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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively
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“For me, reading is my essential palliative, my daily fix.”
Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
“I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch that. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“But more usually I find that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity. We are not especially interesting, by and large--waiting for a bus, walking along the street; younger people are busy sizing up one another, in the way that children in a park will only register other children. We are not exactly invisible, but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveller, on the edge of things, bearing witness to the customs of another age.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“You get used to it. And that surprises me. You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment? Well, yes, you do. An alter ego is amazed, aghast perhaps--myself in the roaring forties, when robust health was an assumption, a given, something you barely noticed because it was always there. Acceptance has set in, somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative--perpetual rage and resentment--would not help matters. You are now this other person, your earlier selves are out there, familiar, well remembered, but you have to come to terms with a different incarnation.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“I can admire, but I no longer covet. Books of course are another matter; books are not acquisitions, they are necessities.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“My house is full of books. I suppose that I have read all of them, bar reference books and poetry collections in which I will not have read every poem. I have forgotten many, indeed most. At some point, I have emptied each of these into that insatiable vessel, the mind, and they are now lost somewhere within. If I reopen a book, there is recognition--oh yes, I've been here--but to have the contents again, familiar, new-minted, I would have to read right through. What happens to all this information, this inferno of language? Where does it go? Much, apparently, becomes irretrievable sediment; a fair amount, the significant amount, becomes that essential part of us--what we know and understand and think about above and beyond our own immediate concerns. It has become the life of the mind. What we have read makes us what we are--quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.

I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“Early reading is serendipitous, and rightly so. Gloriously so. Libraries favor serendipity, invite it; the roaming along a shelf, eyeing an unfamiliar name, taking this down, then that--oh, who's this? Never heard of her--give her a go? That is where, and how, you learn affinity and rejection. You find out what you like by exploring what you do not.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“We are all of us palimpsests; we carry the past around, it comes surging up whether or not we want it, it is an albatross, and a crutch.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“It is not enough to live here and now. Not enough for me, anyway. I need those imaginative leaps out of my own time frame and into other places - places where things were done differently. Reading has provided me with that, for the most part, but it is objects, things like these scraps of pottery, that have most keenly conjured up all those elsewheres - inaccessible but eerily available to the imagination. The past is irretrievable, but it lurks. It sends out tantalizing messages, coded signals in the form of a clay pipe stem, a smashed wine bottle. Two leaping fish from twelfth-century Cairo. I can't begin to understand what that time was like, or how the men who made them lived, but I can know that it all happened - that old Cairo existed, and a particular potter. To have the leaping fish sherd on my mantelpiece - and all those other sherds in the cake tin - expands my concept of time. There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.”
Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
“Reading, for all of us, is fettered only by obvious restrictions. You can't own all that you want or need to read. There are, then, two kinds of books--yours, and the contents of libraries. There is the actual, personal library, your own shelves, which mark out reading inclinations, decade by decade, and the virtual library in the head--the floating assemblage of fragments and images and impressions and information half-remembered that forms the climate of the mind, the distillation of reading experiences that makes each of us what we are.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“Since then, the e-book. I don’t care to read on an e-reader myself, though I would under certain circumstances – when traveling, or if in the hospital – and I get bored by the exclusive defense of either paper or screen. Future readers will require both, I assume, but I can’t imagine that many would wish to own a personal library that consisted of the Kindle on the coffee table, rather than some shelves of books, with all their eloquence about where we have been and who we are.”
Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
“Books are the mind's ballast, for so many of us--the cargo that makes us what we are, a freight that is ephemeral and indelible, half-forgotten but leaving an imprint. They are nutrition, too. My old age fear is not being able to read--the worst deprivation. Or no longer having my books around me: the familiar, eclectic, explanatory assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think, and to write.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“The regrets of old age are polarized: you wish you had not done certain things--behaved thus, responded like that--and you wish you had seized more of the day, been greedier, packed more in.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“Any book represents effort, struggle, work--I know, I write them myself--every book deserves attention, even if that ends with dismissal.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“The world is full of widows--several among my closer friends. We have each known that grim rite of passage, have engaged with grief and loss, and have not exactly emerged but found a way of living after and beyond. It is an entirely changed life, for anyone who has been in a long marriage--forty-one years, for me: alone in bed, alone most of the time, without that presence towards which you turned for advice, reassurance, with whom you shared the good news and the bad. Every decision now taken alone; no one to defuse anxieties. And a thoroughly commonplace experience--everywhere, always--so get on with it and don't behave as though you are uniquely afflicted. I didn't tell myself that at the time, and I doubt if it would have helped if I had, but it is what I have come--not so much to feel as to understand.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“How can you not be involved? These are your times, your world, even if those events are on the other side of it. And as for the narrative--you are a part of that, for better or for worse, whether the grey inexorable economic inevitabilities--recessions and recoveries and having less money or more--or the grand perilous global story.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“...collective memory is unevenly distributed: some people have a rich and deep resource, for others it is minimal. A matter of education, and also of inclination. But however minimal, however threadbare, it is ballast of a kind. We all need that seven-eighths of the iceberg, the ballast of the past, a general past, the place from which we came.

