time with these writers, but we knew nothing about them, and the honour was lost on us.) I don’t remember a whole lot about the anthologized stories themselves. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you now what “Dante and the Lobster” was about. But that wasn’t the important thing.
The important thing was partly that I was in Ireland and was learning snippets of what it means to be Irish. I was learning things I would have known if I had gone to school in Ireland, if I had read literature at an Irish university, even if I had just spent my youth drinking in the pubs of Ireland and watching Irish television. Lying on the beach on the island of Inisheer, where the novel I was working on would be set, I began reading Mary Lavin’s “Happiness.” While I was in the midst of it, a young Australian man I’d met on the ferry came to sit next to me on the sand and chat me up, and although he was handsome and friendly and I’d been lonely, I was annoyed. I’d been caught in a little teacup of Irish life, and he’d sloshed it. I eventually froze him out, probably rudely, and he went off to find someone less bookish and more grateful, and I returned to Mary Lavin’s world.
I was getting more than a cultural education. I was captivated by the intensity of each bit of narrative. Short stories are like that, but there was something about the book itself, about the incredible density of this small volume. It was like a chunk of paper dark matter. Or a chocolate box, except that each bonbon might turn out to be a bite of foie gras, or a marble, or a leaf of mint.
Silcoff describes her experience rereading her Norton Anthology by saying that when one is in the hospital,
Best to read short things about big ideas that can capture the imagination quickly. You are in a place of life and death, after all. It’s only normal to become a little philosophical.
She’s talking about the maternity ward, but she could be talking about Ireland. Or any new place, really – any place we travel to. Everything seems both more alive and more mortal when you’re traveling. The smallest thing leaps out of the landscape like a butterfly, and then, in no time – a moment or a few weeks – it’s gone. Just like the title of a story might leap out at you from the page in the middle of a thick little book, and then, within a few moments or an hour, the story has faded and given way to another.
Once I was done with the anthology – every single story – some classmates and I made a pilgrimage to the Galway bookstores. Ireland is famously in love with its own literature, and Irish writers were always the most prominently displayed. I was able to buy novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien with confidence now, having already tasted their wares. I loved those novels – I should really go back and read them again – but they were heavy, immersive experiences, very different from the delicious flashes of the short stories in that anthology.
It’s in front of me now on my desk. On its cover, a coachman glares over his shoulder at me, his whip at half mast. In the midst of all my grading and research and household cares, I don’t have the time or energy I need to return to it right now. And maybe returning to it is not the point. I’m an English teacher, and so have shelves of anthologies around me, at home and in my office at school, the detritus of many years of publishers begging me to impose their books on my students. Maybe I need to choose a random volume – immigrant narratives or Victorian poetry, gothic tales or African drama – and taste some new mouthfuls. I’m not in labour, or on the road, but every place, everywhere, is a place of life and death.
Thanks to Erin M. for the link to the National Post column! It comments on more than just anthologies – its main thrust is the uses of a college education (anthologies included). More on that topic soon.