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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leafing Against a Snowy Background

Book catalogs and seed catalogs – those are the ones I can’t resist. And yet, as I’ve cautioned authors thinking about titles and book cover design, any particular item in a catalog has but a moment to capture attention before the reader turns the page. Here, for example, is the way I recently leafed through a catalog of philosophy titles from Rowman & Littlefield.

Opening the front cover, I was immediately faced with a page of book covers. One read, in prominent letters, Jane Austen, and underneath the image, “See page 35.” So yes, I turned right away to page 35 and there found Jane Austen and Philosophy, an edited volume with contributions by many philosophers. Once, years ago, I wanted to write a book to be called Jane Austen and the Age of Reason. (Though the “Age of Reason” actually predated Austen, I felt she was strongly influenced by it and had any number of passages in her books in my mind.) But I had other work to do then, and after that the years went by, and soon everyone, it seemed, was writing about Jane, and I felt she’d been pestered enough. But I did not make a career in academia, and “publish or perish” is not the fire held to my feet. If it were, no doubt I would have turned to St. Jane in my hour of need.

I note any number of “X and Philosophy” titles. Stephen King and Philosophy sits to the left of Jane Austen, and she is flanked on the other side by Jim Henson and Philosophy. Turning back to earlier pages of the catalog, I find The Philosophy of Pornography and say a mental “No, thank you” to that one. Am I not curious? Not curious enough, it seems. Later on in the catalog I find Roald Dahl and Philosophy and Dr. Seuss and Philosophy.

There are books on politics, race, animals, and the environment – all important topics – but when I see Deleuze’s Political Vision, I say “No, thank you” again. I cannot forgive Deleuze his reading of Bergson. And here is a book called The Moral Defense of Homosexuality, which makes me pause to reflect on the strangeness of such an idea -- that is, the idea that homosexuality is in need of a moral defense. Does red hair need a moral defense? Does entropy need a moral defense? I can see moral objections to promiscuity or pedophilia or any number of sexual practices, on the part of heterosexuals or homosexuals, but homosexuality itself is a fact, isn’t it?

I continue to turn the pages, content to have made my life as a bookseller rather than an academic. I don’t get summers off, have no paid benefits, not even a guaranteed salary (or minimum wage!), but I can read whatever I like, in the field of philosophy as elsewhere. Feeling no professional pressure bearing down on me as I survey titles and descriptions makes the browsing delightful.

Then I see The Dialectic of Duration and yelp excitedly! I read the title aloud to David, who responds, “So?” “Duration is a Bergsonian concept,” I remind him, “and it’s written by Gaston Bachelard!” Now he is mildly intrigued (he loves Bachelard), so I read the description of the book, and there, sure enough,

The work is motivated by a refutation of Bergson’s notion of duration – ‘lived time’, experienced as continuous. For Bachelard, experienced time is irreducibly fractured and interrupted....

It troubles me not that Bachelard opposes Bergson, since it seems he has done it in an interesting way, and anyway, I find anti-Bergson writings very thought-stimulating – though sometimes, I must admit, almost too much so. When I read Bertrand Russell’s quibbles with Bergson, for instance, I was so irate I could not sleep and stayed up all night writing a refutation of Russell’s critique. Really, I wondered if he had read Bergson at all, he got him so wrong! Someone of Russell’s stature should have been ashamed of himself to skate over the surface in that sophomoric way, I thought.

But back to the catalog. One title, The Changing Face of Alterity, reminds me of a dear friend, no longer among us, whose chief area of study was alterity. Otherness. I wonder what Annie would make of our world today. And here’s another one that stops me in my tracks: The Phenomenology of Gravidity. Of what? Gravidity, the description notes, is “the actual experience of bearing a child.” Well, there, I’ve learned something new.

