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Monday, January 30, 2012

Reading Aloud

We’ve always done it. Read aloud to each other, I mean. At times we have shared whole books this way, reading as long at bedtime as the reader’s voice holds out and then closing the book until the next night. We also enjoy reading aloud on long car trips, stopping for conversation and then taking up the narrative again, reader and driver thus traveling two simultaneous trips together, one through surrounding space, another in shared mental images called forth by a writer’s words.

A short list of older books I can recommend for this sort of reading would include the following: Wind in the Willows; Mary Norton’s The Borrowers; Shantyboat, by Harlan Hubbard; any of Wendell Berry’s novels; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith; The Trees, by Conrad Richter; Bruce Catton’s Michigan books; An Hour Before Daylight, by Jimmy Carter; good books on writing, e.g., Stephen King’s On Writing.

Books not to try: anything by Raymond Chandler or anything else depending overmuch on dialogue without noting who said what. Too confusing trying to keep speakers straight—doesn’t work.

Naturally, there are a near-endless number of good newer titles, fiction and nonfiction, that would make good reading aloud. What would you recommend?

Why not audiobooks? People have asked me if David and I ever listen to them, and the answer is that we have tried them--on rare occasions. After I’d read King’s On Writing to myself and then read most of it aloud to David, we listened to the whole thing once again in the car. That was good. Another time we listened to a Tony Hillerman mystery. And once we dragged ourselves (or were dragged, I guess I should say) through most of On the Trail of the Assassins, with actor Ed Asner doing the reading and pronouncing “Guy Bannister” in such an exaggeratedly sinister tone every time the name occurred that we couldn’t help laughing, though the subject matter was hardly amusing. If I were traveling alone, I might listen to recorded books more often, but traveling with David, I infinitely prefer his voice or mine, and he doesn’t argue with my preference.

For one thing, our choices are as infinite as the books we take with us or buy along the way. The main advantage, however, to my way of thinking, is that when I’m reading aloud or David is reading to me, no recording is setting the pace, and we can easily stop and start, as reader and driver feel the need or desire. Sometimes we pause to discuss what we’ve been reading, and other times we just want to immerse ourselves in the landscape outside the car windows—because one does tend to make what elementary school teachers now call “mind movies” while reading or listening, and it’s hard to appreciate fully one’s surrounding travel scenery with a different movie playing in one’s head. 

I’ll go further with this idea: we don’t read as much in the car as we might otherwise because I like to be where I am, not somewhere else. Just as I normally hate expressways, it’s on expressways that I am most likely to say, “Would you like me to read a while?” Reading aloud is good when the view is boring, not when it’s beautiful!

And in Michigan, in my opinion, the view is almost always beautiful.
Now of course (going back to the business of taking a pause in the reading) one can stop and start a recording, too (tape or disk or whatever), but somehow it seems to require more effort, and certainly it doesn’t usually seem worthwhile to stop and go back if one misses a single word, whereas we can easily do that when we read aloud to one another. "He picked up a what?" Easily answered. Nothing missed.

But maybe the best part of reading aloud to each other is the intimacy involved. Any listening together involves sharing, but reading to each other also has the element of giving and receiving. The passenger can be doing something for the driver. Obviously, then, reading in bed is also important for reasons other than the story: It’s a way the reader can turn to his or her book before sleep without shutting out the other person.

P.S. from two years ago: "David and I took turns driving south yesterday, and since the beautiful prairie is (it cannot be denied) somewhat monotonous after a while, while one of us drove the other generously read aloud for many miles, David from Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside and I, from the introduction, Inagua: An Island Sojourn, by Gilbert C. Klingel. From the repression of thought in Stalinist Russia to a storm-battered sailboat on the Atlantic in 1929, we took turns keeping whoever was driving in a state of high alert rather than succumbing to road fatigue."

That's what I'm talking about.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Brief Time We Are Here

Back home with snow to shovel

I’ve been meaning to read The Hunger Games but somehow haven’t gotten around to it yet. Thought of taking it on a recent overnight trip...decided to take something else. The occasion for the trip was very sad, and dystopian literature didn’t seem like what I’d want for bedtime reading at the late end of a long, physically and emotional exhausting day. For some unknown reason—most likely its size, the small, slim volume easily tucked into a bag—I took along Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. I know, I know! But I did not open it once during the two days we were away from home.

Branches bearing snow burden
It isn’t easy to be young. YA novels and classic modern poetry both have a point when they put their protagonist in nightmarish scenarios. I was young and anguished once myself (and for longer than I had youth as an excuse) but am glad to say that’s over and given up as a way of life. Nihilism? Not interested. Cynicism? No, thank you. Tragedy and heartache? Life brings quite enough in the natural course of events, but the long view of that same course of events shows a multifaceted reality, with happiness as well as misery, contentment more long-lasting for most of us than boredom or anger.

So the book I opened to read over morning coffee on Friday, far from home, was Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth, and when we were safely home again in our own bed and David asked me to read to him before we went to sleep, it was the Wendell Berry book I opened again.

