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Friday, March 30, 2012

Ideas and Memory as Writer’s Refuge

Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder, is exactly what the title says it is. Conceived as a “spoken book” in the traditional European sense (not, that is, as an audio book but as one proceeding from conversation), it is the last written record of his thoughts by the author before his untimely death at the age of 62 of ALS. It is also a collaboration between two minds well schooled in history and particularly in Eastern European political history and drawing, therefore, on two lifetimes of extensive and catholic reading. As Judt’s conversational partner, Timothy Snyder, remarks in his foreword, “This book makes a case for conversation, but perhaps an even stronger case for reading.”

Judt’s wife, Jennifer A. Homans, says that Tony did not prepare for the weekly two-hour conversations with Tim, that he went into them without notes, and that the two men talked without a break (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory,” New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012). Toward the end of his life, this book was very much what he lived for--clarifying thought, retrieving memory.
For Tony the incentive behind the book—and it had to be a powerful one to overcome the discomfort and depression that were his constant companions—was primarily intellectual, a matter of clarification. ... Sick Tony ... was able, with Tim and through sheer mental and physical exertion, to find some relief and exhilaration in the life of the mind.
The conversations between Judt and Snyder took place in the Judt family apartment in New York City. At their first meeting, Tony was able to walk to meet his friend at the door, although already he could not open the door himself. By their final meeting, he was bedridden and paralyzed except for his head, eyes and vocal chords. It isn’t difficult to imagine how these islands of stimulating conversation must have stood out in a glow of their own for Tony Judt in his last bleak, paralyzed days. Again, Jennifer Homans—
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I now see that the dead can extend feelings across the divide separating the living from the ever after. But—and this is a big but—they can only do it if they think of it in advance, before they actually die.
Although the topics covered in Thinking the Twentieth Century are fully as serious as Judt’s earlier Postwar, and the background information assumed every bit as erudite, the structure here and the conversational tone make the book more readily accessible to the nonacademic reader. There are no footnotes. There is no bibliography. This is the work, basically, of a single well-informed mind, speaking to and being drawn out by another. Each chapter begins with a short autobiographical section by Tony Judt, which serves to situate his thought and its development over time. As Ian Buruma observes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (April 5, 2012),
Passion and skepticism would always be in competition in his mind, as though he were forever debating his own enthusiasms. He has been criticized for being inconsistent in his views. But arguing with oneself, especially with one’s passions, is the mark of a real thinker. And Judt didn’t stop thinking until he drew his last breath. [My emphasis added]
Because Judt never rested dogmatically with any particular view of life or of history, he was able to to bring to his last thoughts both an insider’s and an outsider’s viewpoints on many different beliefs. He was also able to see striking similarities, of a kind indiscernible to true believers, between militantly opposed viewpoints. For instance, in the third chapter of Thinking the Twentieth Century, he spoke to Snyder of Christianity and Marxism as having an important commonality not shared by social democratic liberalism. Both the Christian and the Marxist, he said, can justify inflicting suffering in the present for the sake of a future they believe the suffering will bring—e.g., torturing save immortal souls or murdering for the sake of the Revolution.
...It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.
Put another, it’s one thing to be ready to die for a belief and quite another to be ready to kill for it, and the two kinds of readiness are not morally equal.

It was clear to Tony Judt that no one had perfect knowledge of the future and that every political or economic decision, therefore, must be based on very incomplete information. At the same time, he lived every day with the certainty of his own death. Thus, of this book, his wife Jennifer Homans writes, “Thinking the Twentieth Century was a labor on behalf of a future he knew he would not share.”

This is not a review of Judt and Snyder’s book, as I have only reached the fourth chapter in my first reading of it, but Tony Judt is one of my heroes, and it is important to me to say something about his last work before I am completely overwhelmed and rendered speechless by it. As I have been reading the book, I want to quote from page after page, so that by the time I reach the end—well, you see how that would go. So rather than choosing another few lines from the book, my last quotation today comes again from Jennifer Homans and has to do with Tony Judt’s beliefs and this book and with conversation and public debate:
...The only thing he was an idealist about was serious public debate. This was the one thing, along with love, that was always left standing no matter how much was felled by the disease, and so much was. Tony called it the core. To me it was a narrowing beam of light in the darkness that was separating Tony from us all. And if Thinking the Twentieth Century stands in the no-man’s-land between what is and what should be, as I think it does, this is in part because it was driven by the darkness but also part of the light. It was besieged, as he was.
 As is liberalism? As is democracy?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Guest Blogger: Tim Finally Answers Gerry's Question

Old Reed City postcard (Sorry I couldn't crop this better)

