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The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

This is a longform essay about reading, inspired by Ulin’s son’s struggles to read and annotate The Great Gatsby (for school, naturally). Over its course, Ulin ranges widely over his own book-reviewing career; his relationship with his son; the reading habits of the author and others (including many other writers); studies of brain science and distraction patterns; politics and current events; the nature of memory (in memoir, in Ulin’s personal observation, and in scientific studies); e-readers; and much more. Though it was assigned to me as a craft book–meaning an instructive book about craft–I found an interesting element in Ulin’s own writing: his use of parenthetical quotations from other writers.

This could be a sort of self-referential exercise, too: a longform essay about why it’s so challenging these days to read such things as longform essays. (This book began as an essay in the Los Angeles Times, which was then expanded into the fuller-length version here, at ~150 pages.) I confess I found my attention wandering at times, which could be commentary on many issues, of which only one is Ulin’s talent on the page: distracted times, indeed. Overall I did enjoy the discussion, including the meanderings into the utility of the e-reader and Obama’s popularity ratings, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Ulin and I are in sync on many conclusions about the state of the world and of reading. “It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.”

Rating: 7 titles.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Kingston’s is a memoir in five longish essays, each of which could, I think, stand alone. A child of Chinese immigrants growing up in Hawaii in a Chinese immigrant community, she blends memoir (meaning personal or family recollections) with Chinese folktales, and ends up commenting on culture at least as much as her own personal experiences. This blend pushes the boundaries of memoir in the direction of imagination, and pushed my personal comfort level somewhat as a reader: I tend to prefer clear lines between fact and fiction, and while I am intellectually open to blurrings, I do notice my discomfort when it happens. I am most interested in the final essay, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” which expands metaphorically on the concept of literal voice. I’m also interested in the structure of this collection of five essays: their number, their varying lengths, their order, and the choice to offer a memoir in parts like this. Obviously the most unusual element, though, is that blending of folktale, imagination–even fantasy–with traditional memoir reporting.

Kingston has a vivid storytelling style, and voice. It is easy to get lost in the story at hand, and there is a dreaminess (in some sections more than in others) that I don’t often see in memoir. The flip side is that it can be harder to mentally pull these parts together into the story-of-a-life that I expect from memoir. But there’s no question that this is an absorbing and entertaining book–not to say that there isn’t emotionally difficult content, of course.

General readers of fiction as well as memoir will find much to enjoy. Students with rather more literal minds may be challenged.

Rating: 7 white tigers.

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My advisor Kim recommended this book to me as a craft book, although it is not quite a how-to, but rather a contemplation on the reading/writing life.

This short study of Emerson on the subject of writing (by an Emerson expert) is a brief, accessible view on the man. Quotable, but more than a collection of quotations. Richardson portrays a complete man, not simply a set of accomplishments. This Emerson is fascinated with writing as process and lifestyle, philosophic, and committed to exposing his own shortcomings.

I found it worthwhile, and an easy way into Emerson, who I haven’t found terribly approachable before now. I noted several quotations. The part especially intrigued me, in the final pages, where Emerson and Goethe are in some conversation about how intimidating it can be to observe the greats who have come before us… I often feel, when I discover a wonderful, new-to-me writer, both inspired by their achievement and discouraged by how high the bar has been set. And then of course the closing idea that to be a writer is to “abdicate a manifold and duplex life”! Whew.

An easy read, by turns encouraging, thought-provoking, and challenging.

Trivia of which I was unaware: Richardson is married to Annie Dillard. When I read this at the close of his ‘Acknowledgements’ (at the end of the book), I thought, ah! there’s the wisdom. (Some of you may recall that I have a complicated relationship with Annie Dillard–not all love–but enormous respect.)

Rating: 7 white whales.

Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher

I regret it took me so long to read this slim, delightful collection. M.F.K. Fisher is a very fine essayist, known for her food writing but a clever, funny, thoughtful voice in general. Warning: these delicious little pieces will make you hungry (if you have any taste at all for my favorite bivalve).

Obviously I read this book for my own essay about pearls and oysters which I’ve been working on for years… but it was an absolutely pleasure all around. Consider the Oyster has an original copyright date of 1941, and you can hear its era here and there; but overall, I think it ages really well.