The Catletts, the Coulters, and the Feltners, Joe and Nettie Banion, Jayber Crow, and all the others in Berry’s fictional Port William, Kentucky, have known each other for a long, long time, as most of them have known the land around their homes for a lifetime. Death and heartache and tragedy come to Port William, as they come everywhere on earth, but here is how Burley Coulter writes to his nephew, Nathan, away fighting in World War II, telling him that Mat and Margaret Feltner and their daughter-in-law, Virgil’s young, pregnant wife, have had word that Virgil is now listed as Missing in Action. Burley is explaining why the preacher’s visit to the Feltners seemed so irrelevant and inappropriate.
I do say that some people’s knack is for the Here. Anyhow, that’s the talent I’m stuck with. For us it’s important to keep in mind who Tom was. And for Mat and them I judge it’s important to know who is meant when they speak of Virgil. We don’t forget them after somebody who never knew them has said “Dead in the service of his country” and “Rest in peace.” That’s not the way these accounts are kept. We don’t rest in peace. The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.
David and I had driven south to Barry County on Thursday, had gone to a funeral home visitation, stayed overnight with friends in Hastings, had breakfast on Friday with friends on their farm out in the country, and we drove back that same Friday. It was a “quick trip” in one sense. In another sense we covered over forty years. We retraced roads traveled many times in former lifetimes, vaguely familiar now though almost forgotten, too. Our path on Thursday had lain through bright fog, out of which frost-painted trees resolved themselves into stark lines and shapes. We gathered with friends in bright rooms that evening as the darkness pressed around outside. Friday morning the sky was blue, sunshine bright, and our friend Michael dug parsnips from his garden for us, and his wife Barbara gave us jars of honey to bring home.

Last summer’s nut-brown oak leaves hung in glossy bunches along the roads and rivers and lakes of Barry County. Crossing the flat Dutch fields around Grand Rapids, we eventually re-entered the North, pines standing in snow, trembling tawny beech leaves so much smaller and lighter than the oak leaves to the south, apple and cherry orchards taking the place of dairy herds.

Looking north to the winter willows
Wendell Berry’s place on earth, also the place of his fictional characters, is south of the Ohio River. Here are some of Mat Feltner’s thoughts as he goes about his farm chores:
Around Mat, the country throbs with the singing of frogs. Too high in the dusk to be seen, a flock of wild geese passes, a kind of conversation muttering among them. They will go on talking and talking that way all night, flying into new daylight far off. That they do not think of him, that they go on, comforts Mat. He thinks of those wild things feeding along lake edges way to the north with a stockman’s pleasure in the feeding of anything, and with something more.
What name can be given to the “something more”? For Mat Feltner, for Wendell Berry, for the reader in tune both with Port William, with the old Barry County days and now solidly home in Leelanau Township, no further naming is necessary. We hold onto our former lives, onto our old friends, onto those who have passed away from us. And when the wild geese fly over, we notice their passing, too. And then we turn to the next job at hand.

Big, heavy snow here on Friday night. Images in today’s post show what the countryside looked like near my home late Saturday afternoon.

Across the orchard, past the pines, to the wooded hills beyond....

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Visiting the Past Yet Again

David had an appointment in Traverse City, so we drove in early and went downtown. I wanted to pick up some tickets at the Opera House for a couple of the National Writers Series events. We parked back behind Front Street along the Boardman River and reminisced about the old Ray’s Coffee House days as we strolled this charming passage to Front Street. I recalled even earlier days, back when Thompson News Agency occupied the space that has been Kilwin’s Chocolates ever since. We walked down the block to the building that used to be called the “Arcade” and visited my friend Gloria in her bookstore, So Many Books, So Little Time. I want to add, “So true!” The next time I visit that shop, I won’t have to rush off somewhere else so soon, and Gloria and I will have more time to catch up on each other’s lives. I’ll have time to look at more books, too.

Earlier David and I had ventured south of downtown for coffee. Does anyone recognize this building on Union Street? To pose a more unlikely question, does anyone remember when it housed Dog Ears Books? That was back in 1994-1996. I met a lot of wonderful people there and loved the Old Town neighborhood, but after commuting for a couple of years I was happy to move my bookstore back to Leelanau County. (There’s no place like home!) Coffee at Old Town Coffee was really good. We’ll go back there again, too, on a more leisurely day, and we;ll have a bagel or muffin with our coffee.

Appointment successfully concluded, we made a trip to Oryana Food Co-op. I hadn’t planned that stop and didn’t have a bag with me, but today the co-op was giving away a free bag with each purchase! That worked out well! 

But what did I buy at Gloria’s store? Because you might guess I would find something, rushed as I was, and you would be right. America Today, published by the Macmillan Company in 1938, was a school textbook written by Roy F. Nichols, William C. Bagley, and Charles A. Beard. The name Beard got my attention, but what really caught my eye—and the reason I bought the book—were the illustrations by George M. Richards. Yes, I bought it for the pictures!