Then comes Hegel, Hegel, and more Hegel. “They just can’t let him go,” I observe, and David is vastly amused. Of course, the same is true of Heidegger and Socrates and all the big names. If I were in an academic world, I would surely have to read Socrates Tenured, a book claiming to diagnose the crisis facing the humanities and charting a road forward.

Well, that was refreshing, and along with the general entertainment of browsing, I found one irresistible title. So now, on to the seed catalogs!

Winter is a time to read books and to dream of spring.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Direct or Indirect or Not at All?

Not long ago I wrote about a book causing a big ruckus in the publishing and bookselling world. That is, I did not write about the book, per se, but about a movement within the publisher’s customer base to boycott – in some cases, only the book; in other cases, everything coming from that publishing house. The question I raised was whether or not a boycott constitutes censorship, and I argued that it does not. One reader took a different point of view and seemed to find my rhetoric equivalent to that of religiously conservative bakers and florists not wanting to provide wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples. I rejected the equivalence (see comments following original post) but failed to convince my opposition. I guess you would say we hold different views on the moral legitimacy of boycotts, as well as on their efficacy.

A piece by Alan Rusbridger in the December 8, 2016, in the New York Review of Books may  shed further light on the question. At any rate, it is an important look at the question of freedom of the press and so deserves reading. 

Rusbridger looks closely at journalism in Kenya and highlights what he calls “financially induced self-censorship,” which he abbreviates as “fiscing.” I find the abbreviation infelicitous, but the phrase is central to his article. There is no direct censorship involved, he notes, in financially induced self-censorship. Instead,
 ... newspapers respond to the potential withholding of revenue by censoring themselves.

I have refrained from adding my own italics to the quote above, but I believe it is a rare human being who has not “self-censored” at one time or another. Who has not railed in private, in very intemperate language, against something or someone and at another time given the opinion more moderate expression in a social or public setting? I would say, in fact, that a certain amount of “self-censorship” greases the wheels of society and allows us to live together, creating space for civility. Sometimes it may go by the name of diplomacy.

Rusbridger, however, is not concerned with politesse. In Kenya, it is increasing fear of journalists, specifically newspapers, and the “government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism” that are at stake when it comes to reporting stories unfavorable to the government. For instance, riots following an election with questionable results killed 1200 people. Charges were filed by the International Criminal Court against the president and his deputy. Quite a story! Not one getting covered by the press in Kenya, however. As one investigative reporter asked rhetorically, “[W]ho is going to go up against the president and the deputy president?” One who tried was killed and the hard drive of his computer stolen.

As I look at the phenomenon of “financially induced self-censorship” as it exists in Kenya, three features of the situation stand out:

Ø  Kenyan journalists are not self-censoring solely out of fear that they may lose their jobs or see revenues drop. They also fear for their lives.

Ø  Kenyan journalists are refraining from criticizing the government out of fear of the government’s power.

Ø  The financial hardship Kenyan newspaper people fear is a direct consequence of government advertising on which newspapers depend.

Rather than call this any form of “self-censorship,” then, I would call it indirect censorship. There is no government office through which articles must pass for permission to print (that would be direct censorship), but the fact the government holds the purse strings and threatens to withdraw funds if criticized – with more dire threats in reserve – is certainly a strong disincentive to the exercise of freedom of the press.

What about when an advertiser rather than a government is holding the purse strings? Such temptations to “financially induced self-censorship” (to stick with Rusbridger’s terminology) have always existed for American newspapers and magazines and are nothing new Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, revealed the way stories in women’s magazines were directed to advertisers’ interests. Right here in northern Michigan, within the past decade, a major advertiser in Traverse City’s daily newspaper pulled all ads after the paper covered a story unfavorable to the company. Print media sometimes selects only that advertising that promotes values it wants to uphold or, more rarely, decides to raise subscription prices to do away with advertising altogether so that editorial integrity is not compromised in any way.

Yes, loss of revenue can tempt journalists – writers and editors both -- to suppress stories unfavorable to advertisers. But this is very different from having the financial rug pulled out from under one by a government, with power to inflict still greater harms, if a newspaper criticizes the government.

