“When you’re in a place that is not your own among people not like you, your first impulse has to be respect. Even if you don’t understand, you have to show respect for what is technically called another epistemology, another way of knowing the world.” – Barry Lopez
After nearly eight years of blogging at Books Can Save a Life, I’ll be taking a break to work on other writing projects and bookish activities. I’ll be back from time to time, though, when extraordinary books and literary happenings come along.
When I started Books Can Save a Life, I was thinking primarily about books saving lives personally and individually. Over the years, my reading has come to include books that I believe save lives in a much broader sense. Books have always been a way for me to understand the world, and I believe books can help us save value systems, democracies, species, and perhaps even humanity.
We don’t really know, of course. Barry Lopez recently said there is no place for despair and pessimism if we are to have the energy and wisdom for a massive course correction:
“The whole thing is on the line now. The entire meaning of the evolution of homo sapiens. We either show that our power of invention is tremendous or we show that the development of the imagination in the hominid line was maladaptive.”
Barry’s latest book, Horizon, a culmination of his life as a world traveller and seeker, is a handful at over 500 pages. If you don’t want to take on the book, I encourage you to listen to this 15-minute interview with Lopez at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth.It is filled with transcendent words of wisdom I wish everyone could hear.
All of us can work toward a more humanitarian culture and learn to take better better care of the earth. We’ve reached an inflection point in human history, and it’s our destiny to do the important work we’re each called to do. Reading can fortify us.
I’ve enjoyed sharing my reading journey with you.
“You can call it global climate change, you can call it the disintegration of democratic forms of government….the need to attack this issue, to me, is like one of the great voyages that we now have to choose to make, to move into unknown territory, into uncharted lands….My hope is that people will say, ‘We’re in trouble. What is going to be the vessel on which we sail?’ And, maybe more importantly, ‘Who is going to be the navigator?'” – Barry Lopez
“Members of the German Student Union carried out the book burning with enthusiasm. At Opera Square, the students formed a human chain, passed the books from hand to hand, and then cast them into a pile. Estimates of the number of books in the bonfire pile range from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand. As each book was thrown in, a student announced the reason this particular book was being ‘sentenced to death.’ The reasons were stated like criminal charges. …The Feuersprüche [Fire Incantations] had a party atmosphere with dancing, singing, and live music. At midnight, [May 10, 1933] Goebbels appeared and gave a raving discourse known as the Fire Speech. That same night, similar events were held in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Breslau….”The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
Calling all book and library lovers and their friends! (Especially print book lovers.) If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for the reader on your list, stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Library Book.
While she was writing The Library Book,author Susan Orlean lit a match and burned one of her tattered old paperbacks – just to see what it felt like to burn a sacred object and how easily a book could be set alight. It didn’t feel good, she said, but it was easy to burn once the book reached 451 degrees, the temperature at which paper burns: Fahrenheit 451 vanished in a small conflagration.
One of the most riveting parts of The Library Bookis Orlean’s description of the 1933 Nazi-instigated book burnings in 34 university towns and cities, conducted in part by a minority of college students who called themselves the German Student Union. I’d always imagined small bonfires sacrificing a few hundred books. Maybe because I find book burning incomprehensible, I never conceived of the vast numbers burned – up to 90,000 in one fire! – or the live music, enthusiastic crowds, and tragic number of libraries destroyed in World War II and other wars, both deliberately and collaterally.
“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: it is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Susan Orlean is one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers of nonfiction. She writes for The New Yorker and has authored many books; I’ve read only one other: the quirky The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was made into the movie Adaptation (starring Meryl Street, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper.) The book is strange and marvelous, and the movie is even stranger – perhaps not to everyone’s taste. If you love books, though, you’ll find The Library Book more accessible yet equally as passionate. Orlean is a book-lover from way back and writes movingly about her childhood library visits with her mother, who always said that if she’d had a career, she would have been a librarian.
Susan’s private book burning and those of the Germans echo and deepen The Library Book’scentral plot, which involves the tragic burning of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It burned for seven hours; over 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 more damaged. No one is sure whether the fire was arson or an accident. The prime suspect, Harry Peak, a compulsive but likable liar and something of a tragic figure, changed his story every time he was questioned by the police. Woven into the story of the burning and resurrection of the LA Public Library is Orlean’s love letter to books, reading, libraries, and librarians.
Susan writes of her own motivation to write, one of the most eloquent and true statements I’ve ever read about why someone would devote oneself to this painstaking labor:
“I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten – that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed…..But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose – a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”
Isn’t this why we haunt libraries and bookstores, to find those singular voices, many from the past, that for whatever reason speak to us so personally and vividly?
