Monday, February 6, 2012

Winter Reading

Like many another native of upstate New York’s fabled “snow belt,” I became acclimated to two-day blizzards and 10-foot-high snowdrifts early on. I’ve never really minded cold weather. In fact, the older I become, the better I like our seemingly interminable winters here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
For one thing, I’m an avid cross-country skier. Then too, we’ve always heated mainly with wood: a bothersome, time-consuming, messy, and no longer particularly economical way to keep our old ark of a house on the edge of town marginally warm for seven months of the year. Just the same, I wouldn’t trade our frozen woodpile and cracked parlor stoves for the most efficient oil, gas, or electric heating system in the world. For all of its inconveniences, wood heat is wonderfully steady and comforting. Throwing another chunk of yellow birch or rock maple onto an open fire is one of the supreme luxuries of living year-round in the country.
Best of all, with our gardens put to rest for the season, the brook trout lying semi-dormant deep beneath the ice, and most of my long-time fishing and hunting cronies dead or in jail, winter is my favorite time to hunker down for some serious reading.
I try to read, or reread, at least one Dickens novel every winter. This year it’s Little Dorrit. As Dr. Johnson is said to have remarked about Milton’s Paradise Lost, I doubt that anyone ever wished Little Dorrit longer. Still, I take exception with the imperious air with which my Literary History of England dismisses Little Dorrit as a “serious falling off in power.” True, with Little Dorrit Dickens may have been warming up for Great Expectations, which came four years later. Half a dozen of the characters, however, including Mr. Dorrit himself, are incomparable. (Side story: I inherited my set of Dickens from our long-time village librarian, Mrs. Doris Alexander, who held the job well into her eighties. Mrs. Alexander often stayed on at the library long after regular hours, reading far into the night from those noble old volumes.)
“Dickens had not a Shakespearean understanding of evil,” pronounces my Literary History. Granted. I can’t argue that there are any equivalents to Iago or Richard III in Little Dorrit, though Dickens' attacks on evil human institutions – 19th-century British workhouses and orphanages, chancery courts, criminal penal codes – are unsparing. Ultimately, Dickens’ unique magic may reside in his celebration of that spark of divinity in mankind that accounts for our potential for goodness. In this regard, with the exception of the gospels of the New Testament, I can think of no other books that exceed any one of a dozen written by Charles Dickens, including Little Dorrit.
Speaking of long and terrific reads about fundamentally decent people, I’ve just finished Chad Harbach’s beautifully-written first novel, The Art of Fielding. Set mainly on the campus of an upper midwestern college, The Art of Fielding is a magnificent baseball novel. What's more, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, Harbach's novel not only explores love of baseball, but love of life. There are five life-affirming major characters in The Art of Fielding, whose destinies are intertwined in highly dramatic ways. (My favorite is Schwartz, the college team’s hard-nosed and obsessively dedicated captain and catcher.) Cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2011, The Art of Fielding rekindled my own love for baseball. (With the Red Sox’s disgraceful self-implosion last fall, I feared that might be gone forever.)
After reading several outstanding reviews of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, I expected a lot from his National Book Award-winning account of the discovery, in the library of a medieval monastery, of the Roman poet Lucretius’s long-lost masterpiece, On the Nature of Things. I loved every page of Greenblatt’s brilliant story of Lucretius’s book-length Latin poem, which postulates the theory of atoms, and its influence in shaping the modern world.
Greenblatt, a Harvard professor with the great good sense to spend as much time in Vermont as possible, has written many acclaimed books. I’d missed his bestselling biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, so I plunged right into it as soon as I finished The Swerve. Not only is Will in the World by far the best book I’ve ever read about Shakespeare. It’s a delightful revelation of a world-class, contemporary scholar’s own mind and imagination at work, full of original insights about the connection between a writer’s life and art, and the creative process in general. Here are three that I found especially illuminating:
“There is no direct relation between the staging of various forms of restoration in Will’s plays and the renewal of [his father’s] lapsed application for the status of gentleman. Art rarely emerges so transparently from the circumstances of life and would be far less compelling if it did.” (My italics.)
“We scarcely know for ourselves, let alone for a person who lived four hundred years ago, how someone acquires a particular vocational desire.”
“There are few happy marriages in all of literature, just as there are rather few representations of goodness.” (Thus, I suppose, the extraordinary accomplishment of Dickens.)
Oh, my. How I wish I could put Will in the World in the hands of my long-time friend and writing mentor, the Vermont poet James Hayford. Jim died some years ago, still passionately believing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote most of Shakespeare’s plays. We amicably debated the issue by the hour. I don’t know whether Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of William Shakespeare would change Jim’s mind. Probably not. But even as devout an Oxfordian as my poet friend, I'm certain, would have loved Greenblatt’s marvelously readable account of how the glover’s son from Stratford found, in his own rich life and imagination, the material and inspiration to create the greatest literature in the history of the world.
Speaking of world-class authors, please watch for Alaskan Travels, coming in March from Edward Hoagland. The Washington Post has called Hoagland “the Thoreau of our times.” Alaskan Travels (Skyhorse/Arcade) is the magnificent account of Hoagland’s exploration of our continent’s last great northern frontier. It features an unforgettable trip down the Yukon River and a moving love story. I had the privilege of writing a short introduction for Alaskan Travels, which I’ll post on my blog soon.
Skyhorse Press is also bringing out the first American edition of the award-winning British novelist Luke Jennings’ memoir, Blood Knots. Blood Knots is the best book I’ve read on fishing, family, and friendship since A River Runs Through It. It is also, in places, very, very funny. I’ll be writing about it in my Spring Reading blog.
Other news: Acclaimed essayist Garret Keizer has a terrific new book on privacy – Privacy is the title – coming from Picador this August. I just finished it, and I’ll never again take for granted our fundamental human right to be left alone to mind our own business and let other folks mind theirs. Garret demonstrates, in eighteen concise, eloquent chapters, how privacy – which, curiously, is not a right specified in the Constitution – is nonetheless essential to every Constitutionally-guaranteed right we have. (Garret, by the way, is one of the wittiest writers at work in America today. I laughed out loud several times over every chapter.)
On March 21, in collaboration with Marlboro College, the renowned independent filmmaker Jay Craven will begin shooting his new feature film, Northern Borders, based on my 1994 novel of the same title. (For more information on the film, please see Jay’s website:
Well. No one is going to wish this blog much longer, either. So I’ll close here by just noting that later this month I’ll post, on my website, one of the more outlandish chapters from my own new memoir, The Great Northern Express, coming from Crown/Random House on March 6. The Great Northern Express is an account of an utterly insane 100-city book tour I took a few years ago, with recollections from my first year in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom interspersed. Hope to see you at one of my upcoming book events – please check out my tour itinerary on my website.
In the meantime, who says the book is dead? Nonsense. Long live the book! Happy winter reading.