Relating what Rusbridger calls “financially induced self-censorship” to a boycott by consumers, whether wholesale or retail buyers, I see another important issue at stake, one I did mention in my earlier post. A government, backed by a military establishment, has enormous coercive power. The same is true of any large corporation dispensing advertising dollars, although I have argued here and elsewhere that it is only a government can inflict actual censorship, direct or indirect. Consumers of goods and services, on the other hand, will always hold the weaker financial hand, and it is only by joining forces in a boycott that they can hope to level the playing field and bring about changes in the behavior of businesses looking for profits, wherever they are to be found.

Direct censorship, indirect censorship, self-censorship, boycotts. How do you see them?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Out in the Country, But Far From Dead

The lines of the Scottish poem came into my head as I waited for my screen to come to life.
Breathes there a man with soul so dead 
Who never to himself has said 
      This is my own, my native land!
Okay, that was a digression. Couldn't resist. Back on track now.

I don’t generally underline in books. But when it's an old 60-cent paperback, and someone else has already underlined a lot in it and spilled coffee on the cover, and when the pages are literally falling out, for Pete’s sake – then I feel completely free to underline to my heart’s content.

Our reading circle’s latest self-assignment was Gogol’s Dead Souls, a book I’ve read more than once before but always enjoy re-reading, because just as you can't step into the same river twice, a book is always a new experience each time you enter its world. 

This time around I was very conscious of the ways Gogol refuses to keep to any recognized literary formula. Not only is Chichikov an anti-hero, but the author himself keeps intruding into the narrative to remind us of his characters’ failings (not just Chichikov, all the characters) and to plead for our sympathy. He mourns, in particular, the negative reception his protagonist is sure to find among critics and general public and how that will all bounce back on him, the author. Oh, poor me! An author such as I, “who dares to bring all that he sees into the open,” is much to be pitied!
All those things that an indifferent eye fails to notice—all the slimy marsh of petty occurrences into which we sink, all the multitude of splintered everyday characters who swarm along the drab, often painful road of life—he shows them clearly in relief, thanks to the power of his merciless chisel, so that the whole world may view them. This author will not receive world-wide acclaim, nor will he see tears of gratitude or feel the unanimous enthusiasm of hearts he has stirred; no sixteen-year-old girl will throw herself at him, giddy with admiration for her hero; it is not for such as he to become drunk at the sweet sound of his own words; and, of course, he cannot avoid trial by his contemporaries, a hypocritical, unfeeling court, which will pronounce the characters he has created with such care insignificant and vile, will assign him a dishonorable place among authors who have insulted mankind, will ascribe to him the traits of his own characters, and will rob him of his heart and soul and of the divine flame of talent. This is so because his contemporaries will not recognize that microscopes ... are just as wonderful as telescopes....
“I’m showing the world as it is, people as they are, and of course I’ll pay the price for my honesty!” the author complains bitterly. Do you feel sorry for him, or are you laughing?

I laughed. Somehow in the context of the novel -- and though passages like these leave the story to one side for as long as they last, and so are not really “in the context of the novel” – somehow even these passages come through time as comedy, as if Gogol, dressed as a clown, pushes Chichikov off-stage for a few minutes, takes center stage himself, and cries the tears of a clown for a laughing audience before going over to drag Chichikov back into the spotlight.

George Lucas, of “Star Wars” fame, says he quite consciously followed the structure of Joseph Campbell’s myth of the hero's journey: Departure, initiation, return. With Gogol, on the contrary, we meet the anti-hero Chichikov already well launched into his journey. He is no longer young. His quest is absurd. Only after ten chapters of misadventures does the author give us Chichikov’s background, the story of his childhood, youth, adult trials, and the inspiration for his journey. “Departure” is the final chapter of the book! And the journey is not over, either, when the book has been closed. Gogol intended Dead Souls as the first book in a trilogy. He completed one of the sequels but burned it before he died. 