It turns out, however, that the text is interesting, too—interesting to me for reasons most likely not intended by the authors. The book, you see, is a history of our country following the Civil War. The first chapter is entitled “Greater Wealth and Bigger Business,” the first section is headed “The New America,” and here is the first paragraph of that first section:
The United States has changed continuously since it was founded. Every few years has seen such great alterations that people have been constantly talking about a New America. The greatest changes, however, really occurred after the War Between the States and were so important that we can speak with accuracy of the nation thereafter as a New America.
One notices instantly the name given to the conflict: not the Civil War, but the War Between the States. Having read that paragraph, I must read on. The second paragraph in the section dispenses quickly with a description of the country before the war, a nation characterized by smallness—small farms, small towns, small businesses and small railroads. Then the third paragraph:
In politics as in business local activity was the most important [before the war]. There were national elections and voters were interested in the government at Washington, but that was far away. They knew more about state government and local interests. They talked of states’ rights and the interests of the South and in many communities they thought more of local rights than they did of national development. In fact the North and South had quarreled over this question when the South thought that the North was trying to injure her prosperity and power. The War Between the States was the result.
And so we brush off our hands and move on quickly to the new industrialism. Well, I am fascinated and amazed. The word slavery never appears! Nor does the word slave. There is no mention of the “peculiar institution” whatsoever. A passing reference to “cheaper labor” in the cotton fields of the South is brought in so as not to leave that region out of the story of industrialization, but nothing more is said of those laborers. In fairness, nothing is said of the laborers in the New England mill towns, either. The authors have other fish to fry. 

They are eager to Go West! That’s where the (Big) New America really lies—in the Westward Expansion, in the stories of railroads, cowboys, miners...

...and Indians. The reticent curtain drawn over slavery is not brought into play in the saga of the West. Chapter II, Section III is frankly titled “Conquering the Indians.” Here the authors admit that the white man was naturally viewed as an enemy by the Indians:
He took their land, he killed their buffaloes, he wanted to force them to live on small ranges of poor land....
To make matters worse, the government bungled. The affairs of the Indians were looked after by government agents, who were all too often interested in getting rich. These agents cheated the red men. They sometimes let the Indians have liquor [authors do not say that agents ever sold liquor to the Indians] although this was strictly forbidden by the government, and sometimes they let them have guns and ammunition which later were used against United States soldiers. This ill-treatment gained the Indians many friends in the East who felt that the Indian wars were caused by persecution....
Treaties made, treaties broken, warfare and reservations.
In fifteen years, between 1865 and 1880, the government spent $22,000,000 to fight the Indians and suffered the loss of some 600 officers and men. How many Indians were killed we do not know [my emphasis added].
It will be interesting to read on to see how the writers of this textbook narrate the rest of the story, which they could only give through the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Second World War not yet having arrived, but here in the opening chapters I am struck by two features: the description of the Civil War as the War Between the States, completely omitting any mention of slavery; and the very different treatment given to the warfare carried out against the Indians in the West. I suspect that the textbook authors were wary of offending white school boards in the South but had no reason to feel concern for the feelings either of black Americans or Indians. The story of slavery could not be told without embarrassment to white Southerners, while the story of “Conquering the Indians” carried no such political danger, but neither former slaves nor Indians on reservations play a part in the story of America Today as it marches forward.

The book does not present a completely sugarcoated history of the United States. It acknowledges resentment of immigrants, the ugliness of poverty and tastelessness of the newly rich, political corruption, and the indifference of the major political parties to the very real problems caused by widespread financial collapse in 1893.
Strange as it may seem, these grave problems were not given the attention they needed by the leading politicians of the day. Neither the President nor Congress did much of importance to help the people who suffered most when depressions came. To these only the minor parties tried to give serious attention. The Republicans and the Democrats fought against each other in the elections, but the questions they agued about had nothing to do with improving the conditions in the country which caused panics and hurt the farmers and laborers.
Interesting? Yes. All too familiar, also. But I keep going back in my mind to the nineteen-century wars, the one between the states and the prolonged war against the Native Americans. Anyone knowing nothing of American history could read this book and have no idea that Africans were brought here as slaves. The reader with no knowledge of our country would have no idea that there even were--and are--black Americans. As for Native Americans, the “Indians” of the glamorous Wild West, the reader from another planet could only conclude that they retreated to their reservations and played no more part in national life.

Did children of color have this textbook in their schools? I can’t help wondering.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Loving the Present Participle

Snow sliding off the roof
Of course any reader or lover of books, like any writer, will also love words. That would seem to go without saying. (Obviously, it doesn't, judging from the number of writers who say it in interviews.) I’ve been thinking more specifically of late about different parts of speech and my feelings for them. Mathematicians sometimes admit to loving certain numbers. Is this strange? Oh, well! If I be strange, let me be unashamed!

Nouns. The fascination of naming. So many human beings begin speech with names. Not all—a few are phrase learners, and I wonder what other differences, if any, divide these two groups of learners—but most of us, when we uttered our first words, spoke names. Mama. Dada. Ball. Dog. My son spoke these words, adding towel, toast and other names quickly to the list. When we went to a theatre, and there was a fire scene in the movie, he identified it as “Hot!”  Was that for him an adjective or a noun? Obviously, it was neither, but it may well have been a name.