Under 100 pages, and all about oysters. Short essays cover oyster sex; the seasonal nature (or not!) of edible oysters; a great many recipes from throughout history and around the world, with Fisher’s commentary; pearls; the oyster as aphrodisiac; regionalism; and more. Fisher is mostly but not entirely concerned with oysters as eaten by humans. Her writing is pithy, charming, humorous and very smart. She is a real personality, and I am a real fan.

Really, folks. What a short, accessible, but so clever little book this is. You should really pick it up, unless oysters totally disgust you, in which case you still should, because it will educate and probably humor you just the same.

Synchronicity: one of the back-cover blurbs here is credited to Clifton Fadiman, who is himself the subject of one of the next books on my list (for the Shelf), The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman (author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which was one of the first books I personally recognized as “creative nonfiction” as I was beginning to conceive of the genre). Everything is circular. Like a pearl.

Rating: 8 pearls, naturally.

Key Grip by Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith came recommended for his contribution to You. That essay, called “being [t]here,” didn’t particularly grab me (put it up next to Kitchen for being amorphous or abstract, at least too much so for my perhaps overly literal mind). But this book did.

Key Grip is a memoir in essays, in reverse chronological order. The first essay makes up fully a third of the book, followed by eleven shorter ones. The narrator is a risk-taker, a thrill-seeker, with self-destructive behaviors. The book is about those behaviors, about mourning the death of his father, and about art: the lifelong struggle to become a writer, and the decades along the way spent in service to another art form, as a key grip in the movie business. Smith is expert at engaging storytelling, such that the craft appears effortless or invisible. As a classmate once said, the apparently effortless writing is the hardest to achieve. But for me, the most interesting element in this collection was its reverse-chronological organization. That’s what I annotated, for school.

The extra-long opening essay, “Starting at the Bottom Again,” is a hilarious account of a mature Smith (age 57) traveling cross-country with a near stranger, to go on a Lakota vision quest. It is not only hilarious, but also gripping and pathos-ridden, gloriously told. If I have a complaint, it is that we left this absorbing world and did not return to it. I expected to continue chronologically from this point, and perhaps to get sequel vision quests, as Smith’s Lakota spiritual guide suggests to him.

Instead, we go backwards in time, seeing Smith suffer the loss of his father, work as a key grip, get dissipated and wild with drugs etc., become a skydiving instructor, return to childhood. Many of these essays are excellent in their own right. But I remained a little baffled by the departure from that first essay, “Starting.” I think we all generally expect chronological order when we read. We know how to deal with disjointed jumpings around in time; but to start at the end, so to speak, can be a little disorienting.

Nevertheless, once I paid attention to what this backwards-order was doing, I decided I like the way meaning, and characterization of the protagonist, build. For one thing, this is very like how we get to know people in real life: we meet today, in the present, and then (if we get that far) we fill in backstory. We can never know a new acquaintance’s past if we weren’t there for it, but we can listen to the stories.

Smith is a very fine storyteller, and these are amusing, sensational stories he has to tell, always with a note of sadness if not regret. I do recommend his memoir.

Rating: 7 jumps.

Distance and Direction by Judith Kitchen

I remain perplexed by Judith Kitchen. Actually, as I reread my review of Half in Shade, I am tempted to say: this, again, but with different subjects.

Kitchen’s meditations on distance and direction vary from very short lyric pieces to longer essays, and range geographically from Ireland to Brazil, across the United States, and more. They are about connections to place and people; and while she covers many topics, she is perhaps primarily concerned with mourning and remembering her father. Interesting for many craft elements: pronoun-switching, the use of objects, and wide-ranging subjects cohering. She is such a poet, with her words that don’t make literal sense next to one another. But the lines are lovely, and what meaning she does make speaks to me.

This collection as a whole leaves me unsure of what to say. I can best make sense of this art on a sentence level, or at best an essay level. Luckily, that is what I have to annotate (for school): a single element in a single essay, mostly. (There is always the option to annotate a book-level element, such as organization, which is what I did with Dustin Beall Smith’s Key Grip. Review to come.) For Kitchen, I annotated her pronoun-switching in the title essay “Distance and Direction.” While most of the book is written in first person, this essay is told in third person until the final paragraph, when a first-person I comes in to comment on what the she (earlier version of the self) does. This is an unusual use of POVs, and I found it interesting and very effective, although I think it takes a Kitchen-level expert to pull off such a trick.

Despite my attempt to articulate this craft element, I am left with the persistent feeling that Kitchen is not for me; she is too much a poet–too abstract–or perhaps simply too smart for me.