It’s difficult to see what Chichikov would have done for two more volumes and what kind of conclusion the author could have found for his tale. No matter, I say. I find this novel ever so much funnier and more believable and satisfying than Gogol’s famous short stories.

There is another story formula that Dead Souls does not fit. -- In fact, as many formulae as there are, it’s a safe bet that Dead Souls fits none of them, but the one I have in mind was laid out by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher mystery novels, in a talk he gave in Traverse City at the National Writers Series. Here’s the formula: There is a town with a problem it cannot solve. A stranger arrives. He solves the problem and is rewarded. Think of the riddle of the Sphinx, which no one could answer until Oedipus appeared on the scene.

Well, Chichikov comes to town as a stranger, but the village where he lands had no obvious problem before his arrival. It's a place where nothing much seems to happen at all, which is why everyone is so delighted to welcome a stranger. But then Chichikov's bizarre, incomprehensible business deals get everyone stirred everyone up and give rise to even more bizarre speculations until all hell breaks loose! And far from laying to rest the fears he has produced, Chichikov is lucky to escape with his own skin!

As he did in his short stories, Gogol again trots out generalizations and stereotypes –
The haven was familiar, just as the inn was – the kind of provincial inn where, for two rubles a day, a traveler can get a quiet room, with cockroaches peeking out of every corner like raisins....
-- but with his own distinctive, remarkable additions, e.g., those cockroaches “like raisins”! Stinginess, he tells us, has “a wolf’s appetite and grows hungrier the ore it devours.” And who can forget the picture of Plewshkin, with his black eyes like darting mice!

In a way, Chichikov and his quest to acquire “dead souls” – that is, to acquire, by purchase or outright gift, deeds showing him as the owner of serfs who have, in fact, died since the last census, relieving the seller of the tax liability and gaining for himself, he hopes, collateral that will qualify him for a generous government loan – serve as a scaffolding on which Gogol builds the portrait of a pre-Revolutionary rural Russian village. Looked at it this way, the village is the main character of the novel.

I don’t know. I need to think further about this. Actually, I’ll run it by the others in the reading circle and see what they think. But be honest now -- weren't you relieved to find a literary topic rather than a political topic here today? 

Earth keeps turning, sun keeps shining....

Friday, January 13, 2017

Freedom of Choice or Censorship?

My choices!

I won’t hide my main point until the end today. Here it is: Your freedom of choice does not cancel out mine, and my discretionary decisions are not censorship.

This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed the question of censorship, but it keeps coming up, the latest brouhaha in the publishing industry a $.25 million advance to a young memoirist, Milo Yiannopolis, an editor at Breitbart News. The author describes himself as a “free speech fundamentalist,” but many writers, editors, and publishers are shocked that Simon & Schuster would choose to promote what they regard as “hate speech” and are calling for a boycott. No, say defenders of Yiannopolis and Simon & Schuster, the publisher is simply standing up for freedom of expression and should not be criticized, let alone boycotted.

Here is the anti-boycott position: The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC, not to be confused with the Northport Community Arts Center!) worries that calls for a boycott of Simon & Schuster will lead to censorship. NCAC’s executive director says,
We know of instances in which books that contain certain kinds of content have been shelved, deferred, redacted, edited deeply to remove content that people might object to.
Another point of the view is represented by the head of a small independent publisher, Melville House. In Dennis Johnson’s words,
No one is saying [to the author] ‘you have no right to be published.’ ... What they’re saying is, ‘we’re shocked and outraged that you [the publisher] would stoop so low....
For more on the story, see full article here.

At the heart of the disagreement are these questions: Does a boycott constitute censorship? Or does it somehow lead – maybe -- to censorship, and if so is a boycott an infringement of an author’s and/or publisher’s freedom of speech?

