I have yet another author to add to my list of new favorites--Cynthia Ozick. I'm glad I decided to just randomly pick essays to read rather than drawing from only one book and in the order that they were printed. I think I favor serendipity over a rigid reading plan. This week I picked up The Best American Essays of the Century edited by Joyce Carol Oates and idly flipped through looking for something that looked interesting. I've never read anything by Cynthia Ozick and know very little about her, but when I read the first line of her essay "A Drugstore in Winter" I knew I had to keep reading.
"This is about reading; a drugstore in winter; the gold leaf on the dome of the Boston State House; also loss, panic and dread."
All this in only six pages, and beautifully written, too! The essay was first published in The New York Times Book Review in 1982 and later collected in Art & Ardor. In the biographical notes Ozick is quoted as saying " An essay is a thing of the imagination...A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play." I'm not entirely sure that's accurate, or that I agree at any rate (but keep in mind I am relatively new still to the essay form and thus still a novice), but it does shed light on how she works and thinks.
In "A Drugstore in Winter" there is a certain sense of a free mind at play as she looks back at her childhood in the Bronx during the Depression. In this very memoir-ish essay she writes about how she became a writer through her love of reading.
"In the Park View Pharmacy, in the winter dusk, the heart in my body is revolving like the goldfish fleet-finned in their clear bowls. The librarians are still warming up over their coffee. They do no recognize me, though only half an hour ago I was scrabbling in the mud around the two heavy boxes from the Traveling Library--oafish crates tossed with a thump to the ground. One box contains magazines--Boy's Life, The American Girl, Popular Mechanix. But the other! The other transforms me. It is tumbled with storybooks, with clandestine intimations and transfigurations."
She picked the two fattest books from the box, as they would last longer. Books came her way through a variety of sources though, including her brother "who doesn't like me". The family drugstore has its own lending library and relatives will often leave behind books.
"Norma Foti, a whole year older, transmits a rumor about Louisa May Alcott; afterward I read Little Women a thousand times. Ten thousand! I am no longer incognito, no even to myself. I am Jo in her 'vortex'; not Jo exactly, but some Jo-of-the-future. I am under an enchantment; who I truly am must be deferred, waited for and waited for."
For all her fond memories, though, there is a tinge of sadness as well in her writing. Although as a child she doesn't understand what the Depression means, she still sees her parents working hard in their drugstore late into the night worried over the increasing rent. she sees a family with children living in a boxcar and thinks how she would like to trade places and her father often reminds her of her grandparents still in Moscow living in poverty. She doesn't like school, where she doesn't sing Christmas carols and is often accused of deicide. She calls herself "a luckless goosegirl, friendless and forlorn." But someday she will escape.
"Someday, when I am free of P.S. 71, I will write stories; meanwhile, in winter dusk, in the Park View, in the secret bliss of the Violet Fairy Book, I both see and do not see how these grains of life will stay forever."
I really enjoyed reading this essay. It's hard not to enjoy reading about someone else who loves to read, but she very subtley weaves together her happier recollections with the reality of a harsh childhood in an unsentimental manner. I couldn't find this online, but it's well worth searching out and reading! By the way check out this interview with Ozick that appeared in The Atlantic--very insightful.