Noted writing teacher Natalie Goldberg recounts in Old Friend from Far Away that, while she was reading James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, she thought, “I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life.” During a weekend when she was supposed to be helping her 90-year-old mother cope with the aftermath of a Florida hurricane, she could barely put the book down, reading through a morning, through an afternoon. She was “entranced” and gobbled it up.
When I first began reading H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s meditation on reading T. H. White, training her hawk and mourning the death of her father, I had a similar realization: I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life. But my gut reaction was very different: I have now been reading it for over a year, consuming it in (very) small bites.
It is like a rich dessert. The writing is so exquisite that I want to read each sentence slowly, lingering over every word and savoring the pleasure of it all. Sometimes I am tempted to write out her sentences, just to see what it would feel like to have the kind of control that she does. (This is not a new idea, of course. Many writing craft books and articles suggest a practice of copying out word for word a passage, a paragraph, a page of a favorite writer as a way to experience the writer’s style from the inside out.)
Each of Macdonald’s sentences has a rich texture – but how to explain that? How does each of her words become an ingredient in a whole? How, when taking a bite of crème brûlée, do you identify with your tongue the individual taste of the egg, the cream, the sugar, the essence of vanilla bean? I suppose if I had all the time in the world I could diagram every sentence. Is it her use of subordinate clauses? Is it that she never uses the passive voice? Is it the interplay of simple and complex sentences? Is it that the nouns and verbs evoke a visual image, an emotional reaction, a physical response like a shudder or a sigh?
But why do that, because it is of course all of those things and more, all precisely measured and mixed. I can know that a spoonful of crème brûlée is delicious without having to go back into the kitchen to watch how the dessert chef put all the ingredients together before carefully lowering the filled custard cups into a water bath and then gently putting them into the oven before carefully finishing them off under the broiler with a crown of crusty glaze.
But frankly, I think the main reason I am digesting the book so slowly is that I just don’t want it to come to an end. Who wants to know that she will never have another bite of a great dessert?