Here’s how I see it:

1) Freedom to express my views, whether in speech or in writing, does not obligate anyone else to publish them. I am free to publish at my own expense and to distribute as best I can, or I can try to persuade a publisher to take on the job.

2) A publishing house is free to select among submitted manuscripts those it chooses to publish. (The majority of submissions will be rejected. Everybody wants to be “an author,” or so it sometimes seems, but the world just doesn’t need that many “books.”) Publishers’ decision does not obligate bookstore owners or the general public to buy any particular book.

The two preceding paragraphs should make clear a symmetry of freedom, in that a writer’s freedom does not cancel out the freedom of a publisher, nor does a publisher’s freedom cancel out that of wholesale or retail customers.

Turn now to the question of a boycott.

(3) As I see it, in choosing to join a boycott I exercise together my freedoms of speech and of association. A boycott puts the power of numbers and money on both sides of the table, rather than leaving all the weight only on one side.

I could, of course, choose simply to refrain from purchasing a particular product, be it a book or anything else, and say nothing to anyone about my decision or the reasons behind it, but my quiet, individual, sure-to-be-overlooked non-purchase will never bring about change in corporate behavior. When individuals take a stand together, likelihood increases that their voices will be heard. A study (cited in recent New Yorker column by James Suroweicki) that came out of the Kellogg School of Management showed that boycotts affected corporate stock prices for every day they were in effect and that over a third of boycotted companies changed their behavior as a result.

According to Wikipedia, Simon & Schuster publishes 2,000 titles a year under its various imprints. The publishing house was acquired by Gulf & Western in 1976 and since then has bought up many other publishing companies, with complicated connections to and holdings in television (they are now part of CBS) and educational products. Threshold Editions, their “conservative” imprint was launched in 2006. (Please note that “conservative” no longer means what it used to mean.) It is under this imprint that the Yiannopolos book will appear.

Big publishing is big business. Make no mistake. Simon & Schuster has approximately 1300 employees worldwide and makes millions annual in profits. CEO Carolyn Reidy cites, among factors for the company’s rising profits in 2015, that books for which high advances were paid “performed well.” No publisher hands over a quarter-million-advance without expectations of huge profit.

Small, independent publishers and bookstores operate within very different parameters. Staying in business, which means staying in the black, is always a focus, but we are not beholden to shareholders. (Get serious! If maximizing profits were our sole concern, none of us would be in this business at all!) But that’s not to say our choices are easily made. Most writers and booksellers already live on a precarious financial edge. We don’t have to make shareholders happy, but we do need to buy groceries, heat our homes, and occasionally see a doctor. And somehow we do it without gargantuan salaries, pensions, or "safety nets," many of us without even a guaranteed minimum wage.

As a reader, a bookseller, and a bookstore owner, I am proud to be one of a like-minded legion, each of us carrying a torch for cultural values that go beyond the almighty dollar.

Look at it this way: If there’s nothing wrong with the wealthy joining together in publicly traded corporations to increase their wealth, to buy influence, and to shape the country's future to their wishes, how could it be wrong for those of us in the trenches to join together to exert whatever influence we can to shape the world we want to see for our children and grandchildren?

If the government forbids publication or sales or a book, that is censorship. 

If a publisher decides not to publish, that is discretion. It is an exercise of freedom. 

By the same token, a boycott is the exercise of freedom by a different segment of society. Deny the right to boycott, and you deny freedom itself. I don't think Martin Luther King, Jr., would have any trouble understanding collective action.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Don't Turn Your Back on Serendipity

She is not amused!

‘Serendipity’ is one of my names for Sarah. (A far less obvious endearment is Triceratops, and I am still amazed that someone guessed that right off in the bookstore one day when I mentioned I’d come up with another pet name for Sarah, along with Sarasota; Serafina; Che Sera, Sera, etc.) It was a happy accident indeed when we found her at the Cherryland Humane Society shelter south of Traverse City. We could not have planned a more congenial companion than she has been all these years.

