Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his fifteen year old son growing into a black man in America. This letter, is 152 pages long. Because this work feels precisely like a letter, it results almost in guilt while reading it because you feel all the love and pain and anguish and anger that Coates experiences and expresses to his son. These are emotions that aren’t generally shared when writing about American history.* Books about history can induce anger, frustration, and guilt, but those are experienced by the reader, and not outright expressed by the writer. Why? Because we were told that history is what actually existed. We do not learn until later that history alters by who is telling the history, who is the writer, the “academic.” And so these “history” books we read growing up, are very one-sided, and of course, emotions are removed, falsely assuming objectivity. But how are they objective when they are only telling one version?
Another year, another Friends of the San Francisco Public Library booksale. This year was different though. I received a VIP pass, so I was invited to go for the member day, when it was closed to the riff raff (me, every other day). I went around five, and everything was still so clean and pristine. People were everywhere, books piled high, similar editions grouped into large stacks, and so many clean almost brand-new editions.
It seemed everywhere I went I saw Rebecca Solnit‘s Men Explain Things to Me. Having recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and finding a kindred soul in Gay, I was excited to read this new essay that gestated the term “mansplaining.”
The essay which gives the collection its title, Men Explain Things to Me, is quite short. In it Solnit recalls a conversation with a man. She is telling him about a book she wrote when the man interrupts her to tell her about a seminal book on the same subject released that summer… And it’s her book but he is too daft to realize it, nor has he read this book he is telling her about. Solnit uses this incident to explore this phenomena of men explaining things to women that women already know. And of men telling women what is right (most often regarding our bodies).
“At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” (Capote, 5)
Years ago the Huntington Library hosted an exhibition about Bukowski. I flew to Los Angeles, as a friend promised to take me. Fast forward to that Saturday night, 2am, and drinks are still flowing. Then to 4am, when we get back to her place. Around 4:30, I fall asleep, and I know, there will be no Bukowski exhibit for me. I wake up, early, anxious, excited, hopeful even though I know how the day will play out. My friend and her boyfriend, late risers, a late brunch, joined by her friends that I don’t know. And no Bukowski for me.
This last week, I was visiting another friend in Glendale, California. She is another fellow bibliophile, also with her MA in English Literature. We had only two and a half hours to explore the Library, the American Art Collection, the European Art Collection, the Japanese gardens, the Chinese gardens, the desert gardens, and the rose gardens. We ended up spending the bulk of our time in front of famous books. Those books that you read about, the ones that are always featured in crime thrillers, where the shady book dealer brokers a deal with the devil to get the crooked rich buyer a folio that no one’s ever heard of because it’s the only one in existence because no one will allow it to be mass produced.
Sada and I stared in awe. We quietly shouted to one another, hitting one another, gesturing, exclaiming, “LOOK, LOOK at THIS!!! It is here, it is AMAZING!!!” Over and over. We gestured, whispered, and exclaimed.
There was a First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, printed 7 years after his death. This is the primary source for his text. When academics argue, this is the source they go to. Sada and I both had to write a thesis (hers on Bret Easton Ellis, mine on Salman Rushdie), and we both were thinking about what it would be like to access similar resources available for our research. Again, Sada and I stood and stared. Stared and stared some more.
There is also an early manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately they had to put it in storage so there was an exact facsimile, written on vellum. And yet still, we were in awe.
Some notes by one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain. Everyone loves Twain, and he’s one of those writers that seems to belong to everyone, so I never considered I would see his writing. I imagine his stuff is spread out all over, and locked away from the public; available to only the most serious academic.
Some notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I saw the Keats-Shelley apartment in Rome. And once again, to see his handwritten notes was beyond words. To see his art in human touch, not just printed in mass produced books. To see his heavy stroke, the deep depths of his ink, and his passionate scratching out was incredible.
And finally, poor Jack London. He was worried about his manuscript The Sea-Wolf burning in his home, so he placed it in a fire-proof box, which sadly was destroyed in the San Francisco fires of 1906.
Museums generally offer art for the public to view. I love looking at paintings, sculptures, digital art, etc, but my favorite art of all by far, is the written word. I love that it can be mass produced and shared with the public. I love that it is the simplest form of art and also the very hardest. To transform someone’s thoughts, to be able to influence a person’s perspective, and get into their mind, well, to me, that’s the most amazing art of all. There is a noble beauty in a story that remains the same over and over and over, regardless of publisher, nevermind the book cover, forget the passage of time. The story remains and lives on forever. No one need worry that the single piece will be destroyed. There are other copies. Someone can reprint it. But then, to be able to see the writer’s form, their penmanship, or typing, or organization, that is part of their craft as well. I want to see what their process was, I want to explore more, and most often, their old manuscripts are kept locked away, for posterity, for future academics. I understand, but part of me wants to say, what about the current readers? Don’t we get to see these early drafts of art?
The Huntington Library fulfilled all those desires. I saw things I never thought possible. And the room itself that they are all stored in was magnificent. Dark panelling; an old safe that was open, empty, and visible; leather benches, long, long, heavy, dark drapes all set the tone for the perfect literary experience.
So excited here, and overwhelmed from everything I’ve seen.
Sada and I walked the gardens, and sat briefly on this bench. A couple walked by and offered to take our photo. It was a quiet moment after such a glorious day.