Today’s guest blogger is Tim Bazzett, who recently appeared as a guest book reviewer for Books in Northport. Gerry Sell of Torch Lake Views left a comment on that post, asking if there was “something in the water” of Reed City that turned out writers. Tim e-mailed me, saying that he would be happy to answer Gerry’s question but had trouble doing it directly on the blog. (Don’t feel bad, Tim—a lot of experienced bloggers have trouble leaving comments sometimes: It’s the fault of the blogging platforms.) When asked, he readily gave me permission to use his e-mail as a guest post, so here once again I give you Tim Bazzett:

Hello, Gerry –

Finally I respond. Nope, probably nothing in the water here--just the usual minerals and impurities. But in case you didn't know it, famous writer/composer George Bennard ("The Old Rugged Cross") spent his last years here. The hymn is something of a city anthem and we now have an ORC Museum as a popular tourist attraction. I remember seeing the Rev. Bennard as a guest on Tennessee Ernie Ford's afternoon TV show back in the ‘50s. Ernie probably sang it better than anyone else.

Jim Harrison's dad, Win, was the county ag agent here back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, so Jim spent his formative years here, til he was about 12 or 13, when his family relocated to Haslett, down by Lansing. At MSU he was part of a trio of writers, the others Tom McGuane and Dan Gerber, who formed the short-lived Sumac Press where many of his early poems were published. And I still remember the excitement I felt when I read Jim's first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir, when I was in grad school at CMU. The first sentence began: "Driving west out of Reed City ..." and went on descriptively for a couple of pages. Not exactly Hemingway-esque as he is so often described. but it was that Reed City reference that hooked me and kept me along for the ride for many books after that. My favorite of all Jim's books is an early one, Farmer, because it is set in and around Paris, just 15 minutes or so south of here -- although I don't think Paris is ever actually mentioned. Jim also had a few fond memories of Reed City in his memoir, Off to the Side, and the area is also represented in some of his poetry, as his uncles had a cabin out near Wells Lake, north of town. It seems I remember a poem about Kilmer Lake, more of a pond, really, near Wells Lake. Drs. Paul and David Kilmer were medical practitioners here for many years - they had an office upstairs over Bonsall's Drugs, and also made house calls. And Dr Paul had a cabin on Wells Lake that is, I believe still in the family.

And, since Harrison, I was the next Reed City writer, but, in comparison, I don't really count -- strictly amateur, regional story-telling stuff. Although I am rather proud of the fact that my second book, Soldier Boy (2005), has sold over a thousand copies and has been read in all fifty states and several foreign countries since its publication. I've had letters and emails from folks, mostly veterans or active-duty military, from all over hell and back about that book. It seems to have struck a common chord with people who've served. Locally, I think it's mostly referred to as "that dirty book." But I take comfort in knowing that they say the same thing about most of Jim Harrison's stuff.

I should also mention New York Times bestselling author of In Harm's Way and Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton, who was born here, but he grew up and, as you know, still lives in Traverse City. My brothers and I went to school with his folks, Derald and Bonnie. His grandfather on his dad's side helped run the local Shell station and did a little farming on the side (didn't everyone back then?), and his maternal grandfather, Ivan May, was the last agent for the railroad here, before the rails all went away. I think Doug likes to tell people he was born in a library, which is kinda true. The current Reed City Public Library used to be the Reed City Hospital many many years ago.  

And now we have Ben Busch, and his book, Dust to Dust, which is simply outstanding. Ben brought us an advance copy back in September. I was really looking forward to reading it, as I had been privileged to read early drafts of many of the essays included in it over the past year. Ben would just come by with a sheaf of papers and say, "Read this and let me know what you think,” and I did. I thought they were all really good. I think the only advice I ever offered was that some of them were awfully serious in nature, and could maybe use a bit of comic relief, but I don't think Ben really needed even that advice, as his wry, dry sense of humor is very much in evidence now in DtD, although it is, finally, a very serious and mature work. Anyway, I had to wait my turn for the book. My wife snatched it away from me and read it first. And she marveled, and chuckled, and, finally, wept as she finished it. And so did I. It's that kind of book. And if there is any justice, it will sell a million copies. Benjamin Busch may indeed be Reed City's very first real claim to fame in the literary world. Oh, I know Harrison is famous, but he didn't write his books here, in Reed City. Ben did, and could put this town on the map. And I hope that in the process, he will also spark a renewed interest in the work of his late father, Frederick Busch. Because I have been reading Fred's books for over twenty years now and have never quite understood why he was not a nationally, or even internationally famous writer. He was that good. And now so is his son. I expect even greater things from Ben in years to come.

Enough said. Nope, nothing in the water. But read Ben's book. You won't be sorry. Dust to Dust is not simply a "man's book," or a book about war. It's a book for Everyman (and Everywoman), and one to savor and cherish.

