Friday, September 16, 2016

My Reading Life: The World is My Home (Michener)

James Michener is almost a household word. Whether or not someone is a reader, he has likely heard of Michener. I've never read any Michener before, but I've associated his name with historical fiction and big, fat books. Until the last few years, I've not had a lot of time to read big, fat books, so seeing a few of his titles pique my interest, I've stepped onto the Michener path.

I decided to first read his memoir, thinking this would give me good background into his novels, a landscape of sorts. A few years ago I read Pat Conroy's memoir-of-sorts before I read a number of his novels and found it really helpful to know about him first to understand why he wrote what he did. I thought the same would be true of Michener, but now, I'm not so sure. Michener's novels are highly rated by readers (four - five stars), though this memoir seems to have a few lower reviews than the novels. If I didn't already have a few Michener's on my shelves, I probably would not choose to read anything else by him. 

My reading copy of his memoir is 512 pages of small font, and the pages are fairly densely packed. Lots of words. Lots and lots of words. All of which would be fine except, there are just too many. Michener obviously didn't have a problem thinking about what to write, nor the lack of time and effort to type them all out; he just writes everything. In fact, he mentions how he avoids or overcomes any hint of "writer's block" by rewriting sections. He loves to write.

There is no doubt that Michener was an accomplished author. He wrote about what he knew and had experienced. He researched well. And he described in this memoir that most every night, he would spend time at his typewriter recording the events of the day. That, in time, provided the fodder for his novels. Unfortunately, in The World is My Home, I believe he must have combed through and included every note he ever kept! The book contains fourteen chapters with headings such as "Mutiny," "Tour," "People," "Writing," "Intellectual Equipment," and "Meanings." Whenever the pages were just not striking my fancy, turning them until they did was easy. 

 The first lines I marked worthy of keeping were these: 
"Privacy is obtained at night by pulling cords that drop wide curtains made from woven fibers taken from the coconut palms, and when one sees those curtains fall gracefully at night, one has the feeling that peace and benediction have descended upon that house."
What a beautiful description! I can see, and even feel, soft island breezes fluttering those falling, light curtains. I hope I always remember this picture every time I close our window coverings at night. And I hope I seek to beckon that peace and benediction within.

Another marked passage Michener wrote in the "Travel" chapter that resonated with me:

"It was a magical road, and often when I walked back home after finishing my work harvesting asparagus for the man who owned the farm at which the road ended, I would visualize myself continuing to walk westward, right past my house and through the dusk toward the wonders that my geography books assured me existed out west. I always saw myself as traveling alone, moving into one great adventure after another, and never did my mind tire of that imaginary exercise." 
Michener had developed a good foundation upon which to enjoy life: 
". . . I had none of the clothes and games and equipment that boys my age would normally have had. All I really had was that music, the art I remember so well and the endless books from the library; the essential elements of those three I could take with me intellectually and without burdening my knapsack."
When I got to this one, I had to laugh rather sardonically and wonder what Michener would say about this 2016 election:
"I do not want ever to be governed by men or women who have not subjected themselves to the election process and have thus learned humility."
And I thought I might be the only one this happened to:
"Sometimes when I have to look up a word, I waste a great deal of time because I start to read the dictionary as if it were a novel that makes me eager to see what comes next. The words of English have been endlessly fascinating for me. . . ."
One of Michener's early professions was an editor for a major publisher:
"I acquired an abiding respect for the concept of a book as one of the finest symbols of our civilization . . . . a timeless pledge to the future."

Michener described Somerset Maugham's thoughts about words which I'm sure many of us understand:
"Somerset Maugham, who late in life confessed that when he first thought of becoming a writer he started a small notebook in which he jotted down words that seemed unusually beautiful or exotic . . . . "
Though this quote is not from this memoir or any of Michener's novels, he did describe just how I feel too:
From Michener's introduction to Ernest Hemingway's 1985 edition of The Dangerous Summer

While I am glad to have become acquainted with Michener through his own words about himself and his life, I regret that a rather negative opinion formed within me about Michener. Though I only marked one, such quotations as the following were sprinkled throughout this memoir. 
". . . I made a discovery that suddenly struck me: 'Hey! I can write better than any of these clowns!"
And within two paragraphs of the end of the book:
"I . . . consider myself one of the ablest storytellers of my generation."
Readers of his books have hailed him as a great storyteller, and he may rightfully be. Yet, to proclaim that about oneself, to me, steps over the line into egotism. That egotism oozed through these 512 pages.

Where was the humility, the thankfulness for his writing gift? I suppose in some way, Michener's inability to express that appreciation has something to do with his thought here:
"The New Testament has caused me great trouble, because by nature I ought to have identified with Saint Paul, and I have wrestled with him all my life, finding him in the end just another Aristotle. He is not my man, so I missed entirely the greatness of the Pauline letters, but I studied his words constantly and found two passages that affected me deeply but in contrary ways. In First Corinthians, Paul spoke tellingly of athletics, saying: 'Know yet not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run that ye may obtain.' I read this long before Vince Lombardi uttered his version of the same principle: 'Winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing.' Early in life I decided that I would never battle to be first, or aspire to be first, or bend either my life or my attitudes in order to be first, and the older I got and the more I watched other men strive inordinately to be first, the more satisfied I was to settle somewhere else. Saint Paul's and Lombardi's pronouncements made me decide on my priorities, and I am more at ease with my own doctrine now than when I first framed it."
 Waiting on my shelves to be read and hopefully enjoyed more than the memoir:

And the possible addition of this one:

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