A Passion for Life

At the end of last week, Mister Litlove and I watched the movie Julie and Julia and thought it was wonderful. To be precise, we thought Meryl Streep was particularly wonderful as Julia Child, the American whose experience of French cuisine transformed a generation’s domestic cooking habits. Julia Child was a larger than life figure: tall, gangling, rollickingly posh with an extraordinary voice that swooped and swelled and swarmed over its plummy vowels. She was undoubtedly unusual to the point of eccentricity, but Streep plays her in a way that makes her utterly adorable. She is so much… herself. And she is so very engaged. To have that kind of verve and oomph must be amazing. To have such passion and determination and yet to hold it lightly as she does, and to put it to the services of a very vivid and unselfconscious kind of pleasure in life.. ah that is indeed class, my friends.

The other half of the story concerns Julie Powell, who took on as a challenge the book that Julia Child wrote, The Art of Mastering French Cooking, and cooked her way through all 500-plus recipes, blogging as she went, until she, too, became famous in a modern media-friendly way. What united these women was a very genuine desire to do something with their lives, and not in an empty spirit of achievement, but out of a longing for self-fulfillment, the need to have a proper, heartfelt purpose, and a greedy, reveling love of fine, rich food. The film brings this out beautifully, and makes for oddly touching cinema.

All the reviews I read prior to watching the film much preferred the Julia Child storyline to the Julie Powell one. Julie was considered to be self-indulgent and whiny in comparison with the marvelously forthright and resilient Julia. In fact, this misses the point a little. What matters desperately to Julia Child is her inability to have a baby, and the film touches only briefly on this, showing her in one moving scene sobbing violently into her husband’s shirtfront, holding out a letter from her sister announcing her pregnancy. Through her tears, Julia Child declares vibrantly that she is so happy for her, so happy, and the perfect co-existence of these two conflicting sentiments is brilliantly portrayed. Julia Child loves cooking, and exalts in it, but it’s not where she is wounded. Julie Powell needs by contrast to prove something about herself, to herself. She wants to show herself once and for all she is not a mess up, not a catastrophe waiting to happen, not a quitter, not an incompetent. In consequence she does have fairly spectacular emotional meltdowns when the frustration gets to her, although the scene of her lying flat out on the kitchen floor sobbing like a child is actually very funny. And isn’t this more like the reality of hard work and painful endeavour? We might all aspire to transcend set backs and obstacles, but how much more likely is it that we’ll end up in tears amidst the ruins of the latest creative attempt – and shouldn’t we have compassion for that as a genuine form of suffering, too? To cry when we are bitterly disappointed only shows that something terribly important is at stake, and should be a measure of the moral fibre required to keep making the creative attempt, not a lack of strength at all.

My only reservation about the film was in the portrayal of blogging, which continues to be misunderstood. The word ‘narcissistic’ was bandied about a great deal, as usual, seasoned with a little delicate scorn for an audience feasting on the disemboweled leftovers of another’s life. I can’t quite understand why it’s such a leap of the imagination to see how much blogs transmit information, how much they teach us, in the act (so fundamental to all creative writing) of putting words to the common feelings and experience of living. To share the quotidian with honesty and insight is no meagre or useless skill.

And so we get to the sneaky point of this post, which is to say that, by the way, this is my fourth anniversary of Tales from the Reading Room, and that there is much to be thankful for still, both in the art of blogging and of following one’s passions (as they amount to the same thing). Even as a child, I felt that life was a spectacular opportunity, and I just wanted to do something that was equal to the enormity of the gift I’d been given. Teaching literature at Cambridge was for me something of a pinnacle of achievement, and the chronic fatigue that meant I had to take time out of it a bitter and frustrating obstacle. But it was at that point I started blogging, out of a longing to share book knowledge with other people, missing my students as I was and the lengthy, in-depth discussions we enjoyed. Blogging not only brought me back in touch with bookish people, and with the delights of writing about and talking about literature, it also gave me a new way to express myself, and the astounding recognition that I could do something good that grew out of fun and almost self-indulgence, that wasn’t about setting a marine-style assault course for my mind, or striving against the most difficult challenge I could set myself. I had always worked so hard. Now it occurred to me to wonder whether I could actually find something equal to that precious opportunity of life in the path of least resistance.