All the best from 'literary' Reed City,
Tim Bazzett

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Strange Phenomenon of Woman-Blindness: A Long Story with a Hypothesis Informed By Several Thoughts From a Book

Background Story (Personal)

About fifteen years ago I met a customer in my bookstore. The books he was looking for were of a kind that interested me, also, and so he subsequently became, for a while, an apparently good friend. We enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. David’s acquaintance with the man I’ll call John Q. was friendly but not particularly important—to David. Later, looking back, I saw clues I missed early on, clues that would have told me that John Q. did not consider me his equal; at the time, however, the question failed to trouble me.

Here was one such clue: I had an idea for a health care service facility built on the successful food co-op model, care to be provided to members who would pay their way either by making financial contributions or by providing hours of labor in their work specialties or by some combination of work and money. I was very excited about my idea and shared it with J. Q. Well, you know how some people can’t wait to listen to your whole idea before they start finding fault with it? I’m sure everyone has had that experience at one time or another. What I should have noticed was the particular way in which J. Q. dissed the concept that was so exciting to me: He said it would be demeaning if I, for example, had to work for my health care by weeding gardens. Huh?

I must explain here that at the time I was working part-time for a friend who had a business in garden design, installation, and maintenance. The other facts of my life—that I had a Ph.D. in philosophy, that I had taught college-level philosophy classes, that I owned and operated my own independent bookstore, and that the entire idea I proposed was originally mine (why wouldn’t he, for example, imagine me as the lead P.R. person for the co-op?)—did not seem to occur to J.Q. at all. And was there something demeaning about the gardening work I did with my friend? Not in my eyes. It was honest labor, well done. I was stunned and fell silent about my "big idea." We could still talk about other things....

Time passed, and J.Q. and I saw less and less of each other, for various reasons, but then one day he appeared in the door of my bookstore. It was (briefly!) an agreeable surprise, and I greeted him with a big, spontaneous, happy smile. “John! It’s so good to see you!” He did not return the greeting but said merely, as he continued to stand in the door rather than come any further in, “Is David around?” I directed him to David’s gallery, feeling confused, disappointed, and slighted.

There were a few more encounters of the same nature, each one hurtful, and there’s no point in recounting each little offense, but the last straw was memorable. David and I were in Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City and ran into J.Q., who joined us for tea in the Shine Cafe. The three of us visited, and then David excused himself to go to the men’s room. On the way back, he ran into other friends and saw no need to hurry back, as J.Q. and I would be, he thought, deep in conversation. And we were. John had an idea for a book. I thought it was a wonderful idea and encouraged him to pursue it, asking all kinds of questions to draw him out on the subject. We must have talked for at least 20 minutes, just the two of us. It was good. It felt like I “had my friend back.”

The next time we met, I asked J.Q. how he was coming along with his book. “Oh, did you hear about that?” he asked, surprised. “I had a long talk about it with David one day at Horizon.”

J.Q. and I had been tête-à-tête discussing his book project, but he didn’t remember that I had been there at all—instead, he remembered the person who had shown such interest and given such encouragement as David. And David hadn’t even been near the table.

What the hell was going on? What happened?

Mind Blindness

In his book Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Coleman addresses a well-known philosophical problem, “the problem of other minds,” which may be playful skepticism for philosophers (How do I know other people aren’t just robots?) but is a serious social difficulty for people with autism.
Mindsight amounts to peering into the mind of a person to sense their feelings and deduce their thoughts—the fundamental ability of empathic accuracy. While we can’t actually read another person’s mind, we do pick up enough clues from their face, voice, and eyes—reading between the lines of what they say and do—to make remarkably accurate inferences. If we lack this simple sense, we are at a loss in loving, caring, cooperating—not to mention competing or negotiating—and awkward in even the least taxing social encounter. Without mindsight our relationships would be hollow; we would relate to other people as though they were objects, without feelings or thoughts of their own—the predicament of people with Asperger’s syndrome or autism. We would be “mindblind.” -      Daniel Coleman, Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 2006)
Mind blindness is, above all, a failure of empathy. Coleman also notes that four times as many boys as girls are autistic and that boys and men are ten times as likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. Hold those thoughts, please. We’re coming to a sharp curve, and I’ll have to change gears a couple times.

Selective Blindness

In a chapter called “The Dark Triad,” Coleman addresses the worlds of the narcissist and the psychopath (or sociopath), and he distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy narcissism on the basis of empathy. Unhealthy narcissists, according to Coleman, “empathize selectively, turning a blind eye to those who do not feed their striving for glory.”

