July 2008 Archives

Book of the week

The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

"A gentleman asked me what beauty meant to my mind. I must confess I was puzzled at first. But after a minute I answered that beauty was a form of goodness -- and he went away."

I picked this book up expecting struggle and hard-won triumphs, and a glimpse into a world populated by scent and vibration rather than sight and sound.

What I got was a book which L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) might have written if she had no sense of character and plot. Helen Keller made some outstanding strides in her life -- she learned not only to communicate with the world, but to do so with signs, lip-reading and different kinds of Braile, and also learned to read several languages -- but she was not a good writer. Most of her imagery, rather than being a genuine expression of how she "saw" the world, was drawn from what she read, and much of the book uses color imagery, lighting effects and descriptions of scenery to tell the story. I did find this notable, but ultimately disappointing, exception:

Sometimes, however, I go rowing without the rudder. It is fun to try to steer by the scent of watergrasses and lilies, and of bushes that grow on the shore. I use oars with leather bands, which keep them in position on the oarlocks, and I know by the resistance of the water when the oars are evenly poised. In the same manner I can also tell when I am pulling against the current. I like to contend with wind and wave. What is more exhilarating than to make your staunch little boat, obedient to your will and muscle, go skimming lightly over glistening, tilting waves...

Dammit, what does "glistening" mean to her? She lost her sight before she was two years old. Does she still remember it?

Keller wrote the book while she was still in college, and a lot of it consists of glowing accounts of the books she's read, understandable for someone who's led the ultimate sheltered life, but not very interesting. If the book had been written today, it would be in conjunction with a skilled ghost writer who would be able to dredge Keller's brain and come up with a story that really reflects what it is to be blind and deaf in a sighted, hearing world.

However, just when I was fed up with the whole thing, I got to the end of the book and found the section reprinting Keller's letters. These go back to her earliest days of letter writing, and span from when she was only able to use nouns and very simple verbs to her eventual flawless grasp of grammar and punctuation. The real story is told in these letters, and they are everything I hoped the book would be. (But I think it's still useful to read the book, in order to get a sense of the events and people that the letters discuss, and at 106 pages it's not really a hardship.)

"Thank goodness Helen Keller existed," said my fella warmly. "Because without her, we would have no Helen Keller jokes."


In this corner...
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, by Bruno Bettelheim

Weighing in at 310 pages (and that's not including the footnotes and index, ladies), The Uses of Enchantment is a comprehensive and scholarly work that explains the underlying meanings of fairy tales based on the teachings of Freud. It enjoys generalizations about childhood, specific real-life examples and long walks in Vienna.

And in this corner...
Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, by Chris Roberts

Without the index, this bantam weight clocks in at 185 pages. Heavy Words is an explanation of the origin of popular nursery rhymes. It enjoys rhyming slang, snide commentary on modern British celebrities, and endless deconstructions of the British monarchy for the past several hundred years.

Heavy Words jumps in with an analysis of "Little Jack Horner." It's a swing and a miss for Heavy Words. Is this rhyme about a stolen deed of land? A rightful inheritance? Heavy Words is unsure.

Uses responds with a clear explanation about why it's useful to study fairy tales, providing a key to the book to follow. It's a solid clout to the jaw from Uses; Heavy Words is down for the count.

Heavy Words is rocketing all over the place now. The audience is frequently referencing the English-to-American slang index at the back of the book, but still sees no real point to most of the catty asides that Heavy Words throws into the mix. Meanwhile, every nursery rhyme in Heavy Words seems to be about a monarch named James, Mary or Henry, and Heavy Words is flailing around trying to explain which goddamn James, Mary or Henry it is. Why do we care? No one is sure.

Meanwhile, Uses continues an effective policy of solid one-two jabs to the face, explaining why and how each fairy tale is relevant to the reader's life. Heavy Words is thrown to the mat and stays down.

Uses has succeeded in returning fairy tales to the reader with something extra added: now we can appreciate them both as the children we were and the adults we are. Whether or not you're a fan of Freud, Bettelheim's observations are often spot-on. The evil stepmother, for example, represents our mother when we're mad at her, the mother who makes us eat our greens or won't let us play outside after dark. When the story's hero wins through, defeating the evil stepmother, we feel like we've gotten even with our own mother and can forgive her. A useful way for a child to make sense of the world.

While this goes on, Heavy Words is in the corner of the ring, head in a bucket of ice. The simple fact is that nursery rhymes aren't as rich with meaning as fairy tales. However, that doesn't excuse the many, many chapters where Heavy Words provides several possible explanations for a rhyme, then sort of shrugs its shoulders and admits it doesn't know which is right. Shoddy scholarship, Words.

And the winner is...
The Uses of Enchantment. Obviously.

Same old

I've been hankering for non-fiction lately, so at my recent trip to Green Apple I picked up five non-fiction stories I thought would broaden my mind a bit. Only when I got them home did I realize that I'm still well within my comfort zone. The books, in no particular order, are:

Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, by Chris Roberts, dealing with where nursery rhymes come from.


Helen Keller: The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, telling how she learned to communicate with the world.


Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet, telling how he communicates with the world.


A Writer's San Francisco, by Eric Maisel and Paul Madonna, subject rather obvious (but I bought it for the Madonna illustrations, I swear).


Warmly Inscribed: The New England Forger and Other Book Tales, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, re-telling facts and legends about libraries and forgers.


Books, writing, communication. Thank goodness I've got sailors' journals from the nineteenth century on hold at the library or I really would be in a rut.