Wordlove: Paris Review at the Hammer

Last week I went to a Hammer Reading followed by a Q&A with the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, and the editor of The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein. My overarching feeling as I sat there was, “These people are so articulate and have such wide vocabularies – I need to surround myself with more people like this!”

One of my favorite parts of the discussion was when an audience member asked the panel, “Where did your love of words begin? Or when did you first know/discover your passion for literature?”

Wordlove [wurd·luhv] n. a deep and enduring amorous emotion for collections of letters, or, an infatuation with grammar, spelling, story-telling, and all things word-related. (Kidding, I just made all that up. But you get the idea.)

Sadie had a mother with a certain discerning ban on any books she found too vulgar, and hence as a child Stein used to sneak off in bookstores to read Once Upon A Potty. (I used to love this book, in all its red, square, flowered, graphic glory.) The prohibition of some books only instilled in Stein a deeper love for all of them. The editors, though they have the same last name, are actually not related; Lorin joked, “We’re not siblings, but I believe we had the same mother.” Mona Simpson, by comparison, said she grew up reading all manner of “vulgar” books, and her love of words grew just the same.

As for me, two salient memories stick out in my mind: a certain bedtime story my father used to tell and the moment I learned to read.

My early wordlove was instilled, I think, by being read to every night before bed. My father, an architect, and a writer himself, used to read to my little sister and me, and also used to tell us stories he made up on the spot. Always, always, I wanted more. Another, I would plead, tell us another. Tell us a long one. Ok, he would say. “Once upon a time, there was a long, long, long, long, long snake. The end.”

And then – the moment I learned to read. There was actually an instant where everything clicked. I was in my aunt’s living room, with my grandmother, and she held the “I Can Read” book while I cried in frustration. How I hated that little boy in the book in his stupid red-and-white striped shirt! I tried, I cried, I tried and cried some more. My grandmother, with astounding patience, coaxed me back to the book, and I tried again. And miraculously, the letters came together, made sense, I could recognize and pronounce words, and I could read. I was voracious after that. Read Jurrassic Park in elementary school, things like that. Unlike other parents, who struggled to get their kids to read, my mom mandated that for every “fun” book I read, I had to read a classic. I scoured the shelves for something that looked of minor interest. Rose In Bloom promised young love, but this is Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about times when holding hands couldn’t be done without a chaperone. Luckily my mother’s mandate didn’t hinder my passion for words, and of course I began to write as much as I read (and you know where that went).

Sadie said that she does not want to see books treated as rare artifacts, like things held in museums, or treated with extreme caution. She loves the ubiquitous, almost disposable nature of books, and hopes this doesn’t change – she treats hers horribly, she admitted, throwing them into her purses, eating with them, bending covers and staining pages.

I, too, love eating and reading, and am guilty of staining many a page. I hope for my books to be read, stained, dog-eared – loved. Of course I have to write them first. So yes, I’ve officially decided that while my writers group does NaNoWriMo, I am participating in my own NaNoEdMo. Fifty hours in the month of November. This Thursday it begins! I’m filled with the usual: excitement and trepidation. Will I be able to do this? Is it crazy to try? There were several books I had intended to read before beginning the revision, which I have not read. I had also hoped to go through everybody’s notes in eager detail. Perhaps write an outline. My mentor suggested setting down a list of changes to make. I have three days to prepare… I’m stressed out all ready.

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