Here I have to make two very important points. (1) I do not think John Q. is autistic, nor do I consider him a narcissist in any sense of the term. (2) Neither do I consider autism a moral failing.

Coleman often cites the work of Temple Grandin, who has learned to overcome many of the difficulties of autism by becoming aware of her own limitations and developing strategies to get around them, but I really want to put autism and sociopathology completely aside at this point to focus for the moment on a much more “normal” kind of selective mind blindness that I’m calling woman-blindness.

Woman Blindness

A man who is “woman-blind” sees women, of course, with his eyes. He often desires them, can describe them in detail, and he’ll converse with them, sometimes wittily and engagingly. What Coleman calls a “failure of empathy” is, in this phenomenon, more a “failure of recognition.” It isn’t that a woman-blind man wouldn’t feel empathetic pain for a suffering woman or that he would use a woman like an object, without the least compunction. It’s more that he cannot recognize a woman as his intellectual or conversational equal. He will smile and kid around with a woman, and he realizes that she has a mind, but serious thoughts he will share only with other men. And if a woman tries to share a serious thought with him, he either won’t hear it or will assume it came from someone else.

The more shocking realization—and I can remember the first time this one hit me—is that some women are woman-blind, too. At least five in my experience come immediately to mind. I will not play Freud and speculate on why this should be so. Thank heaven such women are in the minority! (Such men are in the minority, also, but their minority is bigger!) I will say that it is, if anything, a crueler shock for a woman to realize that she is “invisible” to a “sister,” by virtue of her sex. 

Friendship. That's where my story began. As an older woman, I am familiar with the experience of invisibility in many situations. But from people who call me a friend? As one of the female characters in the movie "Tootsie" said, "I don't take this shit from friends!

Here's an irony that is also part of my story with John Q. At the height of our friendship, we had a frank discussion about male-female friendships. I observed that for most men, their friendships with other men took precedence over their friendships with women, when push came to shove. "I'm not like that," J.Q. assured me. 

Sometimes Warm, Sometimes Cold

Coleman writes of stress as a social phenomenon. Studies show that the most stressful relationships are not those marked by uniform cruelty or constantly demeaning behavior but those about whom we feel ambivalent.
We try to steer clear of people we find unpleasant, but many unavoidable people in our lives fall into this “mixed” category: sometimes they make us feel good, and other times terrible. Ambivalent relationships put an emotional demand on us; each interaction is unpredictable, perhaps potentially explosive, and so requires a heightened vigilance and effort.
There is usually nothing hostile or in any other way intentional about the hurts inflicted by the woman-blind, and that is what makes it such a difficult phenomenon to get past. Those afflicted are unaware of their blindness, and attempting to point it out will not convince them. I find it very sad. As is the case with John Q., there are woman-blind individuals whose intelligence, knowledge, and other abilities I can admire. The trouble is that they cannot see what I have to offer in conversation or friendship. They can’t see me, and they can’t hear me. For them, I don’t exist. Not fully. Not in any interesting sense.

My comfort is that women-blind individuals, male or female, are in the minority. Most of us, women or men, can enter into conversation with minds and eyes and ears open to one another, and that is a basis for true friendship.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Benjamin Busch in Northport: May the Dust Never Settle!

Author's book tour car arrives at 106 Waukazoo Street

Crowd assembles

Ben reads from his book

Book buyers wait patiently in line to have books signed

Ben is happy to oblige

Bookseller is kept busy selling books

Bookseller frazzled, author cool, both happy

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Quiet Sneak Preview

Near our house in the shadow of a hill in Sherburne was a pit scaled with fieldstones picked long ago from the old hayfield beyond. It was close enough to supply the rock I needed for building a wall beside our driveway. The slabs on top were gray and bleached, dry lichen clinging to them in oval patches....

* * *

...I saw daffodils deep in the forest and headed for them. They were an early breed, small and subdued, but they betrayed settlement, yards, and home. Someone had planted them and doomed them to a perennial life, immortal in the place that had been surrendered by the short lives of people. They continued to multiply and bloom for over a hundred years, expanding into misshapen patches....

* * *

The soldier arrives home to discover that the war he has returned from has already been forgotten, and because he has survived as a witness to it, neither he nor his country are innocent. Both try to dream again, the soldier by remembering himself before the war, and the country by forgetting the soldier it sent away.

– Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust: A Memoir

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Delightful and Mysterious Piece of Mail

A piece of paper, folded and taped closed
I love to go to the post office, love to get mail, and am delighted when anyone takes the time to choose interesting stamps, so this piece of mail pleased me on first sight.  Who could have sent it? I can’t make out the postmark at all. 

Where did it come from?

