A couple of months ago I wrote a thing called “Roots & Wings” about the kind of book that resorts to every manner of potentially distracting diagrams and sidebars and rollercoastering footnotes to make its case - whether the story requires it or not. Often this is debatable. I mentioned one example – The Invisible Mistakecase by Charise Mericle Harper – where I thought the fanciness fit the cause, and the subject of the title I described as “a place you can stash all of the screw-ups you’d rather not forget.” Since I am pretty much out on my own with these articles (resulting in probably more than a few syntactical swan dives) I am occasionally grateful when someone checks in with a correction like, “Um, am I missing something here?” or “Shouldn’t it be all the screw-ups you’d rather forget. Delete ‘not’?”
Usually these send me scrambling, and sometimes also wondering about whatever bloodshot, brilliant hallucinations I was experiencing when I botched it, though I was happy to discover in this case that “not” was exactly what I’d meant, and the luggage of the title was specifically intended for remembering. And quantifying too. For providing some shape and tangibility to the sort of abstractions that we would like to be able to recall as more than the sum of big words, so we can even learn from them conceivably, or at least not be haunted by shadows. This struck me as magnificently literal when I read it, and even vital to the mission of books, especially those that are meant for children just when they are presumed to be busy filling in with words what they already know without saying. That cache of regrets might be invisible to everyone else, but it’s a bulgy, significant presence when you are always on the edge of reliving them.
What is a memory exactly? Right: now try explaining that to your average four-year-old. Is it pictures in your mind? Is it only? In Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, the (epically) eponymous youngster discovers that his 96-year-old friend is losing her memory, sets out to compile a list of what that might include (something from long ago, something that makes you laugh, something warm), and finally reports back with a collection of seashells, a demented-looking puppet, and a warm, fresh egg, among other objects. Sundry but solid. They’re his memories after all (the seashells from as long ago as the summer), but they are no less evocative for being shared. A medal reminds the senior of a brother who went off to war and never came back – there’s nothing metaphorical about that. This book is about as wide-eyed as it sounds, but those eyes are also clear. Here’s an old lady who is heading pretty quickly for the exits; she should not need to suffer any false sentiments, or conceits.
We take our definitions from such memories – random and unruly and inaccessible as they sometimes are - even when we are supposed to be in agreement on the outlines. What is courage, for example? Is it, as Bernard Waber describes it in a book by that name, being the first to make up after an argument? Going to bed without a night light? Breaking bad habits? We’re always refining. But here’s a good sampler to start.
What is art? Oh God, please don’t make me read another article about desecrated crucifixes to find out. And I suppose we’ll never know if the guy who sank the shark in formaldehyde felt truly inspired when he was doing it, and I suppose that doesn’t matter unless we are the ones who plunked down several million dollars to call it ours. This seems pretty arbitrary finally compared to the cost of inspiration – in days and weeks of near-misses, in tears and spilling-over garbage pails and disembodied ears – but also the rewards. Here is Peter Reynolds in Ish, about a blossoming young artist who has already seen his share of inspiration and setbacks and discouragements, when finally:
“Ramon felt light and energized. Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely. He began to draw what he felt – loose lines. Quickly springing out. Without worry.”
Likewise, Reynolds’ drawings are loose and representative; this story is unmistakably the product of personal experience, and so, I think, speaks clearly where others are inclined to waffle through ennobling platitudes. As parents, we hear so much about the importance of exposing our children to the arts, it’s a wonder we can even taste them anymore between doses. On My Island (by Marie-Louise Gay, of Stella fame) describes in vivid, tumultuous color all of the wild adventures – of swooping bats and rodeo dolphins and erupting volcanoes - when there’s nothing apparently to do. Ladies and gentlemen: let’s give a warm round of applause for imagination. (You might have brushed past it on your way in.) Because what are we after here finally – with all of this reading and drawing and naming and remembering – if it isn’t the least visible parts of ourselves?