The story of you and Ernest Hemingway
In the last few years, I have begun to keep track of each book I’ve read, something I wish I had done decades ago. Tracking my reading life is akin to recording my development as a human being. The books I’ve read (and I suspect this is true for you, too) are part of the timeline of my life experiences. One’s bookshelf is a history, don’t you think? When I see the books in my book case, I can often remember not only how I felt reading them, but when and where I was as I read.
For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez will be forever associated with a particularly hot, wonderful summer when my children were small and they played outside for long, happy days. I read almost all of his work outdoors to the sound of children’s voices. I read Jorge Amado early in the mornings before going to work later that year, his sensual descriptions of Bahia a stark contrast to those long ago winter days. Somehow, I was still emotionally tuned into Julius Cesar in eighth grade while enduring a simmering, miserable crush on a boy who sat nearby. I will never forget reading Sharon Olds for the first time while visiting my parent’s house next to a small lake in Michigan, feeling rebellious, even at the age of 35! I read Phillip Roth’s novel, “American Pastoral” while I was living through a tumultuous year in Argentina.
I can remember if it was winter or fall when reading certain books, whether I read in the evenings or at the beach or in a tranquil corner of the house somewhere. I can sometimes even remember what I was cooking, standing in the kitchen once in a while with a book in my hand. I am not a hermit by any stretch of the imagination, but I count these as some of the most pleasurable moments of my life!
For the first three decades of my reading life, I read poetry almost exclusively. The rhythm and cadence of my internal language during those years were formed by the spare and visual quality one encounters in poetry. By the time I discovered fiction, I was a different person entirely – more worldly, more experienced. Reading fiction was a way to commiserate about the dilemmas and conflicts we encounter by simply living and trying to love. Fiction reminds us how the circumstances of life conspire to either destroy us or help us grow depending on how we manage them.
But a curious thing has happened in my 40’s. I set fiction aside and I started to read biographies – a wholly different kind of story. Biographies give us the nitty-gritty, a glimpse backstage. Biographies tell us how it all turned out, how one’s day to day choices added up, what the costs and consequences were, how history shaped events and attitudes. To give you an idea of some of the things on my reading list this past year and a half, I have read about the lives of Che Guevara, Pablo Neruda, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Julia child, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, the testimony and interviews of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Coco Chanel, Hadley Richardson Hemingway, and of course our friend Ernest Hemingway. This does not include the many memoirs I’ve devoured about ordinary people facing extraordinary situations.
With biographies, and especially with Ernest Hemingway because I am so immersed in his life, I am able to calculate what he was doing at my age, how old he was when he published a particular book, how he balanced (or didn’t balance) a family, a career, and his own needs. When I think of Hadley leaving Paris in 1926 with Bumby and no family to go home to, I know what having a small child is like and wonder what I would have done in her place. Without intending to, I compare experiences.
So what is it we look for when we read biographies? What do we need? I have an unscientific theory that we enjoy biographies as we grow older because for a moment we can set aside the question of what will happen in our own lives and we can peek into someone else’s for awhile. After all, we get to see how it turned out! We understand how easily a human being can go astray and we are familiar with our own flaws and forgive (or at least understand) the flaws of others. We celebrate when a fellow human goes, as Ernest said, “far out past where he can go” because later in life we understand how truly triumphant that is!
So what have I learned, or what do I need to learn from Ernest Hemingway so far? I’m still finding out. The life of Ernest Hemingway continually astonishes me. I may never attempt some of the adventures he had, but I often think about how he got up early every day, alone, and began his work. By fulfilling this commitment to himself he created his own life one word at a time. I endeavor to be as dedicated as he was – and I would like to be truly free like he was, but I know that freedom to live a full life such as his comes from that day to day dedication. So along with work and play and family and friends, I continue writing and especially reading, adding more books to my own evolving story. How about you?