Most of my reading proceeds by serendipity, as well -- unplanned for the most part. I did plenty of assigned reading in my many years of school, after all, and while not regretting those years (or those books), and while continuing to along with group choices in our reading circle (which is the self-assigned reading of the group), one of the joys of my time of life now is being open to accidental discoveries. For instance, I’ll think to myself that it’s about time to read another modern novel. Here’s an author completely unknown to me. What does the back cover have to say about the book?
On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters.
Well, that sounds promising. The little I’ve seen of Missouri when passing through was beautiful. I am one of three daughters: perhaps we should have been more “headstrong”? I enjoy reading of farm life, biographical or fictional. And so I open and begin to read The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton. The first chapter is comfortable, somewhat like the opening chapter in Little Women except that here the girls are grown up and only home on the parents’ farm for a summer visit. One of the highlights will be the evening flowering of the moonflower vine, so for that and for a picnic jaunt to cut down a bee tree, it seems all else must give way. Family priorities come across homey and simple. It looks as if living for a while in this book will be a pleasant, comforting escape from Michigan winter and general American political angst.

Further along, the sisters veer from their own assigned task, picking lettuce, to meander their way through the woods and down to the creek. There is time, Leonie tells the others, for her to catch a fish.
As they walked through the cornfield a freight train passed, a half mile beyond the creek, squeaking and laboring on its way to Renfro. 
 “See, I told you,” said Leonie. “There’s the Katy—it’s not three o’clock yet.”
Well, there’s a pleasant little surprise! David and I met the Katy train two years ago this coming April in Boonesville, Missouri, on our way back to Michigan from winter in Arizona, having gotten off the expressway for Paris.

Any novel presents surprises along the way, and so it is when an unexpected funeral prevents the bee tree expedition. Questions arise, too. Where is the fourth daughter during the annual summer reunion? Who are the absent husbands of two others, described only as a farmer and a mechanic? Only at the end of the first section of the book, “The Family,” do I turn back to read Jane Smiley’s introduction, telling me that after the “overture” of the first section I will meet with family secrets, sins, and tragedies. I close the book to read on the front cover “a rediscovered classic,” on the back the Chicago Tribune’s praise, “a distinguished achievement.” Well, I can’t say any of this is disappointing. On the contrary, it only whetted my appetite for the story to come. Seduced by the overture, there was no way I was going to leave without the experience of the entire symphony, and I spent most of Sunday in Missouri with the Soames family, people I’d never heard of two days before and am now very, very happy to have met.

“Do you have such-and-such?”

A common bookstore question, sometimes asked only a few feet past the door, and far too often a seeker receiving a negative response will turn back toward the door without coming another step in, saying apologetically, “I just thought I’d ask” (sometimes adding, “I just wanted to give you the business”). Well, I’ve been known to ask for specific titles and authors myself in other people’s bookstores. Of course! But to leave without even glancing at what’s on the shelves and tables? Other books in the same subject area or genre? The bookseller’s “Some of my favorites” shelf? The newly arrived used books?

I would not be so fastidious for quids! I’m sure that somewhere in Jane Austen there is a character who begins a line with something like “I would not be so fastidious as you are...,” but my aging brain has not yet turned up the character who uttered the line. Certainly, the line did not end with “for quids,” an Aussie expression I learned from a correspondent in New South Wales.

There’s another thing, I realize: The correspondence Kathy and I have enjoyed for six years began entirely by serendipity. Previous to its beginning, we had no idea of each other’s existence. She went looking online to locate an old beau, remembered the name of one of his college friends, searched online for that friend (David) and found me. I almost deleted her first message without opening it, not recognizing the sender, but I’m so glad I didn’t. We have shared so much over the years since that serendipitous beginning. Quite amazing, really.  I’m glad too that I did not pass up The Moonflower Vine because I’d never heard the name Jetta Carleton before. Say, I’ll bet Kathy would enjoy it, too!

