I just finished Ken Kesey’s novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which had been a rather large hole in my Pacific Northwest reading list. The geography couldn’t be more familiar; all the action takes place within seventy miles or so of my house in Eugene, Oregon. Kesey, who lived nearby, captured the blue-collar grit of this part of the world as well as anyone. I never met Kesey, but I’d occasionally spot him around town before his death seven years ago. I last saw him at the Eugene Celebration Parade. He rode atop a knockoff of his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bus, which he dubbed ‘Further.’ As I recall, he wore a black leather trench coat and dark glasses, soaking up curbside cheers. Mephistopheles in his realm. On the day of his funeral, his parti-colored casket was braced by throngs of adoring pallbearers.
I usually have a novel going but it takes me a long time to get through it. I’m a slow and deliberate reader. I like to know the circumstances of any novel I read—the context in which it was written and something about the person who brought it into the world.
The writing I do is pretty much nonfiction; I find my reading habits gravitate in that direction, too. Currently I’m halfway through The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. The fiction on my shelf fights a losing tug-of-war with the field guides. I sit quite content with these books, learning about the migrations of gray whales, the winter diet of pikas. I’m delighted to discover that the fluorescent yellow dot I spotted under a Sitka spruce last weekend was an aggregation of slime mold coalesced for the purpose of propagation. The cedar waxwings that materialize each fall to feed on my backyard crabapple, the scrabbling of possums at night, the strange caterpillar in the garage, the leggy spider . . . all beg investigation.
In the back of my mind I keep a list of great books and great writers I haven’t yet made my way to read. I pick away at them. I have next to my bed a collection of short essays by John Updike about works of visual art that have captured his fancy. I’m progressing at the pace of about an essay a week. The writing is superb—I’m reminded that I should someday get around to reading Updike’s novels. In the past year or so I’ve read a novella by Naguib Mahfouz, poems by Elizabeth Bishop, a masterful collection of Chekhov tales. I try to stretch myself. I try to remember that people with different sensibilities might have something valid to tell me, even if it’s as simple as how to put together a sentence.
And yet . . . Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly doubtful about the assumptions of the world, I wonder why I should feel burdened to complete any particular reading list. Many a worthy bit of writing lacks the imprimatur of humanities professors. I spent an hour recently reading a Kinkoed collection of poems handed me by the author, a shabby fellow hanging out next to the post office. The poems were quite good. I handed him a buck; I should have given him ten.
I look back over my past ten years of reading and I see that there are some types of writing that I approach with a sense of obligation and others to which I go willingly. The latter is represented by writers who speak to my particular worldview. In the realm of high fiction, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. Poets such as Theodore Roethke and Mary Oliver. Chroniclers of nature such as David Quammen and Rick Bass. I’m OK with this notion of coming back around to what interests me, to what speaks to me most forcefully. Eventually you have to plant your flag on one side or the other, whether as a reader, a writer, a citizen. Moby Dick can wait.
I can’t resist. Another fellow co-opted this space to share his recent readings, and given that I moved from Eugene last year to Port Angeles, it seems reasonable to piggie back on Mnsr. Rassmussen. FYI- Aaron Posner adapted Sometimes a Great Notion into an excellent play, it appeared last spring in Portland… (http://www.pcs.org/sometimes/)
What is a 31 year old young professional in a washed up logging town on the coast reading in this time of climate change and increasing resource scarcity?
1) First- the guilty pleasures: Stephen King has a new short story collection out that is hit and miss, but is an example of the merits of a long term author who has plumbed the shadows embodied within the concept of “place” more thoroughly than most. He is now a part time Florida resident, and it is interesting to see him work over a new geography with his unique eye. I have been reading his work since I was 12, so it is like picking up a long running conversation every time I crack a new work.
2) In a similar vein, I just finished reading/watching Children of Men by PD James while recovering from a weird strain of the flu. A really interesting invocation of the countryside and island mentality of Great Britain through the lens of a depopulating and relentlessly aging world. What if there were no more children?
3)The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery- I saw Dr. Flannery give a talk on this book at the National Zoo in DC years ago, and his outsider’s love for North America was palpable. He traces the history of North America from the end of the dinosaurs to today. This is quite a landmass…
4) Where the Sea breaks it’s Back by Corey Ford- A somewhat dated but still interesting account of Vitus Bering and Georg Stellar’s first voyage to Alaska. I will never look at a blue fox the same way again. Also, there used to be giant manatees in the north pacific- who knew? A good companion to the recent Nat’l Geog article on Kamchatka.
5) The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki- In case it is not clear, I recently finished graduate school and am still catching up on a stack of books from the mid-2000’s. An aside to all professors- for each of your classes, assign your students to read one book that has nothing to do with your classwork and submit a one page summary at the end of the term. Please. The spate of essayist books on consciousness, economics, decision making, networks etc including this one is interesting, especially in light of the collapsing economy all around.
6)Setting the record straight: Responses to Common Challenges to Climate Science by the Climate Leadership Initiative (University of Oregon)- Gearing up for my mid-winter trip/plane travel time, hoping to practice some talking points. Ironies abound, I know, but these folks do good work. I am also looking forward to seeing the 21st century embodied in the heavily eroded and rapidly depopulating Gulf Coast of Florida. Postcards of vacant subdivisions anyone?
7) The Regular, mack–> The New Yorker, The Atlantic, High Country News, Orion (of course!) and National Geographic. Plus Google News and whitehouse.gov 😉
Thanks! Sam Fox
I’ve never read ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’, but I do like Kesey’s work. You should read ‘The Demon Box’ if you get a chance, very good. I think he was also the titular ‘Doctor Robert’ in the Beatles song, or an inspiration to write the song.
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