Turning it over, I see these words, followed by an initial:

a mysterious message

"H.?" Who is "H."? My friend Helen insists she did not send this. So who did? Unfolding the lined paper that served both as letter and envelope, I find inside this poem:

the poem inside
It is delightful. It is mysterious. Did you send it?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Guest Book Review: DUST TO DUST

Author will be at Dog Ears Books this coming Friday
[Today's guest blogger, Tim Bazzett, hails from Reed City, Michigan, boyhood home of Michigan writer Jim Harrison and current home of Benjamin Busch.]

Benjamin Busch's new book, Dust to Dust: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2012) is at once puzzling and moving. Puzzling because I wondered how a Vassar graduate who had majored in studio art could seem so easily conversant about things like soil and stone, metal and water, ash and bone -- things one would normally associate with the study of earth sciences, geology, or archaeology. And moving because, by using these elements as primary symbols and vehicles for telling his life story, he touches on the pain of extended family separations, injuries and wounds, loss of comrades-in-arms and loved ones, and the grief and hard-won wisdom that follow.

Some readers may have trouble with the spiraling, circular narrative, which jumps from the author’s solitary childhood enterprises and adventures to his war-time service as a Marine officer in Iraq, then back to childhood in upstate New York and Maine. He tells of his college years, interspersed with more tales of military training in Virginia, North Carolina, and California, deployments to Ukraine and Korea, and trips as a child and young man to England. What emerges is the portrait of a boy and a man with a boundless curiosity about the world and how he fits into it. His whole life Busch has struggled against rules and expectations, endlessly experimenting and daring to be different. The son of a novelist father (Frederick Busch) and librarian mother, he grew up with a healthy respect for books but as a boy was drawn more to exploring the forests, fields, and streams surrounding his rural family home, as well as to building walls, forts, and bridges, all in an extraordinarily unstructured and free childhood that would be foreign to most of today's children. Busch's description of his youthful explorations and wanderings made me think of Cooper, and the child Ben Busch as a kind of half-size Natty Bumppo.
The forest spread undisturbed and beyond measure, and I felt like I had found a place before maps. I drew my own map of the forest, without a compass, and gave names to the terrain. It was a kind of storytelling.
Busch continues describing this forest, this "place before maps," until he reaches a point he proclaimed "the center of the forest," and comments, "Reading Robinson Crusoe here would be different from reading it in a room." And there, of course, is the inescapable influence of his more cautious, bookish parents.

Although both of Ben's grandfathers had served in WWII, his parents were shocked when Ben joined the Marines out of Vassar. He was, in fact, the very first Marine officer candidate to come from Vassar, which his boot camp commander called a "girls' school." Busch had the ill-advised temerity to correct the officer, saying, as his many female classmates had taught him, that it was a "women's college, sir." In fact, Vassar has been co-educational since 1969.

There is no hint of braggadocio or macho chest-thumping to be found anywhere in Busch's accounts of his service in Iraq. He tells instead, in tellingly terse terms, of being ambushed, of rushing his wounded men to aid stations, of holding the hand of a too-young man, bleeding out and in shock, asking, "What is happening to me?" Busch doesn't have an answer. He goes outside into the dark and washes the man's blood from his hand. In another incident he tells of how he and a captain friend break the tension of a dangerous patrol by trading remembered absurd dialogue from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” about being "in great peril." Moments later the captain was dead from an IED explosion. Feeling powerless, in a letter home, Busch reviews the Rules of Engagement -
Positive identification of a threat is required before you can fire. Reasonable certainty.... You are not sure, in the shimmering imagination of night vision equipment, if you see something moving. It can't be positively identified. You are holding your fire. You are holding your position....
He reflects on how the "purity of service had been corrupted by the moral ambiguity of political language." Like most servicemen deployed to Iraq, Busch suffered concussions from bomb blasts, a daily hazard a medical surgeon shrugs off as "typical." Besides telling of his own time in Iraq, Busch also touches on the agony of waiting suffered by his parents during his two tours there. His father, in a piece he wrote for Harper’s, commented on how he and his wife, both in their mid-sixties, ticked off each successive day of his time there, adding, "Perhaps we feel that by slicing another day off our lives, as we wish it away to bring him home, we are spending our lives to buy his."

This is a serious memoir, no mistake. But there is humor here, too, as in Busch's description of his first brush with acting at the age of seven, when he dies dramatically by falling noisily backward off a school stage, a feat which caused a collective gasp from cast and audience alike. Years later, out of the Corps, his first two acting jobs are, ironically, as a corpse on a morgue table, and a murder victim lying in a pool of blood on a freezing Baltimore street. His roles have gotten better since then.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I can still remember the priest's words every Ash Wednesday when he smudged the ashes onto my childish forehead, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." Benjamin Busch, in one of his returns to his childhood endeavors, tells of a stone fort he built as a boy and the pleasure he took in simply sitting inside it, saying he wanted to live in it. But he could "also imagine being buried in it. It was my work, this crypt built of stone, intended for perpetuity like any grave. All anyone would need to do would be to lay me inside and fill it in." These thoughts may seem foreign and dismal to some, but not to Busch, who also says: "There is something to be said about being dust. It is where we're all headed."