So you find me now, four years in, trying to turn myself into a proper writer, to go beyond the pinnacle, as I once thought, of teaching literature, and attempting to produce something akin to it instead. I am not very good at talking about writing. You do it, and if it’s not right you do it over; that’s about all there is to it. Mister Litlove (and where would this blog be without him?) fondly imagines that I am some sort of spirit of creativity to whom the odd 1,000 words comes easily, and out of a liking for that image, I play the resident creative genius much in the same way that Marie Antoinette played at being a peasant in Le Petit Trianon. I wish I could say I was Julia Child in writing, when I have more than my fair share of Julie Powell (and one of these days I will lie on the kitchen floor for a meltdown as it looks fun). But I wish I were better at it as I might manage to find more time to post, here in the place where all this strange and still disconcerting change of life took place. Talking about books, however, is still a necessary, no, vital part of my life, and I am very grateful to the blogging friends who visit me here, some of you since the very start all those years ago, some of you relatively recent, but all deeply appreciated and valued. Your virtual presence has enriched me more than you will ever know, and the Reading Room would be nothing without you. Thank you for the past four, amazing, years.

37 thoughts on “A Passion for Life

  1. Happy, happy blogiversary! And thanks for warning me about a scene that would completely spoil the film for me if I saw it. I have breakdowns like that nearly every time I try cooking and definitely do NOT need to see it on screen.😛

  2. Your evident generosity of spirit, wit and good readerly sense are much appreciated by the Old Dog. I look forward to reading your future efforts, and should you be called to turn your attentions elsewhere–I wish you the best in whatever that might be.

  3. Dear Litlove, if you were any better at it you would be scary. Happy Anniversary. I loved the movie, but the thing I didn’t like about it was I wanted it to be all about My Life In France and about Julia and Paul Child. What a love story! I never missed The French Chef series, and was thrilled when it came to PBS in the ’80s in re-runs. It came on at noon, just in time for the kid’s to take their naps.

  4. happy anniversary! I think I’ve been reading you for most of the four years. It’s great knowing you. I hope you’ll keep going for many more years. And for what it’s worth I’ve absolutely no doubt you’ll achieve whatever writing goals you have set for yourself. Even if blogging is the space where you allow yourself to be self indulgent and playful the rigor, discipline and commitment you bring to the exercise is extraordinary.

  5. Congratulations on your 4 years of blogging. While I have found your blog only recently I can say that you never cease to challenge me in my own reading choices and make me yearn to read more deliberately.

  6. Wow – congrats on your anniversary! We started blogging together, really – I can’t believe I’ve known you that long. In that time, I have to say, your blog has been a source of pleasure, comfort, inspiration and disgustingly long to be read list and I for one am so, so grateful for you. I would NEVER pay for access to facebook or other social networking sites but if you ever instituted a for-pay policy I wouldn’t think twice about signing up!
    I can tell you are just the kind of person who makes the lives of those better around them.

  7. First of all, sorry to confuse you, showing up in my PV Reader disguise when I last commented. But on to more important matters: happy, happy bloggiversary! My four year bloggiversary is coming up soon, and I have to tell you that I feel I owe so much to you for having found my little blog so long ago and encouraging me so much from then until now. I always marvel that someone as brilliant and talented as you keeps looking over my way. And when you haven’t been giving me encouragement over there, you have been giving me so much food for thought (and also helping turn my TBR list into the tome it is today). Funny you should blog about Julia Child, as I was just in Washington, DC yesterday and went to The Smithsonian Institute specifically to see her kitchen, which she donated to the museum in 2001, and it was great fun, but I got kind of sad, thinking that I have never found anything in my life that I quite devoted myself to the way that she devoted herself to her cooking and teaching others to cook. I thought, “If only I could devote myself to cooking…or writing…or editing…or librarianship…or whatever that way.” But your post has given me comfort. Maybe I don’t have to be so devoted to one thing, and maybe I’ve avoided many a meltdown (although, I agree with you, an ocassional meltdown is good) by not being so. Anyway, thank you, thank you for four lovely years! Lots of fond memories over those years, and I can’t wait to see what our future together brings.

