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Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I Like Is Sometimes (But Not Always) What Others Like

The late Prudy Meade of Leland, founder of Leelanau Books, was famous for her spot-on book recommendations. That will never (sigh!) be my legacy. (1) I am not a fast thinker (my husband says I “grind exceeding slow”); (2) I’m never up-to-date on the latest bestsellers (however many shades of whatever, I haven’t read it); and (3) I am only too aware that what excites me as a reader may well elicit nothing but yawns from some of my closest friends. When on occasion I do make a recommendation that hits the mark, my delight probably exceeds that of my happy customer. So on December 26, my first two bookstore customers brought joy to my heart.

The first person in the door on Wednesday wanted a book I’d written about on my blog (an indirect recommendation) and happily, at my suggestion, added Donald Hall’s String Too Short To Be Saved to his purchase, along with one of my new Dog Ears Books book bags. I am thoroughly confident that he will not be disappointed in either book (especially the Donald Hall), so that felt good. Then the very next customer came for a second copy of Iron Hunter, autobiography of Chase S. Osborne, our most colorful Michigan governor and the only governor ever elected from the U.P.,  a book I’d recommended to her two days earlier as a gift for someone on her list. The recipient was so enthralled that he couldn’t stop raving about the story, and everyone else in the family wanted to read it right away! Luckily, I had another copy in stock.

In the midst of December anxiety this year (surgery, storms, and power outages, to name only a few), I went on a binge of escapism, reading three Alexander McCall Smith novels back to back. I’m still escaping but in smaller doses now, a chapter or two at a time in a book of geology essays by Ronald Parker called The Tenth Muse: The Pursuit of Earth Science. How can I convey the comfort I find in reading geology? Rocks don’t care. They have no needs or desires of their own and cannot suffer pain or hurt feelings, and neither do they heed ours. Rocks award no prizes, mete out no punishment. They have stories of their own but do not—cannot—clamor to be heard in their own voices, and that lack of argument is restful, even when the subject of an essay is volcanic eruption. There are eruptions, yes, but no wars.

If rocks do not argue, however, geologists sometimes do, and Parker’s essays touch from time to time on controversies in the field. His own theory of energy buffers flew in the face of the old gradualist dogma. The laws of crystallography were overturned by the discovery of a fivefold symmetry “forbidden” by said laws. But while graduate students have nightmares, and academic careers rise and fall, those of us outside academic geology departments can remain calm and unruffled while surveying outbreaks of heresy, defense of orthodoxy, heated debate, and outcomes that make or break academic careers. It’s somewhat akin to reading of philosophical and military conflicts in medieval China.

Then there are the lovely, intriguing thoughts. Parker writes of the “safe” world of crystallography, the “security” to be found in its laws, and he finds it significant that the study arose in the West, where symmetry has always been held in high regard.
We see it in architecture, poetry, politics, and machines—indeed in almost every element of our lives. The angles between the edges of paper are universally 90 degrees, and it is unthinkable that it could be otherwise. The size of the [right]* shoe is the exact mirror-image duplicate of the left, even though with most of us the right foot is larger than the left.
Many friends who think they know us would probably be surprised that David, the artist, is the lover of symmetry, while I, the bookwoman, prefer asymmetrical balance. I think people would expect the reverse of the two of us, but I felt much more at home in the next paragraph of Parker’s essay on crystals:
Objects in the Zen world should lack symmetry, just as the natural world lacks symmetry. Left is not the same as right any more than yesterday is the same as tomorrow. ... A bowl from a German factory is perfectly shaped, with no variation from the circular cross section at any cut parallel to its base. A Japanese raiku bowl is intentionally made asymmetrical by being picked out of the kiln with tongs while the hot silicate mass is still plastic. Each Western bowl is, ideally, just the same as every other. 
... Each raiku bowl is obviously unique, just as each carrot or tree or person is unique.
Two memories emerge as I re-read these lines, pausing with delight and repeating aloud, “Left is not the same as right any more than yesterday is the same as tomorrow,” my mind’s eye glancing fondly in Henri Bergson’s direction. One is a memory of the small museum buildings just to the east of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. At least, I am remembering them as two. Perhaps they are one building with two separate exhibit rooms, but that is really beside the point. The first large exhibit space contained crystals. I explored each case and dutifully admired the colors and facets, but they left me unmoved. In the second exhibit space were fossils of prehistoric mammals, and I shiver now to remember my feelings as I gazed on the remains of an ancient proto-mouse. A fellow creature! It lived and breathed, “saw sunset glow,” ate and procreated and died. I could feel for the animal fossil.

