I consider myself to be fairly well read. At the very least, I read a lot, and I try to read some works that are considered important, or classic, or even popular, not necessarily because they capture my interest but because experience (and educational English classes) have shown me that if works have lasted through the ages, or have received enough praise across a wide swath of opinion, then they probably are well worth my time. Rarely am I disappointed.
Shamefully, however, I must admit that there are many authors and works with which I should be familiar, or at least that I should have sampled, of which I have no firsthand knowledge whatsoever. I have never read Moby Dick. Neither have I read Les Miserable, Wuthering Heights nor The Scarlet Letter, not even The Great Gatsby, even though I do know of them, extensively. I have only read Walt Whitman secondhand, when his poems have shown up in the framework of other works (which is surprisingly common – or maybe not so surprisingly; how would I know, lacking as I am?) – or in television commercials narrated by Robin Williams. I have seen the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but I’ve never read any of that author’s own works, even though every indication is that I would find her fascinating. I sit mute when others discuss J.D. Salinger, Salman Rushdie, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, John Milton, Homer.
But I do find it amazing that my edification continues even now, often in very side-winding ways. For instance, had not my daughter been diagnosed with a reading disability in her late teens, which made it easier for her to listen to assignments rather than reading them on her own (and me being a very willing narrator), I would still be unfamiliar with James Baldwin or bel hooks; she also has gifted me with John Green. Because of a LitStack assignment, I finally read Lois Lowry’s The Giver – a book both my children read in school, but of which I only had presumptuous knowledge.
LitStack has also enticed me into learning more about many, many authors, in that I asked to be part of the research for the “On this day” birthday blurbs that end up on the sidebar of the site every weekday. (I even wrote a Gimbling in the Wabe on this very topic last September.) While this doesn’t make me more familiar with these authors’ works, I have been amazed at the depth and variety of experience that these women and men had to withstand, at that which many of them struggled with and had to overcome.
None more so than Maya Angelou.
I am chagrined to say that I have as of yet read nothing by Maya Angelou. Her recitation of the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993 is the only time I have encountered her work, other than seeing her quoted on periodic Facebook posts, and being vaguely aware that both my kids were assigned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in school. Neither one of them shared much about it at the time. I had no idea what the book was about, and in my embarrassing literary laziness, I often (at best) confused her with Toni Morrison or (at worst) thought that she must be a grittier Toni Morrison. (I know – I’m an idiot.)
Then in early April, in the course of my birthday research I found myself focusing on Ms. Angelou when I wrote a blurb on her – and my breath was taken by what this woman had gone through in her life. Not just at the beginning of it, but throughout her entire life. Here is what I wrote in that sidebar blurb (my apologies for those who have read her autobiographies):
On this day, April 4, in 1928, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother was a nurse and card dealer, her father a dietician and doorman. At age eight, she was molested by her mother’s boyfriend; he only spent one day in jail but was murdered four days later. Young Maya, afraid she had killed a man by naming him, did not speak for five years. Overcoming that, she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and three weeks after completing high school, she gave birth to her son. Following would be stints as cook, prostitute, dancer, nightclub singer; she didn’t start writing until she was in her 30s. Her seven major novels, including the revered “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, are autobiographies. Active in the civil rights movement, and a champion of black culture, today she turns 86.
How very inadequate to try to encapsulate such a life in less than 150 words! Here is a women whose tender age is subject to unspeakable abuse and betrayal by someone who should be looking out for her, protecting her, and then to have violence substituted for justice, causing an even deeper wedge into the core of her soul. But then to decide to live life – for better or worse, in reaction or pro-action – on her own terms, to refuse to allow the stacked up odds to keep her from achieving what she sets out to do – how many of us would have had the guts or gumption to do that? And to triumph, as she did? Here is a woman who has reinvented herself so many times that LIFE magazine could have done an entire spread on her and her alone, and it would have seemed like the pages had been filled with a host of women. And yet, she remained steely-eyed and resolved; even as she remade herself over and over again, she remained Maya. (Yes, I know she was born “Marguerite” – give me a little dramatic license here…)
To anyone who has read her works, forgive me. I still have not. I will rectify that soon, and I also plan on belatedly reading Toni Morrison, as well, so I don’t inadvertently (no excuse!) confuse the two again. I literally – literally – cringe at my hubris when it comes to these two powerful women writers. And I’m also very sorry that it was the death of Ms. Angelou that gave me the final push I needed to make this promise to myself, to not just read about the woman, but to read her own words, to witness her own creation.
There may be many authors that deserve my time and attention, many works that I truly should experience in the time left to me. Not that they suffer for it, but I suffer from not knowing them, in that they fill up spaces in the trajectory of human consciousness that should not be skipped over like offhand rocks skittering across the surface of a pond. Yet not all books can be read, not all authors can be experienced, and not every new novel or book of poetry or collection of short stories should be shunted aside for the sake of filling the gaps of that which came before. Not every genre book should be placed in lower priority than those classics that still wait to be read. For the casual (if rabid) reader like me, who reads mainly for pleasure, it’s the “I want’s” that quite rightly trump all the “I should’s” in the literary reasoning.
But when “I want” and “I should” converge on the same work, then perhaps that’s when the planets align and the finger of God reaches down from the clouds, eh? I’ll clear my plate very soon in order to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – and then I’ll discuss it with my kids. They both remember it, even though they read it many years ago, which speaks volumes in this day and age. And I will not just because it’s the “right” thing to do, but because I want to do it. So yes, I do it for me, but I also do it in honor of Maya Angelou, wherever she may be. And I do it freely, and gladly, and with a sense of anticipation.
I think she would be pleased. I hope she would be.