  8. Happy Anniversary! I’m sorry that it was chronic fatigue that brought you to blogging, but a gift to the blogosphere is the result. I agree with you that the main thing to say about writing is what you just did and to the point. I’m so glad you continue to write about books. Coincidentally, I have Julie and Julia sitting on my desk. I’ll have to watch it this weekend.

  9. Have you any idea how happy I am that I discovered your blog last year? Reading you is such a pleasure: you challenge me to think, you introduce writers I could never have known, and your style is a delight. You are one who inspires me to do better. Thank you for being here, litlove, and congratulations on four years of blogging! May you enjoy many more.

  10. Happy blogiversary. I’ve loved actually speaking to you this past year, after so many years of quietly following your blog and thinking how smart all the Brit bloggers were (hurray patriotism). I hope that you’re starting to find something as purposeful away from the high pressure world of teaching and that your enjoyment of talking about books grows and grows.

  11. Happy blogiversary!

    I love your thoughts on Julie and Julia. I didn’t particularly like Julie Powell in the movie, but I do enjoy reading your thoughts about blogging and writing. I like the blogging life, myself, too, for so many reasons.

  12. Dear Litlove, happy anniversary! Four years certainly have flown by. I am so glad you are blogging because I would never have met you otherwise. You are such a kind generous soul, kind to books and authors and kind to bloggers and all other comers. I aspire to your level of generosity. You also write beautifully and I love that you make me think and that I have found new books and authors because of you.

    I had to laugh at the irony of a movie bashing blogs when the movie wouldn’t exist in the first place if Julie hadn’t written a blog! Here’s to narcissism, self-indulgence, pooterism, books, blogging and you! You make the blogosphere a better place🙂

  13. No, no — thank *you*.

    You know, I think a lot of the blog-bashing comes from persons who wish that they themselves had enough “narcissism” to write a blog that landded a book deal and then a movie deal.

    I am looking forward to “Litlove: the Film.” Although it would probably be best as a documentary series; one of those marvelous multimedia presentations with vintage photographs and cameras nudging into corners of rooms, and dulcet voices reading passages aloud.

  14. A very happy birthday to your blog. I came across it just over three years ago from what I can tell and I’m amazed how the time has flown by, but more amazed at how you have kept up such an interesting and entertaining blog of the highest standards of thought and deceny – guess that’s just you! Long may this continue even if at times the cost to my tbr pile has edged towards my going into bankruptcy. Thanks for all the thoughts I would never have had and the many ideas I would have failed to grasp without you.

  15. Dear Lit-love
    First of all, many congratulations on your 4th blogbirthday. I’m a month away from my first and I still sometimes feel like a trespasser when I venture through the blogoshpere. I think that’s because I don’t make comments when I don’t find the content interesting, and I don’t make nearly enough visits to the blogs that I really love, like this one.

    I’ve not seen the film you’re blogging about, but I’ve found your thoughts about blogging in general and your own in particular very moving.

    I’ll go away and think about it all now. This strange human thing of needing to express ourselves to ourselves and to others in an endless loop. And now this extra dimension of cyberspace. I love it all!!

  16. Happy anniversary, LL! Yeah, it’s a real shame blogging is still so maligned. I was reading an article in last weekend’s paper, and it quoted a poorly written, utterly banal post from a teenage girl of limited imagination and insight before calling the content “typical” blogging. Look, that’s just ignorant, and inaccurate reportage to boot. I could so clearly see the journo curling their lip in disdain, and it commanded both my pity and disgust. You know, we know, that what you do here is something else entirely, and thank you.

  17. Hello again, Litlove
    I’ve just been browsing through a few of your recent posts and was struck by this:
    ” books just make me happy. After a few new books, my spirits are lifted
    and the world seems a better place”.
    I also noticed that you had an actual birthday last month, so I wondered if
    you might like me to send you a gift of my latest novel, Paper Lanterns.
    You can find out more about this book if you’d like to visit my blog and
    go to the My Novels page.
    (I’ll quite understand if you’d decline the offer!)

  18. So many wonderful comments, my dear blogging friends! I am quite overwhelmed by your kindness! This is the only time that the virtual nature of the virtual world is a real hindrance – this is definitely a situation for hugs all round. I’ll be answering you all individually as usual, but I just wanted to leave a big, big thank you here first. I am SO moved by your lovely words.