Then there was the summer a friend happened to mention that her kitchen lacked a good wooden salad bowl. My weekend flea market trips took on the flavor of a mission, and finally, having examined and rejected any number of possibilities, I bought my friend not one but two wooden salad bowls. Each seemed perfect to me in a different way, one in the regular, Western way, and the other in the imperfect Zen way. “So I bought them both.” Her husband immediately judged the regular bowl to be the better, saying of the other one that it was too heavy at the base and had a sloping rim. “I know, I know--.” My friend smiled at me and understood without explanation.

Despite his love of symmetry, David shares my fondness for animal bones and recognizes what I treasure in irregular oddities. He finds me rather an oddity sometimes. When I turn to geology as escape reading, he shakes his head and laughs.

I’ve looked into the remaining pages of my current book and see, to my great relief, that there is nothing there on fracking. It isn’t that I’m sticking my head in the sand permanently, you understand—I’ve faced and will face again this important geological and economic issue—but for now it’s holiday time, the last week of the year, with long, cold nights and short, chill days, and I’m thrilled to see, coming up in the very next essay (am reading about salt at present) a reference to those “Chinese paintings with a mystical-looking land with towering, steep-sided hills rising above a flat plain.” Oh, boy! Yes! We have seen that landscape in travelogues and marveled to realize that it is realistically represented, not stylized, in the Chinese paintings.

This is what I call very relaxing reading. There's a lot to be said for aesthetic distance.

[*There was a typographical error in the sentence, with "left" appearing twice and "right" not at all, but the intended meaning was clear in context.]


Dawn said...

Oh my you make me smile. To each his own escapism. I like both, asymetrical and symmetry. I find both appealing in different times and to represent different moods. Or maybe just because.

And what did I find most facinating during my stay in Northport a few years ago? The rocks along the shore. I have a lovely bowl of them on my dresser remind me when I feel disconnected that there is a place out there that holds my heart.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Dawn, fellow stone lover! I have written often on this blog about stones, but here's a post with a picture of what you describe in your comment and mention of another of my favorite books on geology:

One of the lovely aspects of fossil rocks is that they combine the distant, uncaring nature of crystals with the (for us) evocative sense of creatures that lived before us. At least, I think so, but then, I also like plain old stones, grey or red or black or whatever, round or oblong or irregularly shaped. On the beach, they invite our hands to pick them up.

Dawn said...

Lovely post back in 2007...I could never walk that beach without picking up a small stone. I had to put myself on a rock budget. I'll have to go see what I said about that back then....

Dawn said...

Laughing out loud now...just went to my March 2010 blog and found this:

I guess we're both lovers of rocks!

P. J. Grath said...

Well, I should say! And wasn't that Peterson Park where you were picking up stones? Best stone-picking beach I know! (Well, Grand Marais on Lake Superior is good, too.) What I'm wondering is if there are any men who pick up rocks and stones and cart them home as compulsively as so many women I know. Not geologists, but just people to whom the stones speak. Do you know any?

fleda Brown said...

I love your blog, Pamela. Another book you might like: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. I will never look at the issues the same.

Adam Gopnik's Winter is another wonderful book, especially for now.

P. J. Grath said...

Adam Gopnik! J'adore Adam Gopnik! I am quite envious of Alice Waters because she got to hang out with him, as well as with Wendell Berry. Thanks for the book tips, Fleda, for visiting, and for the compliment. Coming from you, it means a lot.

Unknown said...

I love your recommendations! I just finished The Art of Racing in the Rain, which you suggested a few weeks ago. Also, my students loved The Tender Bar. So you're 2 for 2 in my book. Thanks!


P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Ruth! So glad both recommendations hit the mark for you! And until our next visit in the bookstore, happy new year to you and your students!

Anonymous said...

My husband gave me a geology field guide for Christmas. It certainly is a fascinating subject. Diamonds aren't the only rocks that are a girl's best friend ;)

P. J. Grath said...

Anyone (with money) can give diamonds, but only a husband who knows his wife's heart would be inspired enough to give her a geology field guide. Makes me smile happily.

Anonymous said...

Me too :)