Verbs. One little boy I took care of for a while was a phrase-learner. “Throw it!” “Get it!” “Jump!” Verbs were his thing. He was all action!

Adjectives and Adverbs. Oh, the love affair young writers embark upon when first they learn to modify their nouns and verbs! How intoxicating the sense of power, adding detail upon detail to a world being recreated with words! Learning to say more with less requires reining in the power  so as not to let words run away with the writing, but adjectives and adverbs will always have a place, since the world itself is modified and modifying itself every moment.

I could go on here to say something about pronouns and about conjunctions, seemingly indispensable in the minds of English speakers, although some languages manage without them. If, for instance, a verb is already conjugated to “agree” with a particular pronoun, why is the pronoun needed? It is redundant. Americans love their pronouns, however, especially the first-person singular! And conjunctions. No one can ever study formal logic and see conjunctions naively again. Two statements can be made one after the other. Conjoining them adds nothing. (Either separate or conjoined, in either speaking or in writing, one must come before the other.) And it is such a shock to be told that and and but are logically equivalent! The choice between the two is more an editorial comment on a truth claim than part of a bare statement.

But I want to cut short my survey of parts of speech and get to my main point for today, which is that I have realized only recently (perhaps because it has been true only recently?) that I have an inordinate fondness for the present participle. I was looking back over titles I’d given various posts on this blog and found these words: racing; percolating; beginning, singing, ringing, resolving and hoping; reading; wrapping [up]; getting [back in touch]; remembering; etc., etc., etc. Even before making that discovery I had been reading and thinking about poetry, and it struck me that the present participle is vital to modern poetry, because it is vital to capturing a momentary impression. And suddenly I realized how much I love this part of speech!

Naming is irresistible. We human beings love to give names to objects, to places, to babies, and to each other. There are names we love to say, names that evoke memories or mystery. At the same time, names can lead us astray. When we know something’s name, we are tempted to think we know more about it than we do. When we give an abstract name, we think we have tidily boxed up an idea and can now put it, with its label, on its “proper” place on the idea shelf. Do you think you know who I am as a person or what I think on any particular topic because you have labeled me a “liberal”? Or because I have a “business”? Or because I’m a “philosopher”?

The world is not static; the world is complex and perpetually in flux. Nouns represent pieces of the world by oversimplifying. They take pieces out of context and freeze them in time. Most suspicion of language, when you read it closely, is suspicion of nouns.

No part of speech, however, is propaganda-proof. Verbs, like nouns, adjectives, and/or [!] conjunctions can slant a report one way or another. Did someone boast something or admit it? Did someone else retreat or flee? Did the candidate grin, smile, or smirk? So too the present participle can be used for otherwise unstated editorial purposes: “Puffing out his chest and tilting his chin upward, to a distant corner of the room, the uninvited guest replied....” Don’t you just want to kick him out yourself?
Winter sun shining

Still, I love this part of speech. The past tense tells us what is supposedly over and done with (as if anything ever is); the present tense holds forth an artificially static snapshot, a “state” of events; and the future tense makes claims that can be redeemed only when the future arrives. The present participle, by contrast, gives us a moment still in motion, as it’s sliding by, tumbling forward, and the word doesn’t try to hide or deny the movement, the slip-sliding.

“The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away,” sang Paul Simon, and we heard him and sang along and said, “Yeah!” 

Poet Jim Harrison used a present participle for the title of his poetry collection, Saving Daylight. There is a poem with that title in the book, another called “Becoming,” another called “Adding It Up.”

Who can ever forget the first line of the poem that begins,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer...
-      William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Do you need more than that? Loving the present participle, I rest my case and relax in the weeds.

Clouds drifting, floating, sighing

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Am Not in Louisiana or Florida

The pictures on the wall do not really curve like a tropical horizon!

I am in and around Northport, Michigan, commuting between home and my bookstore in the village. Others are in warmer places.

Robert Gray, who writes for the trade newsletter, “Shelf Awareness,” is in New Orleans. Matt Norcross of McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, is there, too, and so is best-selling author and novice bookseller Ann Patchett. The occasion for the gathering in the Big Easy is the Winter Institute of the American Booksellers Association. “Could we have gone?” David asked on Thursday evening, as temperatures dropped into single digits and the wind howled fiercely around our old northern Michigan farmhouse. Yes, if money were no object, we could have gone, but that’s always a mighty big “if” in our lives.

Only one coloring book left!
Today’s mail brought a postcard announcing the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg, March 9-11. More than 115 book dealers will participate. We attended this fair a few years ago when we were in Florida for the winter. Both of us had secret misgivings about going to “the Coliseum,” picturing an enormous football stadium and many square miles of parking lot, but we had agreed to meet friends, and so we hit the road for the Tampa Bay area. What a lovely surprise! The Coliseum is an old, Spanish-style dance hall, with beautiful dark woodwork inside, and strings of lights added a festive note. It is beautiful and small enough in scale that it fits perfectly into the surrounding residential neighborhood. We even found a close parking space on the street with shade! (I don’t remember if Sarah went with us, but traveling with a dog makes one very conscious of the importance of shady parking spaces.) The books at the fair were wonderful, too, so we had a great time and were very glad to have gone. –But not this year.