Dust to Dust: A Memoir is a work of art unto itself, a memoir unique, troubling and magical. I will not soon forget it.


Tim Bazzett, author of the acclaimed REED CITY BOY trilogy, lives in Reed City. His most recent memoir is BOOKLOVER.

For an interview with Ben Busch in the Free Press, see here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Trees, Wood, Paper, Words, Books, and Memory

My father experienced the world through language. It was an intellectual relationship to the physical universe. He tried to create language to express and enclose anxieties—to connect the stress of human interaction and survival to nature through art. It was the only method that he believed in. He could write with authenticity about experiences he hadn’t had, could breathe the life into people he hadn’t been. He found a way to live outside of books—but not without some degree of astonishment that the things described in them often actually existed. I was different. I gained comprehension of my environment by throwing myself against it. Digging, cutting, climbing, stacking. What my father built with words, I built with pieces of the earth, stones and wood. He wrote most of loss and failure because he feared mistakes and departures so much. Tragedy was inevitable to him, whereas I believed that the inevitable could be fought. I thought that with enough defiance, mortality could be made at least improbable.

That is the fourth paragraph of the essay “Growth Rings,” by Benjamin Busch, published in a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review in Fall 2009. It was January 2010 when I happened upon the journal, my eye caught by the cover. The special issue was titled “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age,” and the cover photograph was the front of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a big GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE in the front window. Essays in the special issue ranged from pedantic to witty, each one interesting to me in its way. But Busch’s essay stopped time in its tracks.

Here was the setup: His father and mother had both died, within a year of each other, his father first. The son goes back to their house and finally, reluctantly, enters his father’s workroom. There is a writing tablet on the desk, holding only blank sheets and the impression of a single word, written on a sheet that had been torn off and discarded. What was that final word his father had written? There is also on the desk an old leatherbound edition of Paradise Lost.

The father had lived an interior, verbal life, while the son’s youth was an outdoor, physical existence—building stone walls, exploring the woods—but later the younger Busch came to see similarities. Finding the right stone in a dry-laid wall is like finding the right word for a hole in a poem. Shelves of books, like the growth rings of a tree, provide an ordering of time. In the Namibian Desert, he felt he was “in a place before language or what remained after language had failed.” He writes of this place (remember that a desert is also treeless), “The flood had come and gone, and no one wrote it down.”

Trees, wood, paper, words, books, and memory formed the theme of the “Growth Rings” essay. I should mention here that not only was his father a writer—his mother was a librarian. Now, here is another paragraph from the essay:
You can read a book now without turning pages, without saving a place on a shelf for it afterwards. Electronic books are available, and bookstores are closing. What is lost is the book as an object. A book is an artifact of both writing and of reading. It is a physical representative of time like the trees it is made from. The writer will die, the reader will die, and the mice will come for the papers they left in boxes. We will all be covered with a blank white sheet. But there will be a shelf somewhere where the book will survive. Someone will walk into the empty room, blow the gathered dust from it, sit, and begin reading in the light of a window. The book will change what they see outside. Then the reader will consider the placement of the book [on the shelf] and the book will remain, again, where it is placed.

In the essay, Busch goes on to say that he found words not from a childhood of reading but by “turning over rocks.” What’s important is that find them he did. “A book, even in its death, has matter,” he writes. Then, “Even a burned book leaves ash.”

I have not received an advance reading copy of Ben’s memoir, Dust to Dust, which he will be reading from and signing at my bookstore next week on Friday afternoon (March 23, 4-6 p.m.), and I would usually be apprehensive about having a book signing if I hadn’t yet read the book. Not with Ben. I have believed in his book for over two years, long before it found a publisher. His work, as the 2009 essay shows, combines experience in the natural world with a craftsman’s approach to language. He is also a Marine (two tours in Iraq), an actor (three seasons on “The Wire”), a filmmaker (wrote, directed, and produced the independent film “Bright”), a photographer, a husband and father and a Michigan writer.

Much more I don’t want to say because I know that his book will say what needs to be said, but it isn’t every day that we have Benjamin Busch in Northport. Don't miss him! That's Friday, March 23, 4-6 p.m. at Dog Ears Books, 106 Waukazoo Street.