“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”
Like Susan, I’d never heard about this:
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world – on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
These excerpts don’t even begin to address Orlean’s fine chapters about libraries, librarians, their history, and their future. Having been a book editor and a (medical/academic) librarian, I’ve heard more than once from people who are quite sure books will disappear and that we no longer need libraries. To them, I’d say: fake news, conspiracy theories and the disruption of democracy. I’d point them to these and many, many other links:
I leave you with this arresting image from The Library Book, which takes place around the clock in my hometown of Cleveland:
“The lobby of the OverDrive headquarters [in Cleveland] is huge and high. A ten-foot-square screen that displays a world map dominates the center of the lobby. Every few seconds, a bubble pops up from somewhere on the map, showing the name of the library and the title of the book that had just been borrowed. The screen is mesmerizing. If you stand there for a few minutes, you will see that someone at a small library in Arles, France, has just checked out L’Instant présent by Guillaume Musso; that someone in Boulder, Colorado, has borrowed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling; and that in Mexico City, someone has claimed a copy of El cuerpo en que nací by Guadalupe Nettel. It feels like you’re watching a real-time thought map of the world.”
Nonfiction November, a month-long book blogger celebration, just happens to coincide with an anniversary: one year ago my husband and I left our long-time upstate New York home and set out for the Pacific Northwest, not sure where we’d ultimately land.
And now we’re studying permaculture and Oregon’s eco-regions and learning how to take care of horses (maybe alpaca, too) on 4 1/2 acres in a small town near Bend.
On our cross-country trip, by car and train, my reading didn’t stop, of course. Does it ever? It was so much fun to curl up with a good book in a sleeper car and look up now and then to see western horizons that were completely new to me.
Book Blogger Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness poses these questions about what we’ve read in the way of nonfiction in 2018:
What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
I can never pick just one favorite book. Here are four that stand out:
Educated.This is an extraordinary memoir by Tara Westover, who grew up in a family of survivalists in Idaho. Tara wasn’t allowed to attend public school, but she wasn’t home schooled either. Denied an education, she managed to gain admission to Brigham Young, and from there Harvard and then Cambridge University in England, where she received a Ph.D in history
Tara’s interior journey is just as fascinating as her outward journey from backwoods Idaho to the halls of scholarly erudition; and from fundamentalism, a dangerous brother’s physical abuse, and parental mental illness to the cultural mainstream. As we come of age, we construct a self. Tara’s coming of age was a kind of trial by fire.
Educated has proven to be a controversial memoir. Tara’s parents, through their lawyer, have said that Tara’s portrayal of the family is largely false. Memoirs can be a minefield for writers and their families.
In the months since I’ve read his book, the title seems even more urgent. The internet, and even social media, have greatly enhanced my life, but the bad currently outweighs the good. If I could, I’d withdraw from the online world completely, at least for a while. As it is, I’m trying to limit my Facebook time to when I have a new Books Can Save a Life post. I post on Instagram less frequently these days.
Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?
It’s more like a continuation of my interest in the best nature and ecological writing, given our current challenges. Maybe what’s different this year is realizing I’m attracted to nonfiction and fiction with a strong humanitarian bent and a vision for how we might bring about a better future.
Now’s the time when everyone needs to be talking about climate change and deciding what we, personally, are going to do about it. It’s more important than ever to support our libraries, librarians, teachers, and schools. We can support our best journalists, newspapers, and news outlets, as well.
When we’re online, when passing on a link, we can make sure it’s a credible source first. We can be savvy and discerning, do some digging, and read between the lines.
It takes time to become a truly literate citizen these days – to understand exactly what we’re consuming online, how it might be manipulating us, and how to contribute to online conversations responsibly, in an informed way.
Spending time with good – and great – books can help!
Nonfiction November is being hosted by some excellent book bloggers. I’ve long enjoyed Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) and Katie’s (Doing Dewey) excellent commentary and wide-ranging knowledge about what’s being published, and I’m looking forward to exploring Julie, Sarah, and Rennie’s blogs. Stop by and visit Kim @Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).
What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read this year? Let us know in the comments.
On our road trip across the US (south to Florida, then west to Tucson, Arizona, then north to Portland, Oregon) we spent nearly two weeks visiting family in the St. Petersburg area. Along the way, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, my first time in that lovely city. An afternoon wasn’t nearly long enough, but we did visit The Book Lady Bookstore on East Liberty Street.
They had a display devoted to the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote short stories and novels. Her shocking story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is taught in many high school English classes. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth your time, I promise you. I’ve never forgotten that story, although I’m not a fan of O’Connor’s novels – her protagonists, obsessed with working out their salvation, are too strange for me.
But seeing the display called up memories and reminded me how much I enjoyed her collection of letters, The Habit of Being. Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, the assistant rector of the Episcopal church I attended taught a class on Flannery O’Connor. Fleming, our rector, who was from the South, led us in reading her stories and letters, and I was extra thrilled because The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, a Southerner himself, was in the class, too.
