It happens when I’m reading three or more books at the same time – not during the same moments, but going from one to another for several days or weeks, as I’ve been doing since reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life.
I’d heard of Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates before someone at our reading group mentioned it, so that was my first post-Stowe book. Very heavy going but speaking from deep in the heart, this black American father’s “letter” to his teenage son is called “required reading” by Toni Morrison. Coates pulls no punches, sugar-coats nothing. Yes, it should be required reading, but I’m afraid it is the kind of required reading too many white Americans will either avoid or set aside quickly. The truth hurts.
Next I picked up Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film and was immediately transfixed. Discovering anything that documents one’s family’s past, whether letters, photographs, or home movies, cannot help astonishing the finder, all the more when the existence of what is found had not been suspected beforehand. In this case, Glenn Kurtz found his great-grandfather’s travel films from 1938 and 1939, including three minutes of footage shot in a Polish village immediately prior to the beginning of the Holocaust. The book is the author’s story of trying to piece together the life of that village, to put names to the living human beings in the film whose lives were soon to end.
Three Minutes in Poland is unlike any other book I have ever read. Aside from the compelling particulars, I took two general messages from it. The first has to do with the ephemeral nature of physical memory storage, the second (not a new realization) with the dismaying human propensity, when the chips are down, to categorize some human beings as Other.
Between the World and Me and Three Minutes in Poland were such intense reading experiences that I needed something else right before sleep each night. For a while, the lighter reading at bedtime was Laurie Lee’s The Edge of Day: A Boyhood in the West of England, originally published in England as Cider with Rosie, but even lyrical memories of boyhood in rural England contain dark episodes. Another “escape” book was The Girl at the Lion d’Or, by Sebastian Faulks, a book that held my interest but left me confused at the end. Was that the end, or were pages missing?
And all along, alongside those four books, I was slowly making my way, a couple pages at a time, through Northern Border, a festschrift volume of research on the Upper Peninsula (and one paper set in Detroit’s factories). Although Coates and Kurtz had the most painful truths to tell, in the book of U.P. history, there was much poverty and violence, and characters in the Faulks novel were haunted by World War I, as was true of people in Laurie Lee’s memoir, too. Last night my dreams were strange.
This morning, awake in the wee, dark hours, I turned to an old stand-by, The Haunted Bookshop. Yes, World War I is in the background there, too. Yes, there are German spies. Yes, violence lurks in the shadows. But the story is a familiar one that I have been re-reading for decades. Interesting how one’s perspective on a book shifts over the years – but that’s another story.
Tonight is the last big bookstore event before the Labor Day weekend, summer’s unofficial end. Northport’s own Steve Gilbreath and his sister, Susan, will be presenting Dignity of Duty, a book of their great-grandfather’s military memoirs, edited by Susan. Another family, another war, the family now connected to yet another village: Northport. As is true of people, sometimes all books seem connected.
I hope that many of you will be able to join us tonight at 7 o’clock.