Here’s part of a review of Dust to Dust: A Memoir that I read only this morning (March 16):

“There is not one bad sentence in this book. Translucent prose carries each section, and the chapters line up in a beautiful array, much like the soldiers or stones Busch describes so well. I cannot wait to see what he writes next.” – Therese Nielsen, Library Journal Reviews

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

There’s Nothing Like Old Favorites

Harlan's painting of his shantyboat on the Ohio River (Cincinnati in background)

Books We Have Loved For Years:

David recently pulled one of our old favorite books off the shelf and happily immersed himself with Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat, exclaiming after each session with the book that it was even better than he’d remembered. This time around he was inspired to get out a road atlas so he could follow the Hubbards’ river route down the Ohio and Mississippi as he read, looking up towns they visited. Such a thoroughly exciting and satisfying book! We have read it countless times and never tire of the stories. The image at the top of this post is a photograph of a print (under glass) of a painting by Harlan Hubbard, which puts you at several removes from the original but does show you the shantyboat that Harlan and Anna built on the Kentucky shore of the Ohio River and drifted in down to the Gulf of Mexico.

I picked up another old favorite the other day, one of a pair of books that have tempted dreamers into bookselling for about a hundred years now. Parnassus on Wheels is the first of Christopher Morley’s fictional bookselling classics. In its pages domestic stay-at-home Helen buys a traveling horse-drawn gypsy van loaded with books from literary vagabond Roger and goes off down the road on an adventure. A sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, finds Roger and Helen happily married and living in Roger’s native Brooklyn, still selling used books.

"I'm selling books," I said. "I wonder if there isn't something you need?"

Finally, my friend Kathy in Australia (New South Wales, to be more precise) has been revisiting some of her old favorites, and here’s what she writes:
Pamela, going through my family’s old photos has been quite an emotional experience.  I thought you might be interested in these two pictures.  That is me on my tenth birthday with my present, a copy of Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott, and the picture next to it which was taken by Grahame just now is of the actual book. I have got a small collection of my old books, including three or four Louisa May Alcotts, all dating from the 1950s, and all inscribed by the present giver.

Kathy on her 10th birthday

Kathy's birthday present: Louisa May Alcott
Kathy granted me permission to post these two pictures on Books in Northport.

There is nothing like an old favorite book with its beloved story and familiar but still-thrilling illustrations—just seeing the spine of a favorite among others on one’s bookshelves evokes a happy smile.

News (in brief) of my other blogs: “Home Ground” has been moving right along, with ten outdoor days now recorded. For those who wondered about keeping warm outdoors, I have posted some photos (which David loved) on “Without a Clear Focus,” while recent photos of our Big Winter Storm and of Sarah can be seen on “A Shot in the Light.”

P.S. It was a bluebird morning! That was very exciting to me!

Bringing spring with them!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Visitors, Offerings, and Seasonal Signs

A Few Recent Visitors

One visitor to the bookstore on the Friday before the Big Storm won my heart instantly. Lucy is a mix of border collie and Australian shepherd, just like Sarah, and as you can see, they has the same colors, though Lucy is marked differently and has a curlier coat. Don't they make a beautiful pair? They got along well together, too.

Sarah (back) & Lucy (front)

Going back a week or two more, here is one of our stateliest canine friends. Look at those long legs!

When she wants to, Sadie can sit in a chair and still have her front feet on the ground, which makes for a very droll sight. I think she is definitely the tallest dog who has ever visited us on Waukazoo Street.

Not all Dog Ears Books visitors are dogs, but most of the humans don’t have their pictures taken. Bill Coohon of Northport was an exception. He let me photograph him, and he even gave me permission to put pictures of him on the blog, after I told him that his M-201 cap would be good advertising for his wife (my friend) Sally's shop, Dolls and More (at 102 Nagonaba Street in Northport). 


Telling a story
Bill, please don't be offended at sharing the bill with canines! Bill's face is at least as expressive as Lucy's and Sarah's and Sadie's, don't you think? He also talks with his hands in ways they can't--and as he pointed out, none of that facial or gesture expression comes through in e-mail. I think in the second photo he was telling of being out on his sailboat in Grand Traverse Bay during an electrical storm. 

New Offerings at Dog Ears Books

Up North Literature
The newest issue of the Dunes Review, always an Up North literary favorite, has arrived, so now is the time to add Winter 2012 to your collection! If you’re missing back issues, we may be able to help you fill in some of those, too. We’re also pleased to announce the addition of beautiful new notecards from Traverse City artist Glenn Wolff to our store inventory. Glenn will be this summer’s artist-in-residence in Leland, so his cards are a timely addition. Literature and art, art and literature: they go well together in an Up North bookstore and in Up North homes.