A glance at the U.S. map shows how far Missouri is from Michigan, and a world map makes clear how far New South Wales, in Australia, is from both M-states. I love maps. Maps are magic. Lists can be magic, too. But maps and lists are not the territory, and sometimes there is no joy to compare with getting lost and being surprised.

Hint: There is more to Dog Ears Books than the dog.

When Sarah was a pup....

Friday, January 6, 2017

Big Excitement Can Come on the Quietest of Days

“We’re going to Northport -- why?” David asked on Thursday morning as we fought our way up the driveway through blinding snow. Visibility was better out on the highway, though, and while it was a quiet day in bookstore and studio/gallery, we got some work done.

First of all, as I’d planned the day before, I set about undecorating the bookstore Christmas tree. Taking down the tree is a task I always find somewhat melancholy, but this time it felt good to be on the indoor side of the big windows, looking out at the street rather than trudging down the sidewalk, head bent against the wind. Once the tree was out the door, there were tables of books to rearrange, which is always fun. I also got my newest decorative acquisition placed prominently on the wall (under the big dog below). All of that felt good, but it’s not what I call “big excitement.”

No, the thrill of the day came with the arrival of friend and customer Sarah Shoemaker, an advance reading copy of her latest novel in hand. It looks great!

Sarah’s story is one that readers of Jane Eyre might have wondered about: How did the mysterious Mr. Rochester grow up, and what made him into the character who later in life employed Jane and won her heart? The answers – at least, as author Shoemaker has so skillfully imagined and presented them – will now be revealed to readers of Edward Rochester! I love the book’s cover design and look forward to receiving my own ARC from the publisher soon, when I will tell you much more about the story. And my bookstore clientele will have the opportunity to purchase signed copies and chat with the author in person in May, right here on Waukazoo Street. We will be scheduling this event around Mothers’ Day. Watch for details!

Yes, that was definitely worth the trip to town. Now, what will today bring?

“In other news,” as they say on the radio, activity on the home front has been mostly cooking, eating, and reading, but I must say the reading has been exciting, even when the books are not new to me. For instance, I’ve been re-reading Benjamin Busch’s memoir, Dust to Dust, and marveling once again at his stunning sentences and perfect paragraphs. The beautiful connections he makes from different eras of his life and different places in the world is every bit as wonderful as Rebecca Solnit's. Both writers pull us into their worlds and show us aspects of our shared world that we have never noticed before.

Our reading circle will meet soon to discuss Gogol’s Dead Souls, so I’m also re-reading that, appreciating as much as as I did the first time around Gogol’s very pointed humor and the way his characters and scenes come alive, thanks to small, telling details. And then, because I’ve been sending monthly Michigan “bestseller” lists to Ron Riekki up in the U.P., I took off the shelf last night the collection he edited back in 2013, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works

I first looked for Riekki’s name in the table of contents and turned to his poem, “After They Leave.” Wonderful! Then I read two pieces by our friend Ellen Airgood, “Systematic Botany” and “The Wanderer,” admiring yet again Ellen’s sure mastery of voice. Steve Hamilton’s “Watching Us” came next, and after all those high-quality reading experiences I decided I need to re-read the entire collection. Stuart Dybek’s rave on the back is right on the mark:
Open most any page of this book and you’ll smell the piney air and feel even in the sunlight the clean, steely, visceral cold.
Do we need to read about the cold when it’s right outside the door? Of course! It reminds us of who we are, people who live Up North, even if those above the Bridge (Yoopers) call us trollsThe mere act of clearing a way through the blizzard to my bookstore door was exciting this morning! I am open for business!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Book Recommendation: THE FARAWAY NEARBY