  19. Happy anniversary Litlove! I’m fairly sure I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for about three of your four years and as a result have read and enjoyed books I would never have considered otherwise. I’ve never understood the whole anti-blogging movement. I promote them as an excellent source of entertainment and information to whoever will listen. I enjoyed your take on Julie & Julia too, and am trying to find an excuse to use “rollickingly posh” in conversation.

  20. Happy Anniversary, my lovely friend and teacher. What feasts you bring me, and everyone else – I feel as though I’ve had all the fun of Cambridge and none of the toil!
    I would say “Let Litlove eat cake”, but I’m still searching for that elusive recipe that you’ll be able to eat… until that frabjous day, a heartfelt thank you, for all the education, affection and encouragement. My life and my reading is so much richer because of you.

  21. Many happy returns on your Blogiversary! You and I started out blogging just about the same time, and I’m certainly glad I wended my way to the Reading Room a couple of years ago. Reading your thoughts about books and literature always makes me feel quite smart – you have a wonderful, witty way of imparting information and ideas which I’m sure made you quite popular with your students.

    As for Julie and Julia, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought Meryl Streep was wonderful. The bit about Julia Child’s infertility was not lost on me, and I could see how her passion for cooking delicious food grew from her need to create and nurture and have something beautiful in her life.

  22. Happy Blogiversay, Litlove. I’m so happy you decided to take up blogging–I always enjoy your posts immensely, and I fully expect to see your name across the cover of a book someday (very soon I hope). I think you already are a proper writer, and it’s kind of you to share your writing here with us! I’m looking forward to seeing Julie and Julia–am waiting patiently for a copy from the library! Everyone should follow their dreams, so it would be hard to not feel sympathy for Julie and her frustrations. Lovely post as always!

  23. Jenny -lol! Although you could learn to love the meltdown – I’m not sure anyone cooks without one from time to time!

    Jacob – what a wonderful comment – thank you so very much. Long may the old dog come visiting the reading room!

    Priscilla – thank you very much! I’m so delighted you commented!

    Charlotte – I loved your comment that 4 blogging years were like 80 human ones – it’s so true! But I’m still here and still blogging and hope to find ways to keep it fresh and fun.

    Grad – bless you, my friend. I LOVED the story of the Childs. They were so beautifully played in the movie, and I wouldn’t have said no to more of them. In fact, I received My Life in France by Julia Child in the post this morning!🙂

    Amanda – it’s very special to have you comment here. You were the first person to link to my blog, you were so quickly a blogging friend, and I will always have a very tender place in my heart for you! Thank you for your lovely words – I treasure them.

    izziedarling – what a lovely thing to say! Thank you!

    Kathleen – thank you so much for such a wonderful comment! I’m so glad we found each other lately and look forward so much to enjoying your posts for many years to come.

    Courtney – hugs to you, my friend. We have most certainly been in it together right from the start, and I am always inspired by your life writing. You have such a talent. Here’s to many good years ahead of us.

    Teresa – thank you so much – and I could say EXACTLY the same about you.

    iliana – thank you for such kind wishes! And I do hope you are completely back to health now!

    Emily – hasn’t the time flown by? And yet so much has happened. I love your blog and your warm and generous heart shines through every word you write. Some people get where they want by sheer focus and determination, but many others it seems to me, allow the flow to carry them and just get really good at negotiating the tide. I never ever used to work this way, but now I’m a real convert! You just keep writing and you will find the exact place you need to be, I have no doubt. And how cool you saw Julia Child’s kitchen – I would love to see it!

    Lilian – I have so appreciated getting to know you this past year or so and I am a devoted regular to your blog, as you know! The books will always be where my heart is – and I love the way blogging gives me another outlet for discussing them. And let me know what you think of the movie when you watch it!

    devoted reader – thank you for your lovely wishes!

    ds – that is just SUCH a wonderful comment and one I will cherish – thank you so much, ds, the feeling is entirely mutual!

    Jodie – aw thank you so very much! I love your blog and admire your verve and insight and creativity. It’s been just as much pleasure for me to read you and join in with your discussions. And thanks to you I can do pictures now!🙂

  24. Rebecca – thank you so much for such lovely wishes – and I cannot deny that Julia Child really stole the show! She was just a magnificent character. I’m so happy to have found the Classics Circuit and your own blog through it – I am always in awe at the wonderful community spirit of the book blogging world.