There are many things about Florida that I love, but I’m allergic to all the over-development and the acres of generic condos and shopping centers. There is plenty to do near the beautiful St. Pete waterfront though, and when our sons came down we enjoyed some of the shops and restaurants. (They enjoyed the music and night life, too.) We bought red snapper, grouper, and shrimp from a local fish market that had dozens of ice chests overflowing with fresh catches, and our sons did the cooking.
In Florida, I always look hard for bits of nature and local culture, so I was extra happy when we rented a sweet little apartment in a hidden alley in one of the older St. Petersburg neighborhoods. Some of the streets are cobblestone and lined with adorable Old Florida bungalows, many being renovated. Even though most of the windows of our airbnb were painted shut, we had air conditioning, and two large windows in the sleeping porch let in breezes from Tampa Bay two blocks away.
In the yard, I found lots of angel hair fern. We used to add this delicate bit of greenery to the roses we sold by the dozen in my family’s flower shop in Ohio.
We had many happy visits with extended family in the St. Pete suburbs after we left our airbnb. We walked in the neighborhood every day. It was warm and humid, with occasional light rain that felt wonderful.
We passed by this wind sculpture on our walk every day:
In the evenings, my niece, my sister-in-law and her mother, and I tried Chinese brush painting for the first time. We taught ourselves how to grind the ink, which is pressed into sticks and colorful rectangles, and mix it with water in an ink stone. Then we practiced brush strokes and painted our first, simple pictures. It was fun!
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to family and move on to the Florida panhandle and points west along our Deep South route. We stayed in Destin, our final visit in Florida, which had a lovely beach that we had almost to ourselves. It was beside a sea turtle breeding ground and state park, and there was a hidden garden teeming with Monarch butterflies.
Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans
Traveling, immersing in nature, visiting bookstores. Do these experiences call up memories of books read long ago?
(Technically, it isn’t a podcast because you can’t subscribe to get new episodes. You can, however, subscribe to Terrain.org, in which case the next essay in my audio series will be emailed to you.)
It’s been a difficult week here in the US, and if the news has been getting to you like it has me, I hope you’ll take a restorative six minutes and listen to my little story. It’s the first in a series called From Where I Stand,in which I’ll explore our connection to the places we call home.
Please let me know what you think in the comments here or on the Terrain.org site, and share the link with your friends.
I’m honored to have my work on Terrain.org, which has great fiction, nonfiction, poetry, videos, interviews, articles, and other fabulous content.
Some of you may recall that I wandered into Andrea’s bookstore when we were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest. Olympia is lucky to have Andrea and such a finely curated bookstore. On the podcast, Andrea talks about how she came to own Browsers Bookshop, what she’s been reading that she loves, what she’s read that she hasn’t loved (I whole-heartedly agree with her choice on the latter), and what’s she’s craving to read.
And last, but certainly not least, there is this. I wish Choir!Choir!Choir! would come to my town.
What are you reading or listening to this summer? Any 5-star recommendations?
Books, writing, creativity, cool media and other delights….
Walking book clubs. Did you know these existed? Here are a couple in the UK hosted by two book bloggers who write fabulous reviews: Emily’s Walking Book Club with Daunt Books – turns out the one and only time I’ve been in London we went to Daunt Books, where we browsed for over an hour. Wish I’d known about Emily then, I’d have tried to connect with her; and The Northern Reader – see also her Flower Power if you love gardening, flowers and nature lit.
Book spine poetry. A few weeks back in honor of April being National Poetry Month, I wrote some book spine poetry and asked readers to share theirs. Here is what Naomi at Consumed by Ink came up with. I love her little poems. Try it yourself, and if you’ve created book spine poetry you like, please share in the comments.
A good book. My favorite book bloggers always give me titles to add to my to-read list. I love this review of Hill by the French writer Jean Giono that Melissa wrote at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.
“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism….I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translation….Above all…I find slim literary memoirs about little old men whose little old wives have died from cancer to be absolutely intolerable.” A.J. Fikry, bookseller, in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
This is a quick, funny, sweet read about a bookseller who is down on his luck and turning quite bitter in his middle age. It’s a tribute to booksellers, book lovers, beloved authors, and their stories. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (Flannery O’Conner), “Lamb to the Slaughter” (Roald Dahl), “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (F. Scott Fitzgerald), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (Edgar Allen Poe), “Ironhead” (Aimee Bender), “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Raymond Carver), Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace), and many others have little parts to play in Gabrielle Zevin’s clever story.
After something good follows the tragic turn in A.J.’s life, he begins to change.
He’s inspired to write pithy little reviews for someone he loves. This is what he has to say about “A Good Man is Hard to Find” –
“It’s Amy’s favorite. (She always seems so sweet on the surface, no?)…When she told me it was her favorite, it suggested to me strange and wonderful things about her character that I had not guessed, dark places that I might like to visit.”
