Literary Memories

Do you sometimes recall when and where you were when you read one of your favorite books? Perhaps a book that you read when you were young that you’ll never forget? Or one that made you realize how good and how much fun reading is? Or that turned your life in a new direction? Here are a few of my literary memories:


Alexander Dumas' Camille was the first novel I read from start to finish in less than a day. I think I was about 14 or 15--about the time I was in high school. As I recall the situation, the 1937 movie with Greta Garbo as Camille had been reissued and for reasons that completely baffle me now, I decided that I wanted to see it. I am fairly certain my mother suggested I should read the book first and that she had purchased a copy for me.

And so, after breakfast early one weekend morning, I went back to bed to begin reading the novel. Going back to bed after breakfast was not something I ever did. That day was the exception and other than when I have been ill, I've never done it again. Reading Camille during the day in bed seemed like such a lark, thoroughly in tune with the spirit of the story. Everything seemed to fall into place then on what was no doubt a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles sometime during the early fifties.

I returned to bed after lunch and continued reading until I had finished by mid-afternoon, in plenty of time to see the film that evening. It was showing at a nearby art house and I know that I went alone. Now, more than fifty years later, tales of ill-fated romances and their screen adaptations continue to exert a powerful hold on me. What draws me to these literary works, as well as many so other forms of literary fiction?

Jack Randa Hotel
I can't recall when I first started reading The New Yorker. But I do recall there was always a copy around the house. And I know that once I started to read the magazine, I've never stopped. This is a tale told by most dedicated readers including its current editor, David Remnick, who, upon assuming the post, remarked, "I was raised on this magazine."

There were more short stories in each issue when I first began reading the magazine, sometimes two or three. Sometimes one of them filled up most of the issue. Who would not want to re-read those that moved you the first time around? Cheever's "The Country Husband," Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," William Maxwell's "What He Was Like" or one those unforgettable stories by Alice Munro.

I will never forget the first time I read Munro's "The Jack Randa Hotel," her tale of a fractured marriage and runaway husband. It was late in the afternoon, the day was warm, and I was in Italy, on the rooftop terrace of the hotel in Florence where I was staying then. It was a perfect moment. I read her story slowly. Very slowly, as I knew the moment would not last long or be repeated soon, if ever, again.

Alexandria Quartet
One summer when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I spent most of my time reading Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I should have been studying psychology, preparing for my exams. But I wasn’t. Nor was a friend of mine, another graduate student who was not entirely content with psychology either. So together we read in sequence Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea and spent our summer afternoons talking about the Quartet

Each of the four novels describes the same events in Alexandria just before the start of World War II but from a different perspective, the perspective of the individual in the volume’s title. It is a multi-layered series that takes into account the history, politics, intrigues and philosophies of that time and place and the intersecting lives of four closely-knit individuals. The experience of reading about them, their relationships, and their exotic ideas, lives and loves was exhilarating.

Recently, I started to re-read the Quartet, beginning with Justine. But it wasn’t the same. The allure and mystery was gone. That puzzled me. But I am a different person now, with a long reading history and a long ago departure from psychology. Perhaps that was the difference. I can read all the literature I want to now, whereas in graduate school I could not. The Alexandria Quartet then was an escape, a flight to a wildly different world from psychology, an act of resistance to its demands and limitations.