Far, Far from Rome

Top shelf… to be read.

I’ve already shown you the three boxes of books I brought with me to Chile.

One was full of my all-time favorite novels and memoirs so that I can always dip back into them for inspiration. There’s also something reassuring about their mere proximity, as if they are physical evidence of the hard work, craft, and daunting revision required to publish a book.

Another was full of books on writing and teaching, as you never know what your writing or your students might need.

The third box was dedicated to books I had accumulated but hadn’t read yet for a number of reasons: two years of required reading in graduate school, a given mood, as well as the occasional judgment of a book by its cover. The boxes have now been emptied into corresponding sections of the bookshelf. I try to always carry one of the yet-to-reads around with me wherever I go in Santiago, as you also never know when your student will run late or your bus, too full, will pass right by you, or when you’ll need to stand in line for an hour and a half at the bank (yes, you read that right).

To be taught.

I also recently told you about my “next-book-to-read” selection process. Well, I finally plucked Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr from the top of the stack. Where I devoured The Corrections in hopeless bursts of hermit-ism, I savored Doerr’s memoir about the year he spent in Rome on a writing fellowship with his wife and baby twins in tow. I drew out each of its 202 pages like a meal.

The book, which has now traveled from Maryland to California to Chile, has a history of its own. My uncle gave it to me and many members of our family for Christmas ’07. It is indeed a book you want to give to the people you love (especially if they also happen to be Italian 🙂 Being an avid reader and eloquent writer in his own right and someone with whom I share a special bond over books, he also inscribed a personal sentiment to each member of us.

by Anthony Doerr.

Of me, he wrote: “To Jennifer, who knows and practices the maxim that good writers need to re-write, to throw away, and move ever forward to that perfect phrase, sentence, paragraph that leads the reader to discovery.”

Nearly four years passed between the time I read that note and the time I finally read Doerr’s prose. Meanwhile, I’ve earned my M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing, met and married my husband, and moved to the Southern Hemisphere.

That means that like Doerr, I’ve also been struggling to acquire a new language (“Barricades emerge: language, culture, time. To be a nonfluent speaker is to pass through one gate only to find yourself outside two more” 46);

I’ve also been getting lost (“You find your way through a place by getting lost in it” 87);

I’ve also been exploring a vast and populated city with my partner (“Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It’s an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface” 89);

I’ve also been weathering the adventures and the adjustments that come with being a stranger in a strange land (“Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience–buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello–become new all over again” 54);

I’ve also been fighting the inadequacy you feel when you are yet another artist in Rome in Doerr’s case or yet another expat blogger in Chile in mine (“One minute I think, This here, this is a good sentence. The next I am on the brink of throwing the whole thing away. But I am used to this by now” 130).

Add to that that I’m also thirty-one, like Doerr was when he moved to Rome, and I’m realizing that the book gods always have a larger plan.

Doerr’s Rome.

This prose is stunning (“Dawn stretches across the gardens, pulling tiny shadows out of the blades of grass, draining through the needles of the umbrella pines” 27), so I don’t doubt I would have appreciated it four years ago. I would have gotten the beauty, but I’m not sure I would have seen myself on the page, because my life didn’t yet overlap with Doerr’s in such meaningful ways.

Certainly, Doerr and I don’t have everything in common. I only have 3.5 months in country, a time period that has spanned winter and spring. I haven’t yet lived here for a full summer and fall. Another key difference is that Doerr brought along six-month-old twin boys and suffered from insomnia (the two are more than a little connected). While I haven’t reached that stage of life yet (and can sleep ten hours in a row), I am still grateful to have read the book now, at this stage of life. By “this,” I mean… living abroad, newly married, and writing everyday.

Whether you read this book now or save it until it can overlap with your own life, I suppose this post is meant to “gift” Four Seasons in Rome to each of you, if only in name alongside a small sampling of its beauty and merit. I spent three days in Rome in 2001, three years before Doerr and his family would land there, but I don’t think its critical that you’ve been to appreciate Doerr’s perspective of it. He will paint the city for you and if you do make it there one day, you will see how close he got to it. Ironically, I don’t have photos of Rome to compare to Doerr’s prose. My camera battery died right after we toured the Coliseum, which was the very first thing we did. So I remember making a conscious effort after that to really look at the fountains and the Vatican and the domes and the gelato colors and the people. I stared so that I could impress Rome on my mind and re-visit it there. It worked for a time, thanks to Doerr (and my uncle), many of those impressions are re-surfacing ten years later in Santiago.

My Santiago take on it.

Part of Doerr’s style has him quoting the greats who have written from Rome before him. They include Pliny the Elder, Dante, and John Keats. I thought Doerr’s words deserved similar incorporation into my own here, and I don’t doubt I will continue to rely on this book as I make way in a city far, far from Rome. For now, the book has completed another reached another milestone in its journey–it now rests among my favorites on the bookshelf.

Of the books it’s keeping company with, Anthony Doerr might describes it best: “I blink, I breathe; the spines of the books around me seethe and rustle, each a chronicle of someone’s mind, a brain that has washed into this city like a wave and broken against itself” (70).

4 comments

  1. I love that by waiting to read this book – which perhaps you might once have called procrastinating or ignoring – it's turned out that you're reading it at the perfect time in your life.

  2. Jennifer,

    Nice collection of books especially considering that you probably paid extra baggage fees to haul them to Chile. Regarding "Four Seasons in Rome" you might also like D.H. Lawrence's travelogue of Italy. Anyway books here in whatever language cost a bloody fortune so I hope you bought an Amazon Kindle in California. You can get "The New Yorker", "Economist", "New York Review of books" delivered each week wirelessly plus books you purchase there rarely cost more than $10 USD. I simply don't buy paper books any more here because they cost too much. That said when I go to visit the USA for Christmas I plan to visit the used book store and replace some of the books I donated to the library before decamping to Chile. So I can restock my library here one small suitcase at at a time since the Kindle hardly fills up the bookshelf.–saludos, Walker

  3. Hi Walker,
    Yes, I definitely prioritized books when it came to our shipping allotment! I left most at home, but I just have to have my favorites close by for reference and inspiration. I did finally cave and acquire a Kindle before the move to the land of scarce and expensive English language books! But I'm the worst Kindle owner ever — I'm still reading the paperback stash I brought down. I'm getting ready to finally adapt (and surely read more than ever), but I think we can maintain a foothold in both worlds — like you, I can't imagine not building some sort of brick-and-mortar library at home.
    Saludos!

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