So…are you going to read all these books, or…?
I get that a lot. At least, I’ve gotten that a lot since I started this library project/blog. At least, I’ve gotten that a lot out loud since I started this library project/blog! Perhaps booksellers and friends were silently wondering that for a while since, long before today, I’ve owned far more books than (you’d think) one person could get to in a lifetime.
Or did I? And even if I did, does that matter? I read a lot. According to goodreads.com, I read 66 books last year, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. So far this year, I’ve read 44 books. Even so, I found that I was always adding more to my “to read” shelf than I was reading in a given year. I used to despair about reading everything I wanted to read. There was so much out there! I wanted to read it all!
“You can’t read it all,” my dad would caution me. “Just like you can’t listen to it all. They record new music every day, probably while you’re sleeping!” He’s right, of course.
But maybe the purpose of a good library, even a private one, is not to read it all. Maybe the purpose of a good library is to have it available as an option, as one of many options when selecting What To Read Next. And you may get to all of them eventually, or you may not. And hey, you may lend a book you never read to one of your friends, who ends up loving the book. So owning it turns out to be a great idea, even if you personally never read it.
Since embarking on the Women’s Library Project, I’ve finished three books (including the book that started it all, which I already talked about in my first blog post, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo).
Elders and Betters by Ivy Compton-Burnett was a book I bought used online a year or two ago because I wasn’t going to find it anywhere else. It was on the Feminista list, which is how I became aware of Compton-Burnett, but, though I’ve searched and searched, the only other time I found Compton-Burnett in a used bookstore was in 2017 in New Orleans, when I found The Present and the Past at Dauphine Street Books. When I bought that, the bookseller (I am not making this up) laughed in my face. “No one reads Ivy Compton-Burnett anymore!” he practically barked. He’s not wrong.
It was a strange book, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it (just like I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Present and the Past). Both are truly bizarre books – no one writes like Compton-Burnett. Elders and Betters, like the other (which I read last year), is almost completely dialogue, which is where you get all of your information of the characters – there is no interjection from the omniscient narrator and no description. And the plot is twisty as a Shakespearean comedy! I’ve never read a book like it, ever. But I couldn’t put it down.
And Compton-Burnett is a story unto herself, in a way. She was a very popular, respected writer in her day that has fallen into obscurity without explanation. She is not read and she is not taught – judging by the couple of articles and blogposts I found, the same is true in Britain as well.
She doesn’t seem to have been resurrected by any of the feminist presses in Britain that specialize in just this – finding female authors that have fallen into obscurity and then reprinting them so that the public can rediscover them. Britain has several of these presses, so you’d think at least ONE of them would adopt poor Ivy! There must be something with the copyright or Compton-Burnett’s estate that’s preventing this.
And we have Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio From the Thirties. Yonnondio! What a strange name for a book, no? Ahh, but it makes perfect sense when you learn where it came from – Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (ahh, everything comes full circle)! It means “lament for the lost” – which this novel is.
It is “from the thirties” because it is just that – a novel Olsen started in the thirties and intended to be an epic of a struggling family. The impoverished family moves from a coal town to a farm where the children are finally healthy and fed, but they fall immediately into debt to the farm after the first harvest. So they leave for Omaha to work in the slaughterhouses. The novel ends just as a heatwave promising the droughts and famine of the Dustbowl arrives.
She wrote it at only age nineteen – nineteen! – and it holds almost boundless promise to have been the Great American Novel. The prose is beautiful and unique, a fever dream that is still frighteningly bound by the sights, smells, scabs, and wounds of reality.
But she married, had four children, and became involved in labor and poverty politics. Her story is the embodiment of Virginia Woolf’s words about what a woman needs in order to write fiction: “a room of her own (with a key and a lock) and enough money to support herself.” Olsen had neither, but she found the drafts of the novel decades later and published it to show what could have been – “Yonnondio! Yonnondio! unlimn’d they disappear…”
I build this library for Olsen. For all the women who aimed to write novels to rival Steinbeck, whose novels would have surpassed Steinbeck’s, but who became mothers, or whose poverty or gender (or both) held them back. I build a library filled with slender books like Yonnondio From the Thirties and Tell Me a Riddle because they were written by women who wrote after the children went to sleep instead of all day, in a study, while a housekeeper brought them meals and tea so that they could write multi-volume epics. I salute you, Tillie Olsen! I’m grateful you wrote what you did.