Rating: 7 skulls of horses.

guest review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, from Pops

More from Pops:

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane speaks to us as he walks countryside in a dozen British and international locales. That is simply said, but the depth and richness of this literary journey easily fills 360 pages. This is not a guidebook, although we get a close look at a variety of places. In parts, it is an adventure in words, history, literature, nature, personal inquiry, human behavior, and sense of place. Macfarlane describes his thoughts and observations as he walks, and that is a treasure. Also in parts: this is a collection of chapters, which could also each stand alone as an essay; even so, chapters proceed in a rough chronology over an indeterminate time period; more broadly, he shares segments of his life’s journey of the mind, enriching literary impressions as he wanders.

Macfarlane’s book shares its title with a Gary Snyder essay collection of the 1970s published by Ferlinghetti’s historic bookstore, City Lights; but the title senses are different, while still related. Snyder’s book could as easily been titled Staying Put (more recently adopted by Scott Russell Sanders) as his “Old Ways” took the typical American word-sense and put deeper meaning to it, as in: “the good old days”; a way of life, which encompasses cultural thoughts & values closely embedded in a place, spiritually and organically vital to the people living there.

Macfarlane’s sense of “Old Ways” considers the old and often veiled path-ways of England & Scotland, which in meaning embraces much: the physical path, historic connection, the chosen route and the legal rights thereof. Way is the root of so many common words (e.g. freeway, doorway, causeway, wayward, wayfinding, right of way) that Americans have lost track of that root in usage. Not so Macfarlane, who explores the etymology at length, both in literal & figurative senses. This includes Snyder’s “way of life”, as Macfarlane describes the essence of walking, for himself, his culture and people in general: in losing the stimulating practice of walking the old ways, we have lost important connections to places along that way. In his pedestrian passion Macfarlane welcomes numerous author allies, including Thoreau in his familiar “Walking.”

Above all else, the magic in these pages is Macfarlane’s way with words; I can hardly explain the eloquence. Description flows beautifully and wraps the reader in feeling, in myriad ways, a place described. His British English – and a commitment to precision, lost words, etymology and meaning – can mystify and charm. At one point he explores the word saunter in four languages, arriving at its best precise use. He refrains from analysis or proclaiming held-values or tragic history; his words translate observations so subtly and powerfully, we feel the implications ourselves.

Humility permeates his writing voice, and the characters he admires. He rarely includes himself in observation; as he is often walking and sleeping in harsh conditions, we do not learn how he does it, how he is equipped or how he feels about it. Rather he is ever looking outward to the pathway’s course, or to inward thoughts; his own circumstances are mere distraction.

Characters in his way-stories are sometimes friends walking alongside; sometimes other walkers, watchers or wanderers; but often they are writers, embodied in their words. He is absorbed by the words of others, and quotes freely from sources obscure to American or casual readers, yet revealing of his own thoughts. In one of many examples, by reference to several other authors, he is also describing what readers may perceive to be our humble narrator’s own path:

All of these people had been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, the belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.

One of his favorite writers is Edward Thomas; though he died in 1917, Thomas’ physical & life’s journey is Macfarlane’s personal obsession, and a common thread throughout the book. Yet there are many others, and Macfarlane is widely read while not effete; variously, he also invokes Hansel & Gretel, Tolkien, Hiawatha and the Iliad. For this reader, for all that Macfarlane appreciates others, his own prose is unsurpassed and suffers companions only for amusement.

Macfarlane’s observations do not comprise a purist homage to nature or wilderness; these are walks through long-inhabited places, featured with relics and scars left by ancient ancestors of those who still walk today. Quoting the walking Thomas, while again seeming to reflect on himself: “He liked the evidence of human mark-making and tampering over the millennia… testifying to a landscape that was commemorative, tending to the consecrated.” Macfarlane places importance on staying connected to that past, with clear observation, nuance and consideration.

One is drawn to the impression, lulled by our guide’s example, that seeking too much grand meaning can obscure rather than reveal what these already faint tracks offer inquiring minds. Nonetheless, we may seek: for example, how different would perception of our past ways be, if the ancient marks and messages on American landscapes belonged to our own ancestors, rather than to native voices prematurely silenced?

Nearing the end of his walking tales, considering all he had seen, the literary characters he encountered and his obsession with one, Macfarlane reflects:

This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.

I hope I get to read this someday…

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