Steve Jobs recently said, “No one reads books anymore.” I find now, more than ever, I’m thirsty for the quietude of reading. I welcome the time away from the frenzy of the TV, computer and movies, the shorthand of email, Facebook, MySpace and the ubiquitous blog. I take part all those technologies, and enjoy the access to quick information, but I don’t love the world wide web like I love books, the stillness and silence of them, the one to one, intimate nature of books. Herewith, some of what Steve Jobs says no one is reading.
Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama (Three Rivers Press, 2006)
The first thing that strikes you is how much this man loves life. He’s steeped in history, geography, philosophy, economics and law and he sees and responds passionately to the dignity of all people regardless of their political affiliations. To read this makes me feel humble. Barack makes it clear that he cares about the future of our country and wants to make a difference. When I had given up, like many Americans, on politicians, it’s heartening to know that Obama stubbornly soldiered on in spite of my cynicism.
The Wild Trees (or anything by Richard Preston) (Random House, 2007)
This writer claims my heart and soul in this book about a bunch of scruffy college kids who discover the tallest trees along the coast of California. A page-turner, this book of nonfiction reads like a novel. I couldn’t wait to go to bed every night to see what had transpired while I was away; the landscape is that vivid and the characters are that alive. I’ve since read Preston’s The Hot Zone, a harrowing account of the spread of a filovirus (ebola/AIDS), and the dry cave carved by elephant tusks and covered in guano where it all seems to have begun; The Cobra Event, a frightening “novel” filled with true facts about the secret of biological warfare; and First Light, a gaggle of star geeks dukin’ it out with the universe. Preston peels back the layers to reveal the inner workings of the Hale Telescope — I capitalize here because the Hale is a main character — are almost as exciting as the descriptions of quasars and quarks that pulse along the outskirts of the known universe. You couldn’t make an action/adventure movie as good as any of Preston’s nonfiction books. He specializes in real people caught up in extraordinary situations who are brave, selfless and true.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall (W.W. Norton, 2001)
An intrepid half-Apache boy stumbles through the minefield of life with a Mormon foster family. Oddly uplifting and weirdly beautiful.
Perma Red, Debra Magpie Earling (Putnam, 2002)
Louise White Elk is a formidable female character in this story of love and betrayal on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Intimate, timeless, poetic.
The World Without Us, Alan Weisman (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007)
This book is a grand experiment of the imagination. Weisman creates a world of poetic jungle stillness that surrounds the earth after the people and machines that have dominated it have fallen by the wayside. Disquietingly beautiful.
Dog Years, Mark Doty (Harper Perennial, 2008)
I’ve taught Mark Doty’s poems in my college classes for years. Whenever I crack open one of his books and begin to read, my students, even the most recalcitrant, surly and bored among them, sit up in their chairs. They know they are being spoken to by someone who cares about them and about the world they live in, offering it up in all its unbearable brilliance. Now I find myself wanting to teach his memoir, Dog Years, not only because Doty’s prose reads like poetry, but because he speaks with unbridled and unashamed admiration for his beloved dogs. A darkly lovely book.
The First Word: A Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally (Penguin, 2008)
Fascinating fundamentals. Kenneally gives us a remarkably readable history of language that includes the work being done to date with all “speaking” species.
Poor Folk, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1846)
This is Dostoevsky’s first novel. I came across it in a hotel room in Italy where I was teaching at a conference. It was one of two books in English and I was touched by the lives of these people who have so little and share everything. Of course it doesn’t turn out well for the main character, Makar Devushkin. Fascinating to read in these dire economic times.
Later the Same Day, Grace Paley (Penguin, 1986)
Short stories about tightly-knit communities of people who are all deeply involved with one another. Paley’s gift for dialogue makes these stories worthy of many re-readings.
In the Next Galaxy, Ruth Stone (Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
Winner of the National Book Award, this is one that deserves its honors.
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Marie Howe (W.W. Norton, 2008)
Marie Howe is a poet of grand simplicity. Written post 9/11 from the streets of New York, these are “talking” poems. You often feel Howe is sitting with you over a cup of coffee telling you what it’s like to be alive.
One Secret Thing, Sharon Olds (Knopf, 2008)
That this poet has not yet received the Pulitzer for her body of work is a disgrace. The woman cannot write a bad poem. If you want to know what it’s like to be a wife, a mother, a lover, a woman, read anything by Sharon Olds and feel the world shift on its axis. Like Preston, I will read anything she writes. This one is still on order at my local bookstore.
All-American Poem, Matthew Dickman (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
New kid on the block Matthew Dickman will give you faith in poetry’s future. Human, humane, humongous! A Whitmanesque ride through the streets of the crazed American mind written with velocity and verve. A book for a new generation of poets.
Dismantling the Hills, Michael McGriff (Pitt Poetry Prize, 2008)
McGriff is another terrific young poet in the vein of Philip Levine. Quietly hard-edged image-driven narratives about ordinary Americans struggling to survive in the small town logging town of Coos Bay, Oregon.
Good Friday Kiss, Michelle Bitting (C & R Press, 2008)
Bitting’s poems are exciting, enticing, and refreshingly straightforward. Published by a new small press worth keeping an eye on.
What Narcissism Means to Me, Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press, 2003)
Seriously funny. An exploration of American psychology through the eyes of a quirky poet who can describe a sunset like it’s the first night on earth.
The Human Line, Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
A female, lesbian, Jewish, west coast Billy Collins. Poems for every ordinary extraordinary occasion.
Old War, Alan Shapiro (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Tonight I’m reading Alan Shapiro’s latest book, Old War. It’s a strange and delicate thing, and a romp as well. The reader falls into the world of the poems, and that world is filled with mist, light, ghosts, but also egg rolls, dogs, and suspension bridges. The titles of many poems bleed into the first line, e.g.:
will you go.
and unavoidable, that’s how you have to see it …
my daughter on the swing explained,
doesn’t exist …
These poems draw me in with the first line, like a hooked fish. One of my favorites is the final poem in the book, Open Mike Night in Heaven. Every bad joke ever written and by the last line you’re not sure why you’re crying. Domestic, human, profound, the poems work on you, and work you over.
Well, after watching Stephen Colbert I’ve just added Hope on a Tightrope, by Cornel West.
This is where TV comes in handy. I get some of my best book recommendations from Colbert and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. This economic downturn may bring people back to books and libraries.
Poet Kwame Dawes and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting introduce HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, a multimedia exploration of the epidemic’s human face. The interactive website combines Dawes’s poetry with original music, essays, documentaries and personal video recollections from those living with the disease and those who care for them. The work has been featured in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post and public television’s Foreign Exchange; it is also the subject of an hour-long radio documentary scheduled for release this December.
Founded by Otis Chandler in January of 2007, the online networking site enables you to list which books you’re reading, have read, or are about to read.
And of course, Orion. Though for this one, I’m much fonder of the print version. It’s a work of art.
Dorianne Laux is poet in residence at North Carolina State University and author of Facts About the Moon. Her most recent Orion contribution is the poem “Roots,” which appeared in the May/June 2008 magazine.