Here at home for the winter, though, the days pass quickly, as David noted when we huddled under the covers for our nightly movie, after he pried himself away from Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken and I put aside Carol Gilligan’s Joining the Resistance, our respective after-dinner reading. Weeks pass quickly, too. With the bookstore closed Sunday through Tuesday and loyal Bruce at the desk on Wednesday, my only regular days are Thursday through Saturday, and that’s a short week. Not that I don’t do any bookselling work on the other days, but the hours are more flexible, and my leash is longer, too.

The table by the door is focused on nature this month.
Last week was an unusual whirlwind in the winter life of bookseller and artist: We had a dinner out with friends on Friday and the opening of a big area art show in Traverse City on Saturday, and I had a breakfast gathering of friends on Saturday morning, one of my book clubs on Sunday evening, the media launch of the 2012 season of the National Writers Season for Tuesday lunch, and another book club meeting (Dante) on Wednesday evening. During any given week, there are books to read and blog posts and book reviews to write, not to mention getting outside with my healthy, young, born-to-run little dog.

Then there are my bookstore days. They may be short (only four hours long, 11-3), but somehow I keep busy and the hours fly. Making, taking, and returning phone calls takes time, as does rearranging furniture, making up book orders, visiting with friends who drop in, and reading book catalogs and reviews--all of which has to wait until after the snow is cleared from the sidewalk.

Paperback beach books to leatherbound treasures--
All images in this post are from my bookstore, and all, as you may have noticed, are of books because I want to remind my readers that buying a book from an independent bookstore is never just “buying a book.” Whenever you “shop local,” whenever you make purchases in your local community businesses, you are participating in a community and doing your part to keep that community alive. We are all connected, in more ways than are obvious at first glance.

Very new to very old, we cover all the bases.
I remind myself of how many people remain Up North all winter (or most of the winter), and I don’t mind at all clearing the snow from the sidewalk in front of my bookstore. This is my little place in the frozen north, and I’m happy to be here.

Was this an advertisement? At least it wasn't spam e-mail or a telephone robo-call.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tools for a Snowy Day

Don't look for snow shovels on today's post! The blizzard is raging, but my focus is still on books.

There is no such thing, in the abstract, as “too many books.” Can a poet have too many books of poetry, a chef too many cookbooks, a philosopher too many works of philosophy? Not if the books are serving the purposes of the various readers, whether that purpose is served daily, weekly or only once every few years.

Besides fiction, field guides and a lot of philosophy, I have a lot of books on drawing. It all started one year when David gave me such a complete beginner’s set of art equipment that I only had enough nerve to sharpen the pencils and try out pencils and eraser in the black-bound book of smooth, white, empty pages. We went to Florida that winter and the next, and with delight and dedication I took up my pencils and sketchbook to draw—my foot! David’s foot! An empty shoe! A palm tree! The second year I was braver and attempted entire scenes. Other than shopping and cooking, there were few demands on my time, and drawing helped me settle into a strange new place.

Then came two years without Florida, and here at home in Michigan I passed those winter months like the summer, without making a single sketch. Next, two Florida winters and an entire sketchbook filled. But this is silly! Michigan is my home, and it’s where I should be taking the time to absorb and record the world around me. My stillness project this year is about doing just that. So out come the books—not all those borrowed from libraries in Florida, of course, but certainly those I have collected for my own private library over the last half-dozen years.

One of the first I fell in love with, loving trees as I do, was Drawing Trees, by Henry C. Pitz (NY: Watson-Guptill, 1964). Here are the first sentences of the author’s preface:
As this introduction is being written, outside the studio window a first fall of wet snow has covered the ground and clings to the branches of the barren trees. With an overcast sky, the scene is essentially a black-and-white picture, in which the tracery of the trees is enhanced by this change in nature’s cycle.
- Henry C. Pitz, Drawing Trees

Certainly appropriate to the season, all that talk of snow! Well, it’s been two years since I’ve looked at Pike's book, and it captivates me anew with its straightforward lessons and clear illustrations, but the author is obviously addressing serious art students, not amateurs and dilettantes. For instance,
The exploring of new media and techniques is an exhilerating [sic] experience for the true artist and should be indulged in by the student freely and naturally, unmindful of any comment that technique spells death for the creative impulse. The creative spirit that is killed by technical investigation is a piddling thing that will not be missed.
I have never thought anyone would miss my "piddling" sketches were I to turn my back forever on the attempts! Drybrush, pen, carbon pencil, charcoal—I study the author’s drawings, noting appreciatively the effects he achieves with various media, and then I pick up once again my soft lead pencil and sharpen it to a new point. Time later for more ambitious experiments. Everything in good time. Don't rush me!

