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I’d Rather Be In Philadelphia

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Well, of course, with Lee,  I had no interest at all in being thrown off a boat or rescued by a dolphin.

But I did have an interest in going to Corfu, and to Crete–and both those places really existed, and going there was something  I was really able to do, eventually if not right away.   That’s what I meant when I said that the fantasy had to be realizable.  I didn’t imagine myself participating in the plot, but going to the location.

In fact, if I think about it, I realize that, at that time in my life, the plots of the books I read were literally irrelevant.  It didn’t matter if the book I was reading had “a good story,” because I wasn’t looking for a story.   I was looking for an atmosphere, and for a sense of place, of a place that was not-where-I-was.

When I wanted desperately to move to New York or live in  Paris, I read books set in contemporary (or near contemporary) New York or Paris.  Iread all kinds of books with those settings, and cared very little what else was going on in them.  I even read books set at colleges, because “going away to college” was the first leg on the journey of escape.  I’d been looking forward to it since I was three.

I don’t know when  I stopped reading like this, but maybe I haven’t, completely.  Oh, I don’t read to feed my fantasies of escape any  more, but what I do do is to read in preparation for a trip I’m actually taking.  The first time I went to Portugal, I  read Jose Saramago’s novels (a lot of them) as well as the novels of a less well known novelist from Portugale, a novel set in  Lisbon by an Italian mystery writer, few movies by Manoelo de Oliveira, and some of the classics (poetry by Fernando Pessoa, The Lusiads.

Okay.  And some cookbooks.  I’ve got this thing for cookbooks, big, incredibly well illustrated cookbooks.  But that’s another story.

Anyway, I sometimes become interested in going someplace because of the fiction I read, although only rarely does that work with movies (or even cookbooks).   Then  I’ll start the cycle, finding m ore fiction, finding movies, finding other things, until I decide whether I really want to go or not.

I think a large part of my lack of interest in going to  Italy, even though there are specific things there I would like to see, is the fact that the novels I’ve read by contemporary Italian writers either don’t inspire me at all (Italo Calvino), or mostly aren’t about contemporary Italy (Umberto Eco).

In spite of all that, though, I’m still completely and utterly fascinating by books written about the place where I live by people who have lived here.  I’ve read my way not only through the usual New England authors (Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hawthorne) but through Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will and a number of things by Timothy Dwight, plus biographies of most of the same and some histories. 

I’m even fairly well up on Robert Frost, and he was from away.

In all of these cases, though, I think the bottom line is that I need the lanscape to be real, to be someplace I can actually get to.  I’ve gotten to a lot of them in my life, although I still haven’t been to  Kathmandu and I don’t think I ever will climb a Himalaya. 

As for New England, I think the fascination is largely due to the fact that it belongs to me.   Memebers of one side of my family have been in this part of the country since the seventeenth century, and in spite of the fact that I mostly take after another side–and that I’m going through one of those phases when “getting the hell out of New England” seems like the next best movie–there’s a sense in which I can never be anything but a New England woman of the “high thinking and plain living” type. 

I don’t own a single pair of Birkenstocks, but that’s because they’d be ostentatious.

A lot of this is just temperament and taste, of course.  I don’t l ike reading about places neither I nor anybody else can ever get to, which means most science fiction and fantasy bores me to tears.

And even when I’m not reading fiction “seriously,” it seems I’m not reading it for the story, either.

Written by janeh

June 1st, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'I’d Rather Be In Philadelphia'

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  1. We have exactly the opposite reactions with this. I have lived in other areas and enjoyed them all (except one). I always came back to my home province – but not my orignal home town. This is where I belong. My surname, that of my American father, makes some people think I’m ‘from away’ (I thought nowhere else used that term!). Technically I was born away, although my mother’s family have been here for generations and I left my birthplace so early in life I don’t remember it. None of that bothers me (although I think it did bother one of my sibs.) I know where I belong, and if others think I don’t belong, I’m not worried.

