Fact: Michelle Orange is a bright young literary star. The highly original Sicily Papers was published by Hobart, a wonderful small press that moves in only the most original new voices on the literary landscape. I’m actually reading it for the second time, and have been pushing this book on my friends, and the stores I sell to at my day job. Michelle has been kind enough to write us a When We Fell in Love essay, and we’re over the moon to have her at this early stage of what will be a memorable career.
When I Fell – Michelle Orange
Growing up my father’s preferred answer to the question, “What does ‘insert alien word here’ mean?” was, “Go and look it up.” Because he was an English professor uninterested in dialing down his words when his kids could tune up their vocabularies, it was a question I asked a lot.
As a result I spent a lot of time with the several dictionaries we kept in the house, one a big floppy number that was always slipping out of my lap, the other a gothic, two-volume unit housed in its own sleek, black cardboard sheath. Built into the top of the housing unit was a drawered compartment in which a large, rectangular magnifying glass was stowed. Even as a child, I needed that glass: to the naked eye each page of the full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary seems marked not by a sacred key to the language but two thick, pristine tire tracks.
I felt a certain pleasure, or perhaps security, in the weight of a single volume when it sent me careering from the bookshelf to the couch in my father’s den. Once my lap was pinned beneath its splay, every word in the world was literally within my grasp; they were knowable, should I choose to know them, and that was comforting. I would fall in and out of phases of dedicated imbibing, moving down and up the columns with the methodical ardor of one compelled to enforce some order on the seeming impossibility of clear expression. Maybe if I could find the words; maybe if the words helped me find myself.
The dictionary was the sun-book around which all of the others in my galaxy orbited. A congenital snoop, I was forever checking the drawers of my father’s desk. The returns were rarely fruitful, but a paperback whose cover bore the close-up image of a swirly blonde with red parted lips and heavy eyes gained an illicit appeal simply for having been found there. I read Norman Mailer’s Marilyn when I was 11 years old, and it’s probably no coincidence that I have read almost every book written about Monroe since. Having to return it to the drawer after every stolen installment meant it took a while, but the writing had me in vaguely titillated thrall.
I remember very clearly walking up the stairs after one session, and, finding my dad in the kitchen, asking him what “zaftig” meant. He looked at me in amused surprise—the reaction I was going for—and asked me where I’d read a word like that. I smiled, and he didn’t have to tell me to march back downstairs and look it up; I was already halfway there.