Emily Dickinson Is Overrated (Or, How to Break Up With Your Book)

Let me just say, this post isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Not a bit. If there are two sober thoughts in all of these lines, I’ll eat your hat.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m on Benadryl right now.

I’ve been teaching vacation bible school this week at my church, which is new for me. Normally, I’m the idiot that stands in front of the kids and jumps up and down hollering like a maniac, trying to get them into the groove of the VBS day. This year, I’m in a classroom with 15 four and five year-olds, trying to figure out how to teach the bible at their level.

It’s been interesting.

My copy of the Treasury doesn't have the snazzy dust jacket.

So this afternoon, after I got done teaching and writing my massive t0-do list for our mission trip next week, I decided to feed my malnourished brain and pulled out the Treasury of American Poetry. I let the book just fall open. It landed on Emily Dickinson.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Ms. Dickinson for years, particularly of her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death.” Morbid, I know, but it’s a powerful little compaction of verse. I re-read that poem today, along with everything else they had in the Treasury. And the rest of her stuff left me thinking:

It’s no wonder she hid these in a trunk.

That’s a mean-spirited barb just for shock and laughs; I don’t mean to suggest that she had no talent. Only an untalented hack would suggest that.  I read and re-read at least thirty of her poems, and other than “Death” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you Nobody, too?” not a single one spoke to me.

And the thought occurred to me that perhaps in my previous readings of her work I overestimated her value to me.

Of course, the thought also occurred to me that perhaps I’m just not in a Dickinson phase right now, and I shouldn’t beat her up for not being right for this season of life.

I think both trains of thought are true, and here’s why: I sincerely believe that there are some authors and books that speak to you in certain seasons. Like that time you went through your Melville phase and told everyone to call you Ishmael. Or your Aunt Frieda who spent an entire summer reading Jackie Collins as if it were the bible. Or your crazy Uncle Ramone who spent an entire year trying to retrace Marlowe’s steps in The Big Sleep. There are just certain genres or styles or characters or writers who come into your life at the exact right time and make a big impression on you during that season.

Emily Dickinson was one of those writers for me. She spoke to me at a time when her terse style and playfully dire tone were what my soul craved. And then today I read her and she’s got nothing for me.

Zilch.

I shut the volume of poetry after reading a couple more poems by Edgar Lee Masters (I only met him today, and safe to say, we probably won’t meet again) and I shelved it next to The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (and no, that has nothing to do with nautical bards…).

The Treasury’s little blue binding smiled at me, Emily ensconced safely inside. It was like meeting an ex at a class reunion (or in my case, reading a Facebook post from one of the girls I secretly crushed on in high school): Wow, I dodged a bullet there.

That’s the best way to break up with a book, really. To gently close its cover and place it somewhere not out of sight but certainly out of your consciousness. Collected poems and other romantic ditties are easy to break up with because they are usually seasonal reads for most of us. I don’t give a second thought to my copy of Walden or Leaves of Grass or that strange little volume of Keats I got at a Goodwill store because the pages for “Ode on a Grecian Urn” were the only pages that didn’t have stains on them. They sit on my shelves, little pieces of my past, little samples of my DNA, and if I think of them, it’s usually with warmth and little else.

But there are some books that won’t allow you to do that. Infinite Jest is the king of them. That massive paperback stares at me like a deranged child molester slowly filing his way through the prison bars. One day soon, we’ll have to tangle and it won’t be pretty. Second would be Lolita. A close third would be Finnegan’s Wake. These are books that you don’t really break up with as much as you simply go on the lam and hope to God they never find you.

In this way, books are a lot like people. Some we hold near and dear to our bosom, others we hold at a close distance with great fondness but no need for connection. And still others we hide in certain corners, only to be flirted with when we are sure we’re ready, when we’ve got our A-game together and there will be no innocent bloodshed. All of them shape us, define us, tell us things about ourselves that we might not otherwise know (or ever think to learn); all of them are precious in some way.

I can’t think of a great ending for this post (like I said, two coherent thoughts and I’ll eat your hat – the one with the feathers that even British Royalty wouldn’t be caught dead wearing) so I’ll just leave it here:

What books have you broken up with recently? And which book is sitting on your shelf, biding it’s time?

9 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson Is Overrated (Or, How to Break Up With Your Book)

  1. Breaking up with books—now that’s a way of putting it that I rather like. I used to be an E. E. Cummings fanatic (and I capitalize it because he did, and the publishers made it lower-case… that’s how crazy I was about him). I even bought his autobiography which hardly anyone reads. And… I never read it. I look at his poems now and just scratch my head and think, Oh, I used to like this. It’s so strange how that happens, how you can think a poem basically IS you and then two years later you look at it and don’t feel a thing.

  2. On three different occasions in my youth (twice in high school;once in college), I was forced to study Fahrenheit 451. I remember sitting at my dining room table, the year I was in 9th grade, with my mother hovering over me, threatening to take away my movie privileges if I didn’t finish reading the darned thing. I finished it, but I sure didn’t like it. I cringed when my daughters had to read it in high school. I also think Shakespeare is overrated, but I’ll rarely admit it! :) Great post!

  3. Emily Dickinson was the world’s first emo kid…

    I used to have a very high opinion of Charlotte Bronte, but while recently attempting to read her novel “Vilette,” I discovered that her prose is far too girly and floofy for my taste, and that her characters were so morally/emotionally above everyone else that there was no real way to identify with them as people. It was sad, because I used to love Bronte’s writing. I still respect that she wrote about women who worked during a time when they were socially expected to be married instead; but at the same time, giving those women no emotions doesn’t really make them sympathetic.

    • I would love to say I agree with you, Grace…but I’ve always hated both of the Bronte sisters. I’ve never cared for floof. But I completely understand where you’re coming from.

      And I’m going to steal your line about Dickinson. :) Full attribution of course…

      Thanks for reading!

      Jason

  4. Finnegan’s Wake is is less like an /ex/ and more like an ex developing schizophrenia and coming at you with a knife. And Lolita is- beautiful. Lolita is- HEARTBREAKINGLY, beautiful, and I could argue for hours with you on that one, mister.

    • Oh, Lolita is beautiful writing. The story is still unconscionable, but Nabokov’s talent it just jaw-dropping. The same with Infinite Jest and DFW. But in the case of Lolita, the juxtaposition of Nabokov’s beautiful words with the ugly things they describe make it a truly difficult book to read (especially for the father of a five year old girl).

      • I actually find Lolita to be overrated… but that’s because I read Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” first, which I believe is his true masterpiece. There’s no pedophilia, but Nabokov still demonstrates his great love of unreliable narrators. “Pale Fire” makes the cut for one of my favorite books of all time.

      • Haven’t read that yet. I have a buddy who loves Nabokov, and he read it recently. We’ve not been able to sit down and discuss.

      • Well, certainly! But that’s the brilliance of it, isn’t it? You’re never sure who the victim is. Have you read Finnegan’s Wake, cover-to-cover? Can you speak Joyceian?

        And, Grace! Pale Fire! Pale Fire is LOVELY. I’ve always had a soft spot for couplets. You should track the progress of the bird throughout the poem if you haven’t already done so.

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