Books that speak to me more personally are those by Clare Walker Leslie. 

In fact, her advice is so perfectly aimed at my interests that it is as if she had me in mind when she wrote. Here is what her introduction says to the reader:
I find drawing to be the simplest, the most direct, and the least expensive art medium for studying nature. We have so encumbered ourselves today through sports, recreation, and hunting with an abundance of tools for “being in nature” that we have lost the greatest tool of all: simply sitting and watching. Drawing allows for this. We have also lost the ability to learn on our own and to trust our own learning. Nature drawing is a solitary pursuit. The experience is between ourselves and the object. Often it becomes more sketching than drawing, using the pencil more as a tool for taking notes of observations than for creating a lovely drawing.
- Clare Walker Leslie, Nature Drawing (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980)
Leslie also recommends different media and different kinds of paper and experimentation with different techniques, but early in her chapter on “Methods and techniques” comes these refreshing and encouraging lines:
 ...Above all, enjoy your study. Use it as a time to be in full contact with nature without the distractions and worries that so flood our everyday human lives. If a day’s drawing results in nothing but torn-up pages but was fully enjoyed otherwise by being outdoors watching birds courting, studying various plant forms, or observing the wind blowing ripple patterns across a pond, then consider your day a success. Drawing should bring you to nature, not back you away from it. So be patient. Your way of drawing will change, evolve, and mature, as will your study of nature.

The Art of Field Sketching (Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1993) continues in the same vein. For this author, drawing and nature are of equal importance, and one learns both together by sketching in the field. These books renew my acquaintance with terms I had forgotten, e.g., contour drawing, gesture sketch, and detailed drawing. The gesture sketch is important to me at this beginning stage of my learning, not only because it is a way to catch subjects that move quickly (dogs, squirrels, birds, etc.) but also because it must be done quickly and loosely, not with a nervous concern for results.

Giovanni Civardi’s Complete to Drawing (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: 2010; originally published in Milan, Italy) on the other hand, tells me so much more than I can take in that it’s overwhelming. There are pages and pages on drawing the human figure—pages of anatomically correct hands alone, in various poses. My solution is to turn to a section late in the book (pp. 279-80) where the author shows tonal drawings in four different stages. Yes, yes, I see! After studying those two pages for only a few minutes, I see the landscape from the car window very differently, composed into areas of light and dark, and I feel I have learned something. Every book on drawing gives me something, whether it's pages of examples, paragraphs of encouragement, or one new idea.

I have written before about Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing and Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. Franck was my earliest inspiration, in that he inspired me with the longing to draw, many years before I found the courage to try. The nature side of my study is excited by Paul Rezendes’s The Art of Tracking & Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign (Charlotte, VT: 1992) and an old, oft-reprinted Michigan Department of Natural Resources booklet, Michigan Wildlife Sketches.

There are too many relevant books to list, and I know there are many more that have yet to come my way. One more I want to mention from my currently active stack these days may seem only peripherally a nature book. Certainly not intended as a drawing book, the translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with photography by Jane English and calligraphy by Gia-Fu Feng, does have many illustrations of trees on its pages, but the thoughts fit my stillness project as well as the images. “In dwelling, be close to the land,” this book tells me. There is also an injunction to “Magnify the small.” Close to the land, with attention to small details, my studies fill me with contentment. Seeing a cold, cold week in the forecast, I did my outdoor hour on what looked like it would be the warmest day, and now I can only hope that next week will have at least one not-brutal hour for outdoor meditation with sketchbook and pencil. Another day I'll write about keeping warm while sitting still outdoors. People have wondered about that, and it's a crucial topic. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In Literary Terms, “National” Means Northern Michigan

View of Front Street from Opera House, Upstairs

Indoors and outdoors could not have been more different today in downtown Traverse City. On the streets, in trucks and cars, white knuckles gripped steering wheels, while windblown pedestrians on the sidewalks bent forward and made themselves into tight bundles, conserving as much body heat as possible. At the same time, inside the Traverse City Opera House, the mood was celebratory as the National Writers Series unveiled its fourth season, opening this year (for the first time) with a media launch luncheon. I was pleased to be invited, to say the least.

The Opera House is beautiful. Whenever I’m there, I can’t help looking up. The Traverse City Pie Company did a stellar job with the buffet lunch, too. The focus of the event, however—and justly so—was the announcement of this season’s guest authors. What a line-up! You can (and should) link to the NWS website for the full schedule, but I can’t help saying how thrilled I am that there is a philosopher coming this year: Michael Sandel, communitarian ethicist from Harvard. Among fiction writers, the one who stands out most sharply for me is Geraldine Brooks, author of four novels, because I have read three of the four.

