For the last few years, I’ve found myself in a reading rhythm where I finish one book and immediately pick up another. Not the next day, but the next minute. It doesn’t feel like I’m racing to get through them, just that I’m somehow thinking that I can squeeze more books into the day. I doubt that it has really made much difference, other than keeping me from pondering what the story really meant. There was a time when I was taking time at the end of a book to actually put down some of the impressions it left on me. It was a discipline that I fell out of, and one that I didn’t notice as that useful until I would try to remember just what some book was about; the thoughts weren’t profound for the ages, they simply remind me of the why it was that I really liked that book.
In the spirit of trying to get back in shape, this is what my summer reading this year left in me.
I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with mixed feelings. At times it was a heartfelt journal of a journey with unexpected wisdom emerging, and at others it was a dry textbook of facts and how-to tips. When she was telling stories of their life, I felt that I could lean back into it and have a sense for the shape of their life. And when she spoke of the larger issues that their year was part of, I listened close, because she has a way of putting things that often casts new light on an issue. For instance, at one point she is thinking about the politics of place and class, and the way that rural communities of people fit into our modern world.
Out uneasy relationship between heartland and coasts, farm and factory, country and town, is certainly real. But it is both more rudimentary and more subtle than most political analysts make it out to be. It’s about loyalties, perceived communities, and the things each side understands to be important because of the ground, literally, upon which we stand. Wendell Berry summed it up much better than “blue and red” in one line of dialogue from his novel Jayber Crow, which is peopled by farmers struggling to survive on what the modern, mostly urban market will pay for food. After watching nearly all the farms in the county go bankrupt, one of these men comments: “I’ve wished sometimes that the sons of bitches would starve. And now I’m getting afraid they actually will.”
But when I got to the interludes, where her husband described food or environmental issues with a drier bent, I felt like I should be sitting up taking notes. And when her daughter offered her short takes on the teenager’s view of it all, along with recipes to try, it felt like reading the folksy, lifestyle section of a newspaper. None of these were bad writing at all, they just made for a mix that broke up the flow.
In the end, the gift that this book brings is her ability to convey that this is not about making grand gestures or heroic stands. It is about living in line with your values, keeping your eye on the small things and knowing that it does make a difference. What difference does it make to eat tomotoes grown in your yard, as opposed to those trucked in from California? Probably more than you imagine, starting with happier taste buds and leading into deeper personal space that may be harder to notice but none the less real. If that sounds too much like new-age drivel or personal rationalizing, perhaps it is, but it’s also an opening to consider how our choices affect not just the world, but ourselves.
I share with almost every adult I know this crazy quilt of optimism and worries, feeling locked into certain habits but keen to change them in the right direction. And the tendency to feel like a jerk for falling short of absolute conversion. I’m not sure why. If a friend had a coronary scare and finally started exercising three days a week, who would hound him about the other four days? It’s the worst of bad manners–and self-protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society–to ridicule the small gesture. These earnest efforts might just get us past the train-wreck of the daily news, or the anguish of standing behind a child, looking with her at the road ahead, searching out redemption where we can find it: recycling or carpooling or growing a garden or saving a species or something. Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.
Mark Harris’ book Bang the Drum Slowly ended up being a great read during Saturday morning free time - that extended time during swim team meets when my kids weren’t in the water. The first thing I realized was that Roger Ebert is right when he counters the standard review of the story (”this isn’t a baseball story”), saying that it really is a baseball story. That is, the story lives in the world of a baseball season, and the narrator’s world that he shares is that of a baseball player. The thing that makes it much more than a baseball story is that you end up caring more about what is happening to Bruce, the catcher dying of Hodgkins Disease, and about how the other players are changed by it, than you are about how the baseball season is going.
His writing style takes some getting used to, and at first I wondered if it was really bad writing or really good writing that imitates how a bad writer might write. It is certainly unique, and effective. There isn’t much sugar coating of the dialogue that goes on, so the feelings that come through stand out as genuine, such as when Bruce has an episode late at night where the cancer is starting to affect him, and they’re staying in the team hotel.