    Andrew – I am delighted to have you on board, sir.

    Stefanie – I don’t even know where to begin with this comment as it moves me so much every time I read it (and believe you me, I’ve read it several times!). Thank goodness for blogging, and thank goodness for you. Here’s to many more happy years spent virtually together, sharing our reading pleasures, and our lives, and egging each other on to buy books!🙂 I’ll start a shelf in your name soon, I think!

    David – lol! You ALWAYS make me laugh! You’ll be glad to know that Mister Litlove is completely behind the film idea and is already picking out actors to play him. You don’t know what you’ve started.😉

    Bookboxed – you know you’ve got a special place in my heart. And the learning stuff is completely mutual – I can’t begin to list all the books you’ve steered me towards and I don’t think I’ve ever read a recommendation from you that I haven’t loved. I think I’m in trouble over a lot of tbr piles, though! I’ll live with that.😉

    Christine – thank you for your lovely comment! When I first started blogging it always felt a bit like gatecrashing someone else’s party, but then we Brits are always a bit reserved! What I love most about blogging is the supportive community that exists here in the book blog world. I consider you most certainly a card-carrying member of the reading room salon! And delighted to have you here.

    Doctordi – as a journalist, you’ll know much better than me whether some of this aggro comes because blogs are perceived as a threat. I am quite sure this is the case in precarious areas of newspaper journalism – like the literary review pages! But if we keep plugging away here (and I include you in the doing-something-different camp) then maybe the tide will turn.

    apiece – I am so happy to have you as a part of the reading room! Please do let me know if you get that comment into conversation! And I think blogging has SO much to recommend it, not least getting to know sympathetic souls you might never otherwise have met.🙂

    Fugitive – ah my friend. You’re someone else I have blogging to thank for – so if you look out of your window the next clear night, you’ll probably see my little sacrificial flares go up! It is a delight and an honour to know you – long may we continue to overburden each other’s tbr piles.🙂

    Smithereens – no really? How about that! Ah thank you for such lovely wishes, and I always feel I should give you a special thank you for Fred Vargas (I got three more at Christmas!). I’ll look out for your review of J & J!

    Becca – isn’t it astonishing to think we’ve been blogging this long? And yet every time I get weary, I think how awful it would be not to hear about your musical life and your reading choices, and those of all my dear blogging friends. I find your blog immensely soothing – all your sweet nature comes out in it so very clearly. And you say lovely things like the remark you made about Julia Child!

    Amateur Reader – why thank you so much, kind sir. Looking forward to your Scottish reading challenge still. At least I hope it’s still going. I am mortally slow with challenges but I always get there in the end!

    Danielle – ah, and you are another person I am so very happy to have met through blogging. How ever many wonderful books do I owe to your sharp eye and utterly seductive reviews? I’d love to know what you think of J & J when you watch it – it was a real feel-good movie, so watch it when it’s raining. Thank you for your lovely comment. I appreciate it so much.

  25. Loved that description of “swooped and swelled and swarmed over those plummy vowels”. Describes it perfectly. And I’m also wondering now who is going to play you and Mr Litlove in the film? I suppose Colin Firth is quite tall and handsome. But who to play LL herself? Anyway, many happy returns on your 4th blogiversary. I’m always happy to chat about books and life and anything else with you.

  26. Just continuing on from your comment, LL, I don’t actually consider myself a journalist per se… probably because of the circuitous route I took to writing professionally, and also because it’s not the main game for me. Hence calling myself a ‘freelance writer’ instead. Anyway, yes, I think you’re absolutely right; I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that the blog phenomenon to some degree threatens traditional news and opinion outlets such as newspapers.

  27. It’s taken me a while to get over here and say it, but I am SO glad you have been blogging these four years!! Is it really four years already? I let my blog anniversary slide this year, as March/April are tough times at work, but I’ve been vaguely aware of how much time has passed, and it seems incredible. I do love reading your posts, and it’s wonderful to follow the things from your life you decide to write about. Thanks for adding so much to the blogging world!

  28. I wish I’d seen this earlier — I’ve been much too slow in wishing you a happy anniversary. This blog brings me so much pleasure, and makes me a better writer, too, by pushing me hard in more intelligent directions. Thank you so much for everything.

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