Doug Stanton, a Traverse City native and a nationally best-selling author himself, was clearly very happy to share the history of the series, its mission statement, and plans for the future, particularly the 2012 schedule. Doug and Anne Stanton (she a dedicated journalist whose features we have missed ever since she left Northern Express to team up and work with her husband) are a powerhouse pair of writers. They write with passion, not with ego, and they work like bricklayers at their craft. Over the years, the more I have gotten to know the Stantons, the more I admire them. This is a bit of a digression from news of the NWS, but I can’t help it. Doug and Anne don’t blow their own horns, so this is my salute to them for all the wonderful work they do, their writing and everything else they do for the greater Traverse City community and all of northern Michigan. Bringing nationally recognized authors to our region—what a fabulous idea! And  then they went on and made it happen!

The mission of the NWS is twofold, focusing on students and community. After expenses for the series are paid, every penny earned goes into college scholarships. Another wrinkle on the community side is that book clubs of five or more members can get a 10% discount on tickets when ordering together.

It was good to see old friends and reconnect with people I’ve met only recently, and afterward I didn’t mind at all going out into the blizzard and making my way down Front Street to meet David at Horizon Books, taking in the wintry urban scene along the way. 
Even the marquee letters on the State Theatre held snow, and trees on the north side of the street looked as if they had been coated bottom to top, every last twig, with spray starch. It was quite a day.

P.S. Maybe my headline wasn't clear. What I meant is that the National Writers Series has put northern Michigan on the national literary map.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Racing Through Pages

The frost on the porch windows yesterday morning was still there in the afternoon and later on, in the evening, when we returned from our second night out in a row, this time to the Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City, where David scored an honorable mention, a result that pleased us both. It was a huge field of work, with all kinds of media represented. We saw many old friends, as well as a sea of strangers.

Tonight will be the third night out in a row for me, and I must spend the day getting ready for it. Preparations will not involve extensive wardrobe considerations or experiments with hair or makeup. No, I’ll be reading all day. Four of us (one will be absent—and greatly missed!) will be getting together to discuss Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and I have only reached Chapter 8 so far!

So, time to lay Dante aside and postpone further getting into Carol Gilligan’s new book (more of that in the near future) as I return to World War II and the life of Louis Zamperini. Not a moment to lose! I am only on page 82! I will only take time to note that on page 40, as runners all over America are straining to run a 4-minute mile, the author makes these observations:
His coach predicted Louie would take that record [4.06.04] down. The only runner who could beat him, the coach said, was Seabiscuit.
It tickled me that Hillenbrand was able to get in that casual and certainly appropriate reference to the subject of her own former best-selling nonfiction book.

No more dilly-dallying now, however: it is time to read, read, read! Outdoor fun in the snow must wait, too, Sarah!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dante and My Nemesis, Nietzsche, Come Face to Face

A friend e-mailed last week to congratulate me on reading Dante's Inferno, a classic of the Western canon, and then went on to excoriate the poet and his work!, confessing her “long hatred” of both, “most of all, the savage imagination that reveled in that so political and score-settling Hell.” There is no denying the joy the poet takes in giving “savage” punishments to those of his own time and country in the other political camp. Take that out of the work, and not much would remain. So I thought of my friend's reaction as I continued my reading.

It isn’t as if I hadn’t already had my doubts about Dante. The whole Beatrice thing—somewhere I heard or read that he practically stalked the poor girl--and he did have a wife and children, after all, none of whom are mentioned at all, let alone glorified (beatified!) in his poetry! My friend who hates Dante refers to her feminst outrage over his use of the term mulierculae, “little women,” “womanlets,” or “mere women,” indicating the lowbrow audience he hoped to reach, “while of course knowing,” she adds, “ that his writing occupied a very high plane.”

But I need to shift gears for a moment now and introduce a phrase much bandied about in academic philosophy: the principle of charity, which has to do with the way a philosopher is supposed to interpret the work of another. If, for example, I am reading something in Kant that initially makes no sense to me, I am to remind myself that Kant was no fool but a highly intelligent man, and that it is therefore unlikely that what he wrote was nonsense. I then look for an interpretation in which it would make sense. Okay, that’s the principle. Got it?

In practice, the principle is applied very selectively. My use of Kant as an example is a case in point. Kant's status is legendary! He could not be talking through his hat! And who am I to criticize one of his stature? In similar fashion, as I have written elsewhere, we are urged by his defenders to stretch our powers of understanding when dealing with the writings of Nietzsche. Hence my observation:
If a writer is (a) famous and (b) dead, the principle of charity is almost always invoked.
Philosophers tend to be much less charitable when criticizing their contemporaries, and any undergraduate knows that a professor rarely appeals to the principle of charity when reading a student paper. Yes, students are quite often guilty of sloppy thinking, hasty generalization and a host of informal errors, but occasionally, I feel certain, there is a kernel of thought not yet fully blossomed, a seed that could use nourishing, something “vague and inarticulate” (in the words of the immortal William James, a philosopher who had unusual sympathy for the vagueness of ordinary human thought) that simply has not yet found its most felicitous expression. And didn’t the immortal Henri Bergson (can you tell that these are two of my favorite philosophers?) write somewhere that every philosopher really only says one thing—or, rather, spends his life trying to say it, in the best cases circling ever nearer and nearer the elusive goal?