Up North Art
We Welcome Signs of Spring

Before the Big Storm, daffodils underneath the big silver maple at home had begun to push through leaf litter and into the light. They survived being buried by over two feet of snow and are back on track—onward and upward—a cheery sight!

The green fuse, etc., etc.

Can robins be far behind?

Ready for the birds--

Friday, March 9, 2012

Listen—The Past is Not Finished Speaking

Today, Friday, was another wild Up North morning!
My background growing up was hardly deprived. It’s true we only had a single bathroom for two adults and three children, didn’t have television until after I started school, and our vacations were limited in early years to visiting grandparents, in later years to camping in state parks. But my sisters and I had music lessons, and the whole family sang in our church choir. Thanks to violin lessons from 4th grade through high school, I also played in an excellent series of school orchestras and enjoyed travel with the orchestra to regional and state music competitions, the National Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma, and, in high school, a cultural exchange with a high school orchestra from Toronto, Ontario.

We sang
Born in South Dakota, I grew up in Illinois, only 45 miles from the great city of Chicago. My family made annual trips to the Brookfield Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium. Occasionally we went into the city for a musical. (I particularly remember seeing and hearing the stage performance of “Camelot” with my family.) There were orchestra trips to Chicago, also, usually to Orchestra Hall, and beginning in 6th grade there were many school field trips to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry. One summer our family joined with another family to drive downstate to visit Lincoln’s boyhood home of New Salem and his later, more elaborate house in Springfield, the state capital. The outhouse in the back yard in Springfield was particularly fancy, as I recall. 

We read (and I wrote) poetry
My parents loved poetry and opera. There were always books and records in our home. One area of culture, however, was pretty much completely absent, except for its appearances in our educational books, and that was visual art. My painter/sculptor husband can hardly believe that I did not visit the Art Institute of Chicago as a young person. I guess it just didn’t occur to any of us. Oddly, although I dated an art student the summer after my high school graduation, and we made at least one trip together into the city, we never went to the Art Institute. We had dinner with some cousins of his and went to a movie. Or did we go and I don't remember it? Is that possible?

But the only visual art I knew was from books
At any rate, as far as I recall, it happened that my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago came fairly late in life. It also happened that I went alone. I didn’t expect an extraordinary experience. After all, hadn’t I seen pictures of famous paintings in books all my life?

I was completely unprepared.

The painting that turned the tide for me was a small Monet, probably smaller than two feet across inside its elaborate gold frame. It was a very “ordinary” landscape, in terms of what was depicted, and it didn’t look that different from other works by the same artist that I’d seen in books for years. But here was the canvas only inches from my face. The artist’s brush strokes were visible, not as lines in a reproduction but with dimension and mass. The artist’s hand had labored over this very object before my eyes.  (And I cannot present here an original image! You can't have that online!)

For the longest time, I couldn’t move from the spot. It was all I could do to hold myself together and not burst into wracking sobs. That’s how moving the experience was. And my response took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t expected it at all.

You have to understand that the way the painting affected me had nothing to do with its monetary value, of which I hadn’t a clue. That the artist was world-renowned was a factor, because, after all, if I hadn’t known his name and images before, there wouldn’t have been that huge difference between reproductions of famous paintings and the one small, modest, original painting on the wall before me. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt the artist himself close to me, a real person, someone whose world I shared, though he was long dead and though our paths would never have crossed in life had he still been alive.

That’s the best I can do to explain why I respond the way I do to old books and ephemera, which are not one-of-a-kind items like original paintings but still, for me, carry the sense of having been touched and held and felt meaningful by other human beings, often no longer among the living. For instance, a friend sent two little leatherbound graduation programs from the University of Michigan, Class of 1913, asking me to sell them for him.

Leather binding

Title page
Hovering over the date, for me, is the Great War, World War I, which began the following year. Could these graduates see it coming? Next year will be the 100th anniversary of this particular graduating class. Who remembers them today? Great-grandchildren?

Beginning of roster, Class of 1913
These are objects for which I can’t help but feel a certain tenderness. Look at the names, the lovely old script. Imagine their youth and hopeful anticipation of the future. Now that future is past. But looking at these documents, one takes in imagination the perspective of ninety-nine years ago and shares that happy day. Even if all the information in these little booklets were available online, would seeing it on a screen evoke the same feelings as holding the objects? For me it would not.

Other old books, originally printed in greater numbers at the time of their publication, may have wider historical significance and less personal feeling to them, but they still carry me back to the past in ways that the bare "information" they contain could never do. But I'm going to save that topic for another time because all this shifting about from my own younger days to my middle age to the time of the Impressionists and then to Ann Arbor nearly a century ago has got my head spinning. And you thought a life among books was sleepy and dull?