Mapping the Literary Constellation: 50 Key Moments in a Personal History

The Guardian UK loves lists, and they spend plenty of air time debating the purpose and usefulness of this form. Katie Kitamura waxes in her article “Literary Lists: Proof of our existence”:

Lists are used as a formally alienating device, a dehumanising agent, that is nonetheless entirely wrapped up in the question of human life.

How do we describe the fact of human existence? At a certain point, perhaps, style fails us. Language, even and in particular at its most evocative, becomes less of an aid and more of a difficulty. In these circumstances, a certain kind of writer has, again and again, reverted to the list – perhaps as the simplest proof of existence in the first place. It’s no accident that these lists often delineate material objects, the physical evidence of a life.

…[Umberto] Eco is talking about what I can only describe as a big feeling, and one that requires all the support of its formal and literary scaffolding. He is not, in the main, talking about grocery lists or lists of books read. But as long as we’re keeping lists, no matter what those lists are, we’re keeping faith with some idea of perpetuity. We are making the assumption that the list will endure even when we do not.

Furthering the idea that lists endure, The Guardian enumerated English literature’s 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling, registering historical moments and literary milestones. Here’s a taste:

Note: what follows is not merely a book list, but an attempt to identify some of the hinge moments in our literature – a composite of significant events, notable poems, plays, and novels, plus influential deaths, starting with the violent death of Shakespeare’s one serious rival …

1. The death of Christopher Marlowe (1593)

2. William Shakespeare: The Sonnets (1609)

3. The King James Bible (1611)

4. William Shakespeare: The First Folio (1623)78)

In the spirit of Eco’s perpetuity, here’s a personal record–certainly not exhaustive nor complete–noting moments of  self discovery, influential people, places, films, musicians, mentors, trailblazers to follow, and other artifacts that have shaped this literary self. The below register doesn’t follow chronological order nor an order of importance but is a haphazard attempt to pin down the brightest constellations that wheel over my literary skies. Like any piece of writing, it’s been revised nth times over, and these fidgety fingers are still tempted to make further emendations. It will be interesting to revisit ten and twenty years from now and discover how the skyscape has shifted.

1. Central Station
2. The City of Angels
3. My soul mate, PJS.
4. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

5. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
6. Barbara Jane Reyes
7. Lysley Tenorio
8. Rosemary Graham, Marilyn Abildskov, and Cecilia Brainard Manguerra
9. Saint Mary’s College of California MFA Creative Writing Program (2006)
10. UCLA Creative Writing Program: David Wong Louie and Paula Gunn Allen (1998)
11. Teaching Composition Classes
12. NYT article on Filipino House Bands
13. LA Weekly
14. Beethoven
15. The Smiths
16. MacDowell Colony Residency, January 2013
17. Maternal & paternal grandparents’ lives & stories
18. Virginia Woolf
19. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (short stories–not the novels!)
20. Typewriter Model #____
21. Apple
22. WordPress
23. Mi hermanito
24. BBC’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South

25. EM Forster
26. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss
27. The City of Angels

At Home in Venice, Los Angeeles
28. Andrea Levy’s Small Island
29. Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness
30. Thomas Hardy (Tess of d’Ubervilles, Return of the Native, and Far From the Maddening Crowd)
31. Frederich Nietzsche
32. This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands/Las Fronteras

33. Shakespeare’s Hamlet
34. Mr. Thurston’s Honors English class at Monte Vista High School and his extra credit reading list
35. Mr. Tato, Avocado Elementary School
36. Libraries at Highland Elementary, MVHS, Avocado, and Spring Valley Middle School
37. Elementary School Bookfairs (Scholastic Catalogs–does anyone remember these?)
38. Laura Ingalls Wilder Series
39. The Romantics: Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and the rest of the guys in the band
40. Charlotte Bronte
41. Emily Bronte & Wuthering Heights

42. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Loose Woman
43. The UCLA Ten Series and The Norton Anthology of English Literature I and II
44. The Great Chuck D, aka Charles Dickens
45. Poets & Writers
46. Mary Volmer, Nick D. Leither, and Emily Breunig
47. KPFK’s Global Village’s Yatrika Shah-Rais and Derek Rath
48. KCRW’s Tom Schnabel
49. Pa and the copies of Aesop’s Fables and Greek mythology books he gave me as a child
50. Ma, all her books and paperwork that crammed our house and her indomitable encouragement to read & write

Hopefully this inventory might give you pause to reflect over the personal and private moments that have shaped your art and passion. This could include lovers, would-be lovers, chance encounters, TV shows, songs, albums, poets, comediennes–whatever gets your engine revved. You’ll leave beloved people and places out that will make you cringe with regret, as I have, but that’s the nature of lists. As much as they stand as testament; they’re essentially ephemera like every other form we try and hold fast to. These watersheds don’t have to be explained but should mean everything to you.

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