Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 20

To eat or not to eat — to read or not to read?
Why bother reading Gertrude Stein? It’s a good question. You can make it hard on yourself (as I often did at first) by starting on the wrong foot. Picking her “cubist” or “abstract” writing first — for example “Tender Buttons” or “Stanzas in Meditation”. I am the first to admit that I didn’t know how to approach her. Reading her sometimes reminded me of the German legend of “Schlaraffenland” — the promised land of food and wine which you can only reach by first eating yourself through a massive mountain of millet. Well, I did. I had to if I wanted to find the juiciest, funniest, wittiest morsels of Stein’s Schlaraffenland for my picture-reader. On the way through the millet mountain I learned a few tricks, however. You can make it easy on yourself. You can start with her plain (well, fairly plain) autobiographical writing, and there is plenty of that, following the “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, or with her first novel, “Q.E. D.” the story of her first lesbian love frustrations. You can listen to Stein’s own advice: to read her aloud, which naturally makes you stop after a little while because you run out of breath. By starting and stopping a lot you may go far…
And you may notice that some of her books begin with a big burst of energy and then, somewhere in the middle, begin to sag. (“The Making of Americans” exhausted even Stein herself!) Reading aloud and skipping around can be like nibbling on all the pieces of candy in a box: delicious. You may notice how musical her language is, how amazing the “rap” of her sentences and paragraphs sounds. (She really did learn from her dog’s way of lapping water the difference between a sentence and a paragraph.) Yes, it all makes sense. It also helped me to know that as a kid, Gertie first spoke German (and heard Yiddish), then French, and only at school age, when her family settled in Oakland, CA, she fully entered the English language. Her rapport to English remained that of a five-year-old child that delights in destroying and recreating that toy of a language for her own pleasure, again and again. Her playfulness is what got me, right next to her love of the absurd and paradoxical — her punning and cunning, her naughty word games and often sexy double entendres… That’s what I wanted to share. I wanted to make it easy for everyone to play along with her. How could one resist the writer who said: “Books and food, food and books… both excellent things.”

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