[Otterbein University’s iconic Towers Hall. My room this winter is on the ground floor, just right of center.]

[Towers Hall, Otterbein. My room is on the ground floor, just right of center.]

 The retrospective view, in life as in Alison Smith’s great memoir

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith, one of my favorite memoirs. I reviewed it four years ago, and this semester I’m teaching it to a class of honors freshmen students under a coming-of-age memoirs theme. At the time of my review, one of the story’s most striking aspects to me was its scenic quality. I wrote, “There isn’t much authorial distance: narrated by a bereft girl, with scant mature perspective, the story has a poignant immediacy.”

Smith-Name All the Animals

How I disagree now with my (slightly) younger self! Though Smith is a scenic and subtle writer whose story breathes on the page, and is deeply embedded in her teenage life, there’s no pretense that a high school girl wrote this. Smith’s voice palpably changes at times (as when she fills us in on her parents’ early lives), and there are even more overt cues, including the standby “writer-at-her-desk now” move, “I remember.”

Why did I not see this? I suppose I got lost in the story, plus at the time I was trying to enhance the scenic quality of my own Shepherd: A Memoir. One’s response to a book is, to a large degree, a selfie. You, now. Which is why and how I learned not to teach certain great memoirs to undergraduates. They have to find a book’s characters relatable. Maybe one of the few advantages of age is that we can relate to a wider swath of humanity.

On Tuesday, when my freshmen and I had our first talk about Name All the Animals, with a class of juniors and seniors I discussed Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” Now there’s a memoir essay that seems to flagrantly violate the aesthetic principle that, in literary memoir, the writer must not merely present the story as it happened then but must reflect on its meaning for her now.

In their own work, I’ve urged my upper-classmen to work in the middle of the scene-to-exposition/reflection continuum. So, in a sense, Beard’s essay seemed a risky model. I read to them a passage of Sven Birkerts tying himself in knots in The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed) over Beard’s essay:

Missing almost entirely from Beard’s rendered scenes and situations is the reflective voice that I have suggested is the sine qua non of the genre, vital for establishing the crucial tension of perspective. But Beard’s mode of presentation compensates, for this; she makes up the deficit through her structural artifice of juxtaposing two or more distinct time lines to create a comparable tension of “then and now” or “then and then.”

If you’ve read and re-read Beard’s braided narrative, you’ll agree with Birkerts’ explanation, and momentarily you’ll almost be able to understand it.

“There are no rules in art,” I told the upperclassmen. “Only rules of thumb.”


Alison and Roy Smith

[Alison and Roy Smith.]

 Tonight’s forecast is for snow and a low of 11 degrees.

“It’s the depth of winter,” I told my freshmen the other day, “but by the time the term ends, it’ll be spring.”

“Yeah,” one girl said, “but it’ll still be cold.”

“We’ll have warm days—some days will feel like it’s already summer.”

This is it, the wisdom of age, the retrospective view? The promise that warmth will return? They take winter far less personally than I do. Maybe inane reassurances are part and parcel of what I’ve come to offer.

I think of my students as kids, but I call them guys. “Okay, guys, let’s look . . .” On Tuesdays and Thursdays, as we ponder our tales of dangerous youth in iconic Towers Hall, second-semester freshmen faces look back at me. Thirteen girls and one boy. Their various editions of Name All the Animals bristle with sticky notes.

Last Thursday an icy rain fell too late to cancel school, and between about 8 and 10 o’clock walking was treacherous. One member of our honors seminar fell climbing the steps to her first class and hit her head. I crept as if on eggshells, going to the library at 9, but I almost went down six times.

Yet already there’s been a palpable change. Though we’ve just passed through a frigid period, the ground forever icy and snowy, you can feel the solar energy gathering its power. On Tuesday, a couple of students and I struggled to get the room’s blinds down, jamming ourselves into arched gothic window frames to subdue crooked louvers, so I could show a film clip related to Name All the Animals.

At home as at school, rooms fill newly with light. It always happens—this I know—yet always it seems news worth noting, this yearly planetary miracle. Here comes the sun.

[Alison Smith reading a short story or maybe a concise essay.]


  • Hi, Richard. We too are feeling the cold and freezing temperatures here in New England; we want to say “especially here,” our grievance is so hard, but we can’t really say that because the whole country is suffering from the same thing. Anyway, I agree with you that one becomes more tolerant of differences in books and narrators as one ages: I’m reading many books these days that I never would have even considered reading in my twenties–I wouldn’t have thought they had anything to say to me. I think our gleanings benefit us more as we get older, and we become more “omnivorous” readers, able to gain sustenance from widely different authors. Right now, I happen to be spending time with a favorite author’s sets of trilogies (he has at least 3): Robertson Davies, the Canadian author and wonder-worker. He writes about a lot of things that are irrational-seeming, at least, and I can remember that though I liked him when I first read him, it was more for the fun of hearing him “say” outrageous things than because I appreciated his wisdom. But now I hear other tonalities in his voice, things that I am able to appreciate as an older person, as he was when he wrote the things I’m reading, and it’s even more enjoyable. So I know what you mean about the changing perspective.

    • Richard says:

      So good to hear from you, Victoria. It sounds like your reading life is very rich—which to me is an indicator that all is well! Or at least pretty good . . .

  • I missed you, Richard, and agree with you (and the reviewer) about Jo Ann Beard’s essay. I have read it over and over as I’ve read Boys of My Youth numerous times.

    Happy teaching! Please don’t slip on the ice.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Darrelyn. I need to sit down sometime and compare the New Yorker version of Beard’s essay with what’s in her book. My students always love it but especially did this year. And I did a group exercise this time: Group 1 traced and argued for the importance of the dog; Group 2 did the same for the husband and squirrels; and Group 3 assessed her work friend Chris. What they found and what they said impressed me.

  • Hi, Richard! I’ve been taking a break from blogging and reading blogs; trying to assess what’s going to be necessary and/or fulfilling (or just fun) for the foreseeable future (if there is such a thing as a foreseeable future! There probably isn’t…)

    I really like the point you make, “One’s response to a book is, to a large degree, a selfie. You, now.” Reminds me why your blog will never completely fall off my reading list. You make me think, and laugh.

    Thank you. :)

    And please don’t slip on the ice.

    • Richard says:

      Good to hear from you, Tracy. I have been on hiatus too. Not sure all the reasons why, but uploading a post felt good. And thanks for the encouragement!

  • shirleyhs says:

    “Maybe one of the few advantages of age is that we can relate to a wider swath of humanity.” Yes! Memory and perception are such subtle things. Stories change over time. Readers change over time. Even books change over time. It’s as though we read them through Wordles –those word clouds that emphasize some words more than others.

    I had the same experience with A Wrinkle in Time.

    Greetings from Chincoteague Island. No ice. Lots of ponies. Good company with other writers.

    • Richard says:

      Great point about rereading, Shirley. I guess that’s another thing about aging: we could spend all our time rereading . . . Plus it’s not just getting old: we have written and published books. So that affects reading.

      I envy you at Chincoteague!

  • David Owen says:

    Do watch the light, Richard. I love to watch it changing–not the duration of it, but the quality. Thanks for your assurance that the Spring is coming.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Thanks, Dave! After I wrote that, we went so much further into the deep freeze, as if to mock me. Yet the days grow longer—always such a paradox to me, that in the depth of winter the cycle is busy swinging back the other way. You are right, though: it’s the nature of the light that’s always a beauty and a solace.

  • cynthia says:

    You’re back! And this is so true: “One’s response to a book is, to a large degree, a selfie. You, now.”

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