categories: Reading Under the Influence
I have never been much of a linear reader. My wife Nina, a novelist and short story writer, starts a book at the beginning and reads straight through to the end. She sensibly has one book on her bedroom table, addresses it with purpose, and then takes it down page by page. Meanwhile I jump from book to book, sentence to sentence, seemingly by whim. I used to feel bad about this, but I don’t anymore, my conscience eased over the years by two of the ghosts I talk to regularly, Montaigne, whose own jumpy mind makes mine look systematic, and, Samuel Johnson, who while considered by some the best read man of his time, claimed to have only rarely finished a book. He read, as he putting it, “by inclination,” putting one volume aside when he got bored and dipping into another.
If I’ve always been a whim reader, the building of my writing shack a couple of months ago has exacerbated this tendency. Writing shack, it turns out, is a misnomer. Though I occasionally write out here in the morning–my main writing time by the way—I still do most of my writing in my study in the house. What I have done out here is read a lot, sip beer, birdwatch and think. The place is built for short bursts not long dives. Yesterday, for instance, while I was writing a draft of this post in my journal, I heard a great racket outside of the shack, too loud for mere squirrel, and then a banging on the walls. I peeked out one of the screen window and was suddenly face to face with a pileated woodpecker. The week before I had picked up one of the books I like to rifle through, Donald Kroodsma’s Backyard Birding, where you can push a button that allows you to hear the song of each bird you read about. At that moment a Carolina wren started singing in a nearby branch and so I pushed the Carolina Wren button and watched, and listened, as bird and book performed a duet. The real life wren moved closer until it was sitting on the corner of the shack itself.
School is ending—I put in my grades yesterday—and I’ve promised myself a big fat book to get lost in, maybe Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. But for the time being I’m happy being my jumpy self. Yesterday I read a quarter of an Emerson essay called “Heroism” that I’d never seen before (a generous student had given me used copies of Emerson’s complete works for my birthday, one of my happiest moments during my teaching life), a few lines from Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours and a few more from Wendell Berry’s Recollected Essays, both of those writers leaving me feeling much calmer than I usually do, as if I’ve just completed a hard workout. Also been dipping into The Uneasy Chair, Wallace Stegner’s great and underappreciated bio of Bernard DeVotto (which leaves me feeling the opposite, ready for war) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as I gear up for drawing another chapter of my own cartoon series Talking to Ghosts.
Of course shack life naturally leads to shack reading. I can’t think of a better place to make another go of Walden, and this time I plan to read the book more in Nina’s style, straight through. Down in the Gulf last summer I began to think more seriously about energy, personal and otherwise, so why not go back to the man who created the initial ledger sheet, who thought hard about what is gained and what is lost, and who took the notion seriously that it might be smart to do with less.
As a warm up I’ve found myself dipping into Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, which I haven’t read in a while. I had begun to consign Abbey to a certain period in my life, the way some people must do with the Grateful Dead, but then I picked his book up in the middle and read a passage from the chapter “Havasupai” and I realized that I’d forgotten something about Abbey: he can be so fucking good. In fact, since Bill R. and I have resolved to make these posts shorter (more chic and modern) and since Nina just brought me two slices of bacon and since a morning thunderstorm is coming and the rain just started, I’ll cut this post short and let Mr. Abbey have the last word. Here he has just endured the near death experience of spending the day hiking and getting trapped and climbing down rock walls, and he finally finds a small cave to take shelter in, a little hole “littered with the droppings of birds, rats, jackrabbts and coyotes,” With few alternatives, he decides to spend the night:
“The rain came down for hours in alternate waves of storm and drizzle and I very soon had burnt up all the fuel within reach. No matter. I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long long night, wet cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.”
Bonus Puzzle: Name three differences between the picture on the right and the one on top!