The first essay in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby describes an embarrassment of apricots, three large boxes of apricots from a tree in her mother's yard, so many apricots that she spread them out on a sheet on her bedroom floor to prevent their crushing each other. But there was no stopping time, and something had to be done with the fruit. Inspecting it frequently for rot, she saw their nagging presence not as abundance but as anxiety, a complicated set of feelings related to her relationship with and responsibility for an aging mother slipping ever further into dementia.
This abundance of apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood. It was a last harvest, a heap of fruit from a family tree, like the enigmatic gifts of fairy tales.... The apricots were a riddle I had to decipher, a tale whose meaning I had to make over the course of the next twelve months as almost everything went wrong. 
 - Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The mother-child relationship, family stories, fairy tales, inheritances, riddles, meanings, and memories, the mystery of stories told and retold and changing in the remembering and telling – such seeds are nurtured and coaxed along with a delicate, masterful touch in the pages of this book, which constitutes a garden stretching from familiar home scenes in North America to steaming Latin American jungles and bare Icelandic plains, soils from which emerge leprosy and revolution, literary monsters and strange cults. We are on a journey with author Rebecca Solnit. And she? She says,
I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thought and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us, out of beliefs and acts, information and materials. Even in the wilderness your ideas of what is beautiful, what matters, and what constitutes pleasure shape your journey there as much as do your shoes and map also made by others.
The book itself is a series of Russian dolls. Not only does each essay consist of layered meanings and images, growing from, for example, a floor spread with apricots to a meditation on time, picking up fairy tale strands along the way, but the collection itself is a larger essay encompassing the smaller ones. Perfectly coherent, it contains the others in meaning, not only as all are held together by the book’s binding. The apricots recur. Frankenstein’s monster reappears. And each reprise of each theme adds another layer to this intricate, complex work of art.

As a reader, one is aware on every page of being led somewhere new by a master essayist as Solnit takes us into and through her labyrinth, a journey that winds along as unspooled thread to bring us back home again in the end.
In the folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. ... Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and understanding.

The quotations I've used so far are beautiful, I hope you will agree, and yet they hardly do justice to the sensual detail of Solnit’s essays. Besides her lovely metaphors, extended analogies, and other abstractions beloved of a philosopher reader, there are also descriptions of her immediate surroundings. For instance –
Arriving in Iceland in spring, I watched the annual tuning up of the instruments everywhere as the earth woke up from winter. Mats of flattened gray plant stalks metamorphosed into grasses and great mounds of invasive Alaskan lupine smeared whole hillsides violet. Tiny flowers appeared in clumps of greening moss on the stones that paved vast expanses of land. Bumblebees that seemed to have the lower levels of the air all to themselves were joined by tiny butterflies and other insects.
The lush, swarming, high-speed Arctic spring! And the author brings to her experiences of art this same willingness to be submerged, though it is emergence -- becoming -- that is her overarching theme.

Does anyone out there remember a feature of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, a story that run from page to page in the margins? Solnit does something that reminded me a little of that story. Beginning on the first page of the first essay, there is a line of italic type (a single line, though my typeface and page formatting have it look otherwise below) at the bottom of the page:
Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. This is the title of a short scientific report
The line is not a footnote, and the second sentence begun does not end on that page, and sentences bridge the spaces from one essay to the next. The relationship of this secondary (?) meditation to that of the essays, however, is a riddle for each reader to solve. (Perhaps a fiber artist would see it as elaborate decorative hemstitching.) An while a reader with a different kind of mind than my own might be able to follow both meditations in tandem, I admit I gave up trying after a few pages, reading the essays first, to the end of the book, and then starting over to follow the path laid by the meditation on tear-drinking moths.

But however one reads this book, whether in one long, thirsty series of gulps or slowly, measuring the reading out over a longer period of time, I cannot a more rewarding feast for lovers of the essay form. And at the end of the meal, hungry for more, you will be delighted to discover Rebecca Solnit's other books. The Faraway Nearby will be my first featured book for January 2017, and I'll be ordering multiple copies soon, so please contact me by phone or e-mail to reserve or to request one of Solnit's other titles.