So now, having appealed to James and Bergson, allow me to bring in Aristotle, my “main man” among the ancients, for the purpose of asking the following question: If charity in interpretation is the virtuous mean, what are the corresponding vices of deficiency and excess? Deficiency would obviously be a lack of charity, i.e., assuming the writer or to be a fool scribbling nonsense, but what would an excess of charity be? Perhaps putting the writer on a pedestal? Treating his work as equivalent to the Ten Commandments, not to be questioned or criticized at all but only revered? Reverence?

This, it seems to me, is too often the fate of any work designated as a classic: When a work enters the canon, its author is canonized. Now the writer is beyond criticism, above reproach, and the work can have no faults. At this juncture, let’s hear from my critical friend again:
Each time I've read it I've been more appalled, until I no longer care how beautiful it is.  "Wild notions" [here she is quoting my earlier blog post] are a gentle way to see some of these descriptions of physical pain.  I've become a complete literalist about it.  I've come to think it isn't enough to read The Inferno in a critic's ‘enlightened’ way, passing quickly to the beautiful language after a chuckle at the man's (absolutely serious) convictions.  What a cruel long life they've had in our history....
When I re-read that she thinks “it isn’t enough to read The Inferno in a critic’s ‘enlightened’ way,” I am reminded forcibly of my anguished struggle with Nietzsche, Part II of which I have yet to write up for “Books in Northport.” There seemed no rush, as philosophy more often drives away readers rather than drawing them in, and Part I was a case in point, but Part II, if I ever write it, will tell in detail just how hard I tried to read Nietzsche in the enlightened manner, “bracketing” (i.e., setting aside) his most appalling passages and focusing narrowly on questions that seemed amenable to less repulsive conclusions. My conclusion--in a nutshell, unadorned--was that the task could not be accomplished. With the least offensive passages, on the most innocuous of subjects, the same monsters still reared their heads. The poison penetrated every corner.

So I know what my friend means when she tells me she hates Dante, and perhaps for each of us there is one nemesis, and Nietzsche is mine, Dante hers. I fear that philosophers' ideas are more easily adopted and adapted by ideologues, but perhaps literature has a different but equal power to effect thought. Actually—this occurs to me only now, slogging through my vague, subterranean responses to both—there is something peculiar shared by both these canonized giants. --I need a new paragraph here. I want this point to stand out.

Neither was a giant in his own time—not rich, not powerful, not heralded throughout the world as a genius. When Nietzsche chose ressentiment as the ugliest of human motives, surely he knew firsthand whereof he spoke. How could he have failed to resent the honors granted to toadying academics, while he, the genius, was passed over? Dante’s gloating over his enemies’ suffering is but thinly veiled in the pity he claims to feel for them. Do we believe his pity is real? After all, it is he who invented the macabre punishments of his literary vision, so how sorry can he be for the sinners? And why is he so eager to publish their names among the living, if not to punish them himself?

My friend hates Dante. Maybe because philosophy rather than literature is my field, or maybe because the role of Nemesis in my life is already filled by Nietzsche—or maybe because I was not raised Catholic, which my friend seems to think is important to her response—but I cannot find it in me to hate Dante. The descriptions in bloody Canto XXVIII of bodies being torn and carved to pieces, bleeding, entrails exposed did not entertain me at all, as had some of the more fanciful punishments of earlier Circles; they are too easily imaginable, too realistic, too much what happens to human beings at war on earth. I would remind my friend, however, that neither the Bible nor the Catholic Church threatened believers (or unbelievers) with the dreadful fates Dante images. It all came out of his head! His head! Mandelbaum points out in a note that the punishment Dante imagined for Fra Alberigo did not conform to orthodox Christian doctrine, and the history Dante attributes to Ulysses is much different from what we get from Homer.

It is only in writing that Dante could get revenge, as only in writing could he be united with his love object, as only in writing could Nietzsche claim to be so far in advance of the rest of humanity in his thinking that no one born could yet understand him. Nietzsche died mute, insane, possibly as a result of syphilis. (No one knows for sure.) Dante, condemned to death in absentia, died in exile. Both lives came to unhappy ends. Little wonder they felt resentment, scorn, anger and hatred for so many of their contemporaries. Only in their imaginations and their brilliantly fevered writings could they dream of triumph. In real life, both were defeated, except that they "got their work done" (as a professor of mine noted) and left that work behind. 

Having only read The Inferno, I cannot yet address the place of Beatrice in Dante’s thought and writing. In defense of my earlier hypothesis that sins of language are punished most gravely in The Inferno, I note that the giant Nimrod in Canto XXXI is assigned to the Ninth Circle of Hell for having splintered humanity into a multitude of languages, and his punishment is that he is cursed with what we might call a “private language” (cf. Wittgenstein) that no one else can understand.

But the snow has arrived. Forecast for 10 a.m., it did not begin until almost 4 p.m., but now it falls, gently, thickly. Lentils simmer, David reads, Sarah works over a rawhide bone, and towels slosh in the washing machine. We are not in hell. Far from it.