I set out this year to read an essay a week and hopefully write about it, but I've done a poor job of doing so in the past few months. A few years ago I read a short story a week and managed to stick to my plan the entire year. I read some really wonderful stories and many of them have stuck with me. Maybe I just enjoy stories more than essays? Or maybe this year is just not the year for reading plans. In any case it would be nice to try and still read an essay or two each month with no set plan on when or what I read. Part of my problem is having only two anthologies to choose from even though they are both excellent books. Both are hefty and not really the sort of book to read while walking on a treadmill or lugging with me to work. I may have to see what the library has to offer for more selection.
But today I do feel like spending a quiet hour reading an essay by Eudora Welty, an author I have not yet gotten around to reading. I've discovered, though, that often a good introduction to a new author is by reading an essay or short story by them. Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909 and lived there for nearly her entire life. During the Depression Welty worked for the WPA taking photographs. The Smithsonian magazine wrote about her one woman show in one of their issues last year. You can read about it here (make sure you check out the photo and video galleries). Though Welty is known more for her fiction, she also wrote essays and criticism. Welty won many awards including the Pulitzer.
I love the way her essay, "Sweet Devouring" begins.
"When I used to ask my mother which were were, rich or poor, she refused to tell me. I was then nine years old and of course what I was dying to hear was that we were poor."
She wanted to be poor, but not just poor, but poor enough. She had been reading a book called The Five Little Peppers about a poor family with many troubles yet their house was always filled with joy. Sweet devouring is what she calls reading, for which she had a passion. Sound familiar?
"Trouble, the backbone of literature, was still to me the original property of the fairy tale, and as long as there was plenty of trouble for everybody and the rewards for it were falling in the right spots, reading was all smooth sailing. At that age a child reads with higher appetite and gratification, and with those two stars sailing closer together, than ever again in his growing up."
Choosing books from her shelves at home she would find she would read a story, and then "snap" it was over. She liked reading the book--except that she finished it. It was through her visits to the public library that she discovered the Series Books.
"There were many of everything, generations of everybody, instead of one. I wasn't coming to the end of reading, after all--I was saved."
"Sweet Devourings" is about one young reader's beginnings and development, and she writes about her library visits with affection.
"All that summer I used to put on a second petticoat (our librarian wouldn't let you in the front door if she could see through you), ride my bicycle up the hill and 'through the Capitol' (shortcut) to the library with my two read books in the basket (two was the limit you could take out at one time when you were a child and also as long as you lived), and tiptoe ('Silence') and exchange them for two more in two minutes. Selection was no object. I coasted with the two new books home, jumped out of my petticoat, read (I supposed I ate and bathed and answered questions put to me), then in all hope put my petticoat back on and rode those two books back to the library to get my next two."
Age and experience change a reader. Over time she discovered the later books in a series were never as good as the first. As long as the series was kept going nothing really bad could really happen. She called this "one grand prevention." So a young reader turns into a more mature reader. It happens to us all.
"And then I went again to the home shelves and my lucky hand reached and found Mark Twain--twenty-four volumes, not a series, and good all the way through."
What an excellent way to spend an hour. If you can get your hands on a copy of this essay, I think it's one you might appreciate!