That is why history should be taught in school, to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“I have been reading history all my life, and am sharply aware that I know very little. I have an exaggerated respect for historians--certain historians; they seem to me grounded in a way that most of us are not, possessed of an extra sense by virtue of access to times and places when things were done differently. They have--can have--heightened perception.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“History is not so much memory as collective evidence. It is what has happened, what is thought to have happened, what some claim to have happened. The collective past is fact and fabrication--much like our private pasts. There is no received truth, just a tenuous thread of events amid a swirl of dispute and conflicting interpretation. But... the past is real. This is simplistic, but also, for me, awe-inspiring. I am silenced when I think about it: the great ballast of human existence.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“To be completely ignorant of the collective past seems to me to be another state of amnesia; you would be untethered, adrift in time. Which is why all societies have sought some kind of memory bank, whether by way of folklore, story-telling, recitation of the ancestors--from Homer to Genesis. And why the heritage industry does so well today; most people may not be particularly interested in the narrative of the past, in the detail or the discussion, but they are glad to know that it is there.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“I have learned to be suspicious of memory--my own, anyone's--but to accord it considerable respect. Whether accurate or not, it can subvert a life.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“What these books and their like have done for me is tap into some roaming tendency of the mind; I know that I could never have done what these writers have done, been where they have been, pursued the interests they have pursued, but I want to know what it is like. We go to fiction to extend experience, to get beyond our own, For me, this kind of non-fiction writer is furnishing the same need--taking me out of my own comfortable expectations and showing me how it might be elsewhere. Armchair travel? Not quite. I have never believed that travel broadens the mind, having known some well-travelled minds that were nicely atrophied. Rather, these are books--experiences--that encourage a leap of the imagination.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“A great library is anything and everything. It is not for its current custodians to judge what the future will find to be of importance, and it is this eclecticism that gives it the mystique, that is the wonder of it.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“Reading in old age for me is doing what it has always done--it frees me from the closet of my own mind.”
Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
“This is the satisfaction of a successful work of fiction--the internal coherence that reality does not have. Life as lived is disordered, undirected, and at the mercy of contingent events.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“And in any case, I am someone else now. This seems to contradict earlier assertions that you are in old age the person you always were. What I mean is that old age has different needs, different satisfactions, a different outlook. I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.

There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do, things that are now important.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person's understanding; reading everything else, I am travelling--I am travelling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences. I am reminded sometimes of the intensity of childhood reading, that absolute absorption when the very ability to read was a heady new gain, the gateway to a different place, to a parallel universe you hadn't known was there. The one entirely benign mind-altering drug.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“...her view of gender distinction was that men were a different breed from women, you deferred to them in some respects and recognized that they had special needs--cooked breakfast and somewhere to go and smoke.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time
“I imagine that my own children when elderly will cast a critical eye upon my own mind-set of today. How I would love to know in what ways it appears--will appear--archaic or perverse. Ours is on the whole a pretty tolerant and liberal-minded age; can tolerance be stretched yet further? Some would say, indeed yes. That there are still areas of ignorance and insensitivity. Or could there be a reversion--could we come to seem unprincipled, licentious, devoid of standards? Somewhere, at some level, the seeds of change will be starting already to sprout. Society does not support stasis.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time