“Is the doctor coming?”
“Yes,” said I. “Goose went after him.”
“Why Goose?” said he.
“Why not? said I. “He was the first person I thought of. He has a heart of gold underneath.”
“It just never really showed before,” he said.
“People are pretty damn OK when they feel like it,” I said.
“Probably you told him or something,” he said.
“I never told a soul,” said I.
“Probably everybody be nice to you if they knew you were dying,” he said.
“Everybody knows everybody is dying,” I said. “That is why people are nice. You all die soon enough, so why not be nice to each other?”
After reading Mark Harris’ description of the making of the film version, and how much he liked what came out, I thought I’d watch it and see what a great baseball movie could be. I’ve got to say that I remain in waiting for a movie that comes anywhere close to being as good as the book. The movie wasn’t bad, but to me it was still a pale cousin of the book.
It was interesting, then, when I moved on to Original Zinn, a set of interviews between Howard Zinn and David Barsamian that ranges over a wide range of topics, including a discussion of movies and books. The best part is at the end of his answer.
David Barsamian: Talk about the value of literature and the printed word… For example, you ask someone, “Did you read The English Patient by the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje?” And they say, “No I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie.”…
Howard Zinn: I sometimes say that myself [Laughs] But most of the time I do read the book before I see the movie, and most always I am disappointed because if you have a really good book, movies will rarely do justice to it…. I’d often use this test to confirm my belief, hardly based on scientific inquiry…that the visual media, as sensational and glamorous and mesmerizing as they can be, do have the lasting influence that books have…. Many people have told me, “I read this book and it changed my life.” Many people have told me that about various books. Nobody has ever said that to me about a film.
One things that seems to make Zinn so special is that he doesn’t only talk about history as a view of the long, lost past. Instead, he reminds us that we are and can be a part of it. History isn’t detached, made by other, bigger people, it is here and now, made up of the lives of all of us.
Barsamian: Molly Ivins, the syndicated columnist and author of the bestseller Bushwhacked, reports on citizens who say they are not interested in politics and have this sense of resignation and hopelessness. What do you say to people who feel there is no use in getting involved?
Zinn: Well, like Molly Ivins, I hear those cynical comments a lot. It’s interesting because I may be speaking to a college audience or an audience of community people, fifteen hundred people, and someone gets up from the audience and says, What can I do? We’re really helpless. And I say, Look around. There are fifteen hundred people sitting here. These fifteen hundred people have just applauded me very enthusiastically for speaking out against the war or for speaking out against the monopolization of power and wealth…. So keep in mind that all over this country there are many, many people who add up to millions of people who care about the same things you do.
Now, whether their caring can have an effect is something you can’t judge immediately. Here is where history comes in handy. If you look back at the development of social movements in history, what do you find? You find that they start with hopelessness. They start with small groups of people meeting, acting in their local communities and looking at the enormous power of the government or the enormous power of corporations and thinking, we don’t have a chance–there is nothing we can do. And then what you find at certain points of history is that these small movements become larger ones, they grow. There’s a kind of electronic vibration that moves across from one to the other. This is what happened in the sit-in movements in the sixties. This is how the civil rights movement developed. It developed out of the smallest of actions taken in little communities….
The other book I planned to start this summer with, iWoz, is still sitting there. I may have to wait until I’m not so used to good writers before tackling that. Instead, I’ve found myself drawn back to a few others that I read years ago.
- Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, by Martin Prechtel, a story of a life experience in Guatemala unlike any you’re likely to hear. It’s even a different experience for me now than reading it ten years ago, mainly because I have a different minds-eye view of the village he was in after having visited it a few times now.
The End of the Road, and The Big Garage on Clear Shot, by Tom Bodett. We were short of library books for the ritual bedtime reading I do with the kids, so I tried out one of the stories, and my oldest son got hooked. They take a little explaining at times to a 10-year-old, but for Sara and I it’s like revisiting an old set of friends.