Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Summoned by Sayers

UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies will host its annual Frances Clarke Sayers lecture on Sunday, April 5. Brian Selznick will be the speaker, which is fabulous - except also horrifying as I'll miss it due to a stinky old family vacation (all right, it'll be fun, and we'll be making a pilgrimage to Santa Rosa to visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum - woo!).

But that's not what this post is about.

When I was a kid - older than 10 but younger than 13 - I was walking along the boardwalk one late afternoon as the sun was setting. It was a gorgeous sunset, so I stopped and stared at it, and it seemed to me that I had never experienced anything approaching this magnificence in my life. I was shaken to the core, both by the beauty of this sunset and by the realization that it was too intense for me to fully understand or appreciate or describe. It was beyond my ability as a person to comprehend this beauty in its entirety - and this both exhilirated and shattered me.

I imagine everyone has had an experience like this, when they have been moved by inexplicable beauty or unimaginable concepts. There's nothing like lying on your back and staring up at a starry night sky to make a person feel inadequate in both size and understanding - but immense in yearning.

What I forgot until just recently is that this kind of experience - on a much smaller scale - can happen to very young children, and it often happens through books. Last Sunday, I was re-reading Frances Clarke Sayers' Summoned by Books and was once again enthralled by her 1956 speech "Of Memory and Muchness." In it, Sayers points out, with eloquence and humor, the power and influence that children's books have had on the lives and psyches of many people - and not just children's librarians. About children's books she says, "Few people outside of the profession know their infinite variety, the scope of their interests, and the heights of their inspiration. And yet, the books read in childhood have lasting effect."

Sayers gives several examples, and my favorite is that of C.S. Lewis. In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes,

"I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining. (Squirrel Nutkin) administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the expierience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible - how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, 'in another dimension.'"

Again, I think many and perhaps all readers have had that shock, that trouble, in relation to a book they read as a child - and perhaps several. There were many picture books I turned to again and again, including The Little Brute Family by Russell Hoban and Play with Me by Marie Hall Ets. There was something I needed from them that they gave me again and again, and yet they left me with a strange feeling that I was still hungry, that I hadn't gotten all there was to get from them. I pored over the illustrations in M. Sasek's This is San Francisco and never failed to be fascinated by the drawing of all the crazed criss-crossing wires over the San Francisco streets. I yearned to get inside those books and wrap them around my shoulders.

Children are capable of deep and mysterious feelings. When those feelings are aroused by a book that has tremendous meaning for them, they can experience (and explore and wonder at) them again and again - like picking at a scab, but much better! And as adults, they can still feel a shadow of those same feelings just by reading that book again. It's a wonder and a miracle.

Sayers also makes the point that these core-shaking reactions to literature are probably not going to be wrought by, say, Disney's version of Pinocchio. I think I agree - but on other hand, my own children fixated as young children on some fairly unlikely books and I probably did as well. It's impossible to know what will awaken that feeling of "incalculable importance," as Lewis says.

Read Summoned by Books by Frances Clarke Sayers. Her humanity and genius will move you, I guarantee it.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to put the Frances Clarke Sayers book on my list. It sounds wonderful!