You can tell a lot about a person by the books she loves.
Lynne Clark at Two Reads and Marie Stone are the Literary Blog Hop winners at Books Can Save a Life. Many thanks to Judith at Leeswammes for hosting this great event, and for all of you who stopped by to share what you’ve been reading.
When Ann Patchett came home from school one day, there was a boy she’d never met in the kitchen. Turns out, he was one of four new step siblings. Her mother and his father had married, but they hadn’t yet told the six children who were now part of a blended family.
This might be why Patchett likes to write novels about people from very different walks of life thrown together in extreme circumstances – such as in Bel Canto, my favorite novel of hers about terrorists, an opera singer, and political and business leaders in a hostage situation. (See also my post about State of Wonder.)
It may also have had something to do with why, for a long while, she’d been committed to staying single. Ann’s mother had twice divorced and her grandmother had divorced. In fact, divorce was scattered liberally throughout her family tree.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriageis a collection of Ann Patchett’s personal essays, one of them about her early divorce and her relationship with the man who eventually became her second husband. It’s an honest, personally revealing, and entrancing story about love and commitment.
Marriage is a metaphor for the many happy relationships in Ann’s life, including relationships with her writing, her bookstore, her grandmother, the strong and nurturing Catholic nuns where she went to school, and her dog. There are essays about all of this and more in Ann’s new book, a fine collection of meditations about life, love, and fulfillment.
I especially enjoyed Ann’s essay about writing, “The Getaway Car,” and those of you who write will like it as well. She is not of the school that everyone has one great novel in them, as a woman Ann met at a family reunion insisted. Ann usually has enough good sense to avoid such conversations, but this time she gave in.
“Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? One five-minute mile? One algebraic proof?”
“No,” the woman said. But everyone has one great novel in them “because we each have the story of our life to tell.”
Ann does not agree and writes about how difficult it is to convey what we know on paper. This is what she has to say about writing a novel:
“I make up a novel in my head…I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose windows in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life…..
…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page….Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV…What I’m left with is a dry husk of my friend, a broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book……The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”
It stops most would-be writers cold.
Ann writes about the panic that set in when she sat down to write her first novel at a fine arts retreat, a story she’d been constructing in her imagination for a long while:
“Now that I was sitting still in front of a blank screen, I was appalled by all the things I hadn’t considered….until that minute I had never considered the actual narrative structure….what in the hell had I been doing all that time?”
She was tempted to throw out her idea altogether and start fresh, but an experienced writer told her to stay with her story.
“It was life-saving counsel,” Ann writes. “Without it, I could have spent the next seven months writing the first chapters of eighteen different novels, all of which I would have hated as much as I hated this one.”
There is another essay in the collection, “The Love Between the Two Women Is Not Normal,” that especially stands out for me. Ann had been best friends with Lucy Grealy, the acclaimed author of a memoir, “Autobiography of a Face.” Lucy had cancer of the jaw at age nine and 38 reconstructive surgeries. She died of a drug overdose, and Ann wrote a book about their friendship, Truth and Beauty.The book had been assigned to the incoming freshman class at Clemson University in 2006, and Ann was invited to speak there at the beginning of the school year.
All was well until a Clemson alum, whose nieces and a nephew were students there, objected to the book assignment. “The book contains a very extensive list of over-the-top sexual and antireligious references…The explicit message that this sends to the students is that they are encouraged to find themselves sexually.”
A hue and cry ensued. Many angry parents wanted another book chosen and Ann’s invitation rescinded, while most of the students and Clemson’s administration supported Ann and the book selection. The Clemson alum held a press conference the day before Ann appeared, distributed copies of bad reviews of her book posted by Amazon readers, and took out a full-page ad in the local paper. The ad, among other things, accused Clemson of the sexual harassment of freshmen students and suggested the assigned reading of Truth and Beauty was insensitive because a Clemson student had recently been raped and murdered.
When the day came for an extremely nervous and alarmed Ann to speak in Clemson’s coliseum, there were protests, and the administration had arranged for her to have a bodyguard.
Ann has included her Clemson speech, “The Right to Read,” in this collection of essays. Among other things, she said most of the freshmen students were old enough to vote and go to war and could make their own decisions about what to read and how they’d be influenced by it. She pointed out that if they had to be protected from Truth and Beauty, they’d most certainly need to be protected from Lolita and The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.
Weeks after her speech, it occurred to Ann many of the students in the audience had likely never read Tolstoy or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nabokov, and so they probably hadn’t understood what she was talking about.
As for me, I’m disturbed every time I hear about a protest of this nature over a book. If Patchett’s Truth and Beautycan cause such a furor, we live in a frightening world indeed.