Tag Archives: love

The Higher Powers of Language

I’m currently reading one of my favorites kinds of books: Victorian gothic. I love the genre for its themes of darkness and light, its use of vibrant, elaborate, flowery language and shadowy characters, its expertly woven webs of complexity and intrigue, and perhaps most of all, for the undercurrent of a love for great literature. Victorian gothic novels feature principals that read almost as much as I do, and I find that this addition in character development supplements the storyline in ways that allow for greater intelligence, cunning, and imagination on the main character’s part. In essence, main characters who read make for better reads themselves.

Case in point, a quote from The Glass of Time, by Michael Cox, spoken by the main character’s tutor and remembered, written down, and conveyed to the reader by his pupil, Esperanza Gorst:

If we are insensible to the higher powers of language, then we are but crawling things upon the earth, mutely struggling towards the day of our extinction; but with the proper acquisition and use of language, in all its plenitude, we can contend with angels.

I, of course, immediately copied this bit down as well and haven’t stopped loving it since, and it got me thinking about other favorite novels that profess a passion for books, and I came up with a quick list. I think it’s clear my feelings about books like this, so by nature, these all come highly recommended.

P.S. The purpose of this post is to encourage reciprocal recommendations. Please, indulge me.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox

Atonement, Ian McEwan

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favorite authors. I came to know his work after watching and falling in love with the film adaptation of his debut novel, starring Elijah Wood and Eugene Hütz. I’m typically one of those people that doesn’t like coming around to a book by way of the movie, believing quite staunchly that books are always superior,  but in this case, I am grateful for the reference.

a radiant debut

Of all the memorable moments in Everything is Illuminated, these words stand out to me especially:

“Hershel did not possess a family of his own. He was not such a special person. He loved to read very much, and also to write. He was a poet, and he exhibited me many of his poems. I remember many of them. They were silly, you could say, and about love. He was always in his room writing those things, and never with people. I used to tell him, What good is all that love doing on paper? I said, Let love write on you for a little. But he was so stubborn. Or perhaps he was only timid.”

And remarkably, Foer’s second novel had even more of a profound effect on me than his first. Perhaps as a result of the simplicity of the story, told from the perspective of a young boy… perhaps due to the boldness and creativity of the typography and overall personality of the book, I have given this novel as a gift multiple times, read it myself multiple times, and cannot recommend it highly enough to those still in the dark.

one that stays with you

A simple Google search will displays loads of quotable dialogue from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I think speaks to Foer’s ability to be meaningful and significant through any lense or perspective. However, as before, one moment hit me harder than the others… and has stuck with me ever since:

“We slept in the same bed. There was never a right time to say it. It was always unnecessary. I thought about waking her. But it was unnecessary. There would be other nights. And how can you say I love you to someone you love? I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her. Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar. It’s always necessary.

Sonnet 104

My senior year of high school, I was President of our National Forensic League, a club that one can join only after participating in a number of events or occasions that involve oratory, public speaking, public reading, speeches, etc. We went to tournaments and competitions, loads of students from our theatre department preparing poems or monologues or extemporaneous pieces with which to compete. And I was their nerd queen. One year, I recited a creepy monologue from Five Kinds of Silence by Shelagh Stephenson; one tournament, a friend and I performed a scene from William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker; I won a few competitions with my version of Noyes’ The Highwayman; but none of these was I so proud of as my Shakespeare pieces.

The regional Shakespeare competition requires a contrasting monologue and sonnet recitation. I chose Tamora’s angry, heart-wrenching monologue from Titus Andronicus and the enlightening, inspired Sonnet 104. The words from Titus have faded from memory over time, but that sonnet – those 14 beautiful lines – have stayed with me all these years. They are practically music, and I just had to share:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

three April perfumes

in three hot Junes burn'd

A Letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to His Daughter at Boarding School

f. scotty

I don’t really know why, but today I was reminded of a line of prose… no, not just reminded.  I was haunted by it.  It may have been the lovely cool fall weather that we’re having and the fact that my first real Fitzgerald season of life was a fall not too many years previous.  It could have been other ideas I had today that guided my thoughts to an old friend who loved Daisy, and particularly these words, so much.  Whatever it was, I found the phrases rolling around in my brain all day… like a song I knew a long time ago and can’t quite remember.  So I looked them up:

“‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘you look so cool.’
Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
‘You always look so cool,’ she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.”

