When Words Come Alive

by Sheila Connolly

I complained last month about having no time to read, but lately I’ve realized that somehow I read a heck of a lot in my early years, and much of it really stayed with me. I find myself quoting unexpected odd bits from nineteenth century literature (it’s no wonder that people look at me strangely).

Sometimes there is no apparent logic to what got lodged in my memory. For example, the lines, “In a tearing hurry,/Yours ever, Laurie” have been rattling around my head for years. (In case you didn’t memorize the book, it’s from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Laurie, the rich boy in the neighborhood, writes Jo (the tomboy who was of course my idol) a quick note of invitation, and signs it thus. I remember reading the book when I was in fourth grade, recovering from the measles. Yes, of course I still have that copy.)

Little Women

I could cite plenty of similar instances, but this quirk of memory really hit home to me when I visited our town’s newly acquired 18th-century house, home to a wealthy mill-owner’s family. Ben Franklin is said to have slept there. This was the house’s public debut, and at their first open house there were curious local citizens and costumed reenactors milling around the first-floor rooms. And I came face to face with Ichabod Crane.

No, not the delightful Englishman from the television series, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Washington Irving’s description in his story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (published in 1819). This gentleman was at least six inches taller than I was (and I’m close to six feet in shoes) and dressed in colonial garb, and Irving’s description sprang to my mind immediately.

I can’t remember when I read the story, but it was a very long time ago. And please let us gloss over the Disney cartoon version (made in 1949, before I was born). But my memory of the language Irving used was so strong that I felt compelled to look up his original description, and here it is:

[Crane] was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew.

That was the man who stood before me, in the flesh (well, to be fair, his eyes weren’t particularly glassy, but the rest worked), and the description came back to me all at once. He was even awkward and gregarious at the same time, in ways that I think Irving would recognize. He’d been living in the old house for years, as a sort of caretaker, and I think it had seeped into his bones. He even showed us a secret chamber hidden between the chimneys.

We as writers know that words matter. The thing is, we don’t always know which ones. Do you as readers skip over paragraphs of description or explanation? Which bits do you find boring? Or which ones grab you and drag you into the story, give you a snapshot view of a character that strikes a chord?

And which words from books have you cherished for years, words that live on in your memory?
[A totally irrelevant aside: Washington Irving lived in a delightful mansion (befitting his status as a famous writer!) in Tarrytown, New York. As it happens, two of my Irish great-aunts are buried in Tarrytown—it is rumored but not confirmed that one of them worked for the Rockefellers, who had a country home there. Ivisited once, but neglected to see the Irving house, which looks to be well worth the trip.]
Forgive me if I don’t answer your comments promptly. On Monday I will be returning from Malice Domestic, where I will be frolicking with other of the Wicked Cozies. Pictures to follow!

 

 

14 thoughts on “When Words Come Alive

  1. I generally read EVERYTHING, but if it is a LONG stretch of jargon that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story I tend to skim, and if too many of these passages occur (i.e. I find myself skimming more than reading) I am strongly tempted to abandon the book altogether. Graphic violence has caused me on more than one occasion to not only abandon a book but to suggest it be shredded!

    • I know what you mean about the violence. I used to be thicker-skinned about it, but I’ve lived long enough that I know how awful it can be in this world, and I can’t imagine reading about it for pleasure or entertainment.

  2. Old houses, We live near new hope, pa. Many old houses have very small hysterical signs that say Geo Washington slept here! The signs look very official, issued by the hystericals. I

    • Adding to the above comment of mine, George must have been quite a Guy ! My historical friends frown.

    • Yes, he certainly got around! (Saving money on inns? He was trying to run a war on a budget.) In the town where I grew up, there was an old tree in the middle of a street, and the story went that George had tied his horse there. I’m also finding that Ben Franklin got around quite a bit–there’s a five-hole outhouse here in my current town, which used to “serve” a tavern popular with patriots, and Ben is said to have “sat” there.

  3. “Blow thou bitter wind blow” is quoted in one of the Betsy/Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Apparently, one day when I was driving my daughter and her teenage friends on a cold winter day I muttered this and years later they all say it!

    • You have to wonder where these things pop up from. My mother once told me that she was riding in a car with her parents at night and the car stopped running altogether. Her mother then started quoting from Invictus (“Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.” She was not prone to recitations!

  4. The manager of my grocery store used to seem so familiar to me, but I knew we’d never met. Then I re-read a short story I’d written and it was him, described perfectly. I don’t remember doing it on purpose, so hello, subconscious.

    If a book begins to bore me but I’m engaged enough to want to know the ending, I’ll skim. Otherwise, I either read every word or I close it and never look back.

  5. I don’t find lines of literature stay with me, unless I’ve read the book multiple times. Even then, I don’t tend to quote it in every day conversation.

    The exception is a few of the first lines of books I have truly fallen in love with over the years.

    I’ve been to Washington Irving’s house in Tarrytown. It was back in 2000, so my memory is a bit hazy, but I remember enjoying the tour.

    • Jeopardy recent had a category for literary first lines (tell what book the line came from). The contestants did pretty well. You are not alone!

      Great to see you (again!).

  6. My favorite line has always been, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” However I like to say, “Last night I dreamt I had my laundry done.” No one at my house is ever as amused with me as I am with myself.

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