    But I read very very little fiction about the place. I’ve read the standard histories, and biographies of some major figures, but almost no fiction. I never quite thought about why before. It’s not all by writers ‘from away’. We’ve got award-winning local writers. I’ve read a little of the work of some of them. But I never think to pick up a local novel for a bit of light reading.

    I almost think there’s something in the depths of my mind or personality that thinks there’s something a bit frivolous about novels; hard work is more important in the real world, and nothing is more real than my home province. But that makes no sense. Pretty well all my relatives – local and American – put a high value on books and education.

    You’ve certainly given me something to think about!

    I don’t do cookbooks though, unless I’m really bored with my usual cooking, and then I don’t want pictures, I want simple recipes and easy-to-find ingredients and nothing that starts ‘take a can of cream of mushroom soup’. I’m more likely to read about history and historical sites and museums before a trip, rather than a novel. I love books about places I can’t get to or that never exist, and I like plots and interesting characters.

    A friend passed on two books to me to read/pass on as desired. One was a Grisham, the other Joanna Lindsey. I’ll probably read the Grisham & read enough to figure out the sort of romance Lindsey writes and decide I didn’t like it. Both US federal prisons and US ranches are ‘exotic’ to me, but they are not equally appealing.

    My sister’s given me a mystery novel from Iceland, which might be OK. Now, that’s fairly exotic, but it seems to be set in a institute of some kind in a city that just happens to be in Iceland, but I’ve barely started it.


    1 Jun 09 at 8:36 am

  2. If I can identify with a view-point character who’s doing something interesting, they can take me anywhere, from Cavanaugh Street to Middle-Earth. Given a choice between a mundane setting with a character I like and find interesting, and an exotic setting with an unsympathetic or dull character, I’ll go with the character I like every time. I suspect the reason I read books set all over the place is less because I’m specifically interested in those places, as that there are sympathetic characters everywhere. A book with a good sense of place is a bonus.

    On the other hand, there is an old French book by Xavier De Maistre called A Journey Around My Room, which is exactly what it sounds like. I’ve never been tempted to read it, because no matter how sympathetic the character in it might be, it sounds horribly dull.

    Lee B

    1 Jun 09 at 12:25 pm

  3. Hmmm. My “trip reads” are all history, not fiction–leading to moments when I’ve taken the local cabbie to a battlefield he never knew was there–thank Heaven there was a monument! Or knowing that defending northern Britain hinged on Eboracum, which the IX Hispana had garrisoned before the XX Valeria Victrix–but what do they call it NOW? (Oh, that’s right–York.) Of course, it’s a little discouraging when you discover that Lundy’s Lane battlefield is now downtown Niagara Falls. Contemporary fiction I read on my return when–I hope–I know what the author is talking about. History and the odd travel book like LOOKING FOR TROUBLE and BALKAN GHOSTS are for orientation. Fiction is for plot and character and, with a little luck, insight.

    I do expect fiction set in present and past times to be accurate to the limits of my knowledge. I expect fantasy and SF to exhibit, if I might borrow the phrase, “internal consistency.” That may set the bar somewhat higher, as there are various real-life situations and events I’d probably want carefully explained before I’d accept them in fiction. (The Battle of Barnet is high on the list.)

    But the general rule is that I didn’t read fiction set in New York because I wanted to go there, but wanted to go there–apart from a certain text the NYPL wouldn’t loan out–because it was home to so many of my favorite fictional people and places.

    As for fiction set in my country–the old Northwest territory, give or take: we’ve been there a bit–if it weren’t for Jennifer Crusie, I’d starve. Plenty of writers, but the action mostly takes place elsewhere. I have read more books written by Ohio writers and set on alien planets than I have read books written by Ohio writers and set in Ohio by a substantial margin–and with good reason. Two centuries of peace and prosperity are great to live through and raise families, but no great boon to my favorite forms of fiction.


    1 Jun 09 at 4:48 pm

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