– Chapter 7, The Great Gatsby

Spending only a few brief moments flipping through such an old favorite is truly an impossibility.  I used up an hour at least skimming and remembering, going back and forth, reading text as well as my annotations in the margins.  I was probably 15 when I made them.

As I was putting the book down, the pages settled on one where I glanced another quote that always drew me to it as well.  Daisy, again.

“I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

– Chapter 1, The Great Gatsby

Of course, beyond these few lines, there are a thousand reasons that Fitzgerald resonates with me… the poise of his language, his sharp, observant storytelling, the lovely characters in his works as memorable as real people and sometimes more so.  I was one of those that was happy to read his novels for senior English class, as they were on my own reading list.  I wrote two separate research papers on various aspects of his work.  I was drawn to the “Lost Generation” Jazz Age era anyway.  I loved discussing his poignancy in symbolism, the themes of youth and despair, acting out scenes we’d watched in the Redford/Farrow movie version.  But one bit of our studies stands out as more significant in my memory than the rest.  It was a letter… pieces of which were reprinted in our American literature books… a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter in boarding school.  I have copied here what I transcribed from my textbook back in high school:

These lines of advice are listed in a letter dated August 8, 1933.

“…halfwit, I will conclude with things to worry about: worry about courage, worry about cleanliness, worry about efficiency, worry about horsemanship….

“things not to worry about: don’t worry about public opinion, don’t worry about dolls, don’t worry about the past, don’t worry about the future, don’t worry about growing up, don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you, don’t worry about triumph, don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault, don’t worry about mosquitoes, don’t worry about flies, don’t worry about insects in general, don’t worry about parents, don’t worry about boys, don’t worry about disappointments, don’t worry about pleasures, don’t worry about satisfactions….

“things to think about: what am I really aiming at? How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to: a) scholarship, b) do I really understand about people and am I trying to get along with them?, and c) am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?”

I just love that although this letter was written almost seventy years ago, all of its advice is still so relevant and appropriate for our lives.  I love FSF’s mix of silly and important, and his categorization of things that matter and things that don’t.  I need this posted in front of my desk, not buried in some ancient book of quotes and poetry.  I need to heed its sage words as much as his own daughter, it seems.

Elsewhere, in my short internet researches of the man himself, I found a few unrelated but interesting bits I’d also like to include:

an excerpt from Gatsby in Fitzgerald's own hand

The above section (click to enlarge) can be found just a page or two beyond the first quote I mentioned…, also in Chapter 7.  Below is Fitzgerald’s silver hip flask.

Zelda was of course to become his wife

The inscription says,

“To 1st Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald
65th Infantry
Camp Sheridan

Montgomery, Ala.”

And last, a photograph of Zelda and Scott’s grave in Rockville, Maryland, inscribed with the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

died at age 44

I, of course, highly recommend Fitzgerald’s novels as well as his abundant short stories, which for the most part are gathered conveniently into collections like Flappers and PhilosophersTales of the Jazz Age and Babylon Revisited and Other Stories.  Such fantastic classic works… do yourself a favor.

The Bell Curve

An old friend of mine once explained to me this theory that he has on life and love and soulmates.  It’s been such a long time since I saw him last, but I had the unexpected pleasure this past weekend.  At some point in our lengthy and sprawling conversation, I asked him to explain it to me again….

You know the bell curve?  Standard deviation? 68%?  Start with that.  I believe that if you put any two people together, most pairs would fall in the 68%… the majority.  They’re people who can get along with each other and be happy together.  They could make a life and be content.  Beyond the first standard deviation, to the left of the graph are the people that just couldn’t be together.  The second deviation being those who just couldn’t be happy as a pair… things between them would just never work out.  And of course, the third deviation to the left is the tiny percentage of people who would simply loathe each other from start to finish.

your standard standard deviation curve

But on the other side…, you have two deviations as well.  The second part on the right side of the curve are those couples who might truly love each other… those who can live happily and be continually delighted in each other.  These people are ones that have been especially lucky to have found each other.  They could be soulmates.  They could be each other’s “one.”

And the last bit – the tiny sliver at the end of the graph, that third deviation, the 99% – those pairs are divinely matched.  Those are the people about whom stories are written and remembered.  They are dynamic – flawless and completely enmeshed in each other.  Their lives and minds become entwined.  Their love is as one.

I’ve heard a million other explanations – one great love, one person for every person, opposites attract, the ability to be happy with anyone, and just plain falling in love – but none so eloquently imagined as this.