As midlife gives way to bit-later-life, books give way to more books. Might midlife mandate a reflection on all you have read—where it has taken you—and anticipate where you might yet go or what you might yet read toward? I have defended our unread books as imagined reading futures; lately two unexpected literary encounters have taken me in unforeseen directions.
In the middle of this year, I met (read) Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living (A Working Autobiography). A poet friend handed it to me covered in her own marginalia. I was impressed that my friend quoted whole passages at the top of its pages, even as very different passages were striking me. My reading experience was layered with another, pulling me into a conversation.
Levy’s fabulous memoir reminds us that there is a cost to living as well as a cost of living. The cost to living is the sometimes-unwelcome revelation that what we have been living is not what we thought, and what we’ve thought of as living must now change its shape or form immeasurably. What follows is the bigger cost: Can we adapt to what our way of living needs to become? “I did not wish to restore the past,” she writes. “What I needed was an entirely new composition.” How do we accept the discovery that the someone we’ve lived with doesn’t want us or is choosing, on our behalf, to blow up what we have created together? How can we adjust to the extraction of those we have come to expect around us? How do we accept the staircase to mortality of a parent—no matter how adjusted we’ve become to that prospect by illness or their intolerable suffering?
Levy’s memoir has an almost paradoxical clarity, which is what makes it a stellar reading experience. We are, exactly as promised, with her in living her autobiography. It is an acutely precise exhale. Rather like watching someone breathe and detecting exactly when their pulmonary reflex engages. “I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
She embeds with us the objects that keep her going: an electric bike, ice pops from the neighborhood newsstand for her dying mother, the stairs, the failing heating in her apartment complex. It’s the attention to these objects, frequently their lack of cooperation, that reflect the tripping and trudge that is family demise. Not since Vivian Gornick and Rachel Cusk have I read a memoir that’s so mysteriously exacting. Her prose mimics the unfair nature of life, delivering far more than we are equipped to handle, and yet, we continue, unknowingly bumping along its twists and turns, bruised but breathing. She was, after her marriage ended, “transitioning into something or someone else. What and who would that be? How could I describe this odd feeling of dissolving and recomposing? Words have to open the mind. When words close the mind, we can be sure that someone has been reduced to nothingness.”
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Immediately following the unusual comfort of Deborah Levy’s autobiography, I found myself in a bookshop before a very different invitation, this time to view life from the point of view of the fern enthusiast. Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal records a world I had no clue existed. Honestly, I’d assumed the fern was a banal garden nuisance that people tolerate because it is difficult to pull up and perhaps doesn’t need much watering, rather than a millions-year-old survivor that has avoided extinction largely unchanged.
Suddenly in my forty-eighth year, within three pages, mortified at my ignorance, I plunged into the world of botanical expeditioning. Sacks, himself specifically passionate about fern “allies” (clubmosses, horsetails, spike mosses, whisk ferns), grew up in a London garden full of ferns. He takes a fern pilgrimage with his expert friends from the New York Botanical Garden and the thirty or so joyful amateur members of the American Fern Society (formed in the 1890s, still going strong) to the Mexican state of Oaxaca in early 2000. This splendidly nerdy cohort is nothing if not inclusive, their one adhesive being a resounding passion for the fern; knowledge and discovery are for them a revelatory joy rather than a field of competition.
What a relief to join their company in this age of relentless usurping ambition. There’s Dick, the botanical illustrator, and the bearded “passionate, lyrical” birder J.D., along with Scott Mori, a great man for a chat about “the coevolution of flowering plants and insects in the last hundred million years,” and bareheaded-in-all-weathers John Mickel (the organizer of the trip and discoverer of sixty new species of fern in Oaxaca), who exclaims over a Polystichum speciosissimum: “‘Look at those scales and incurved margins!,’ and of a Dryopteris, which he has just found in the forest, ‘Fertile as a moose.’” One man jokes about John that he has “pteridological orgasms”! They have found a home together, hovering over their sightings, each fern lover invested in the other’s discovery, because if you see it, I too will see it; we share the recognition that you know what I don’t know, we cannot individually know nearly as much as we do together. Could we experience reading and thinking about reading in the same manner these folks think about ferns?
I get talking with Scott about our primordial need to identify, to categorize, to organize. He himself, he says, rather than spotting species, immediately goes to a wider category—the family—and then homes in to genus and species. How much, we wonder, is such categorizing hardwired in the brain? How much learned?
It’s possible, I discover, “to fern”: “Having ferned for an hour,” writes Sacks. Now as I wander my neighborhood, where precisely two varieties of fern exist—lots of leaves and slightly fewer leaves but otherwise identical—I stop, bend, and turn over the leaves and pretend I, too, am ferning up.
The same spirit of examination can apply to reading: How much of our reading is accidental, how much intentional, how much directed and influenced by the readers in our cohort? Is our receptiveness and direction in reading hardwired into our brains or responsive and evolving? Are we drawn to single-species enthusiasms or more diverse ecologies? I’ve always prided myself on never having to be told what to read. I take a flaneuse approach and read widely based on what captures my interest, what I bump into. How many lifetimes do we need to read all that we want, and how to resolve the inevitable subtraction from that imposed by wasting time on the unsatisfying or what we’ve been forced to read for work.
My perusal of books is less celebratory than the ferner. I have no patience when I am uninterested in something or underwhelmed by the prose, as when a novel’s form does not contribute to its purpose. Reading is torturous in a way that contemplating ferns apparently is not. Maybe because from ferns one can trap the xylophonic spores of botanical language—Plecosorus speciosissimus, Plagiogyria pectinata, Pteris, Pteridium feei, Pteris podophylla—the endless plosive p’s lining themselves up for inspection! Yet when frustrated by a book the delight of Latin names won’t usually come to the rescue.
I had thought that both books’ reckonings with their careful accumulations, however different, were the reason they were so satisfying. Levy’s memoir feels so exacting because her prose processes living, as we do, through the rendering of objects, places, conversations, sensations, rather than broadcasting feelings and pathologizing. I wrote lists of the names of the ferns and plants in Sacks’s book for the sole pleasure of writing and recording, not knowing what these items might mean for me. One lifetime isn’t enough to become an expert in the myriad topics that appeal to us; the delight of a compact literary encounter is that it offers us a chance to marinate in another’s expertise.
As days pass since reading, though, I see it was the characters surrounding the tellers who provided the true gravity in both Levy’s and Sacks’s books. The reminder: We are formed amongst the eyes and minds and understandings of others. We make sense of the world in the company of others. There is nothing more intoxicating than the passion of another or the ability of people to surprise us during desperately difficult times, even as they record it.
Deborah Levy’s new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, was published this autumn.
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Image: The fern Campyloneurum xalapense. The photograph was taken by Robbin Moran, curator of botany at the New York Botanical Garden who organized the Fern Society Trip to Oaxaca that is the basis for Sacks’s book. The photograph was taken in Costa Rica (which Sacks visited also with Dr. Moran) but Sacks & Co observed this fern on their trip to Oaxaca. Read Dr. Moran’s remembrance of Sacks for the NYBG. We will be posting more pictures from their ferning journeys together @bookpostusa on Instagram.