Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

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Thoreau first gave this talk in 1851 at the Concord Lyceum and continued to work on it afterwards. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly after he died in 1862.

My second book of poetry Terrarium is about the influence of place on our lives and personality—the place we grew up, our place in the family, perhaps the place we’ve always wanted to visit. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the categories of physical places in my life, a three-legged stool: home, society and the wild. With the pandemic, society is reduced almost completely to faces on the computer, leaving me pondering home and the wild and how we do or do not move among them.

First, let me be clear: wild is a relative term. There is no virgin wilderness here in North America, and never was except perhaps when the first people tramped across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. There is untended land, here in New England some of it was once farmland, laboriously carved out of the forest, abandoned when the economy collapsed leaving remnants of stone walls in the woods. There are lightly managed forests, with walking trails and sometimes efforts to remove invasive species. These suffice for my experience of the wild.

Now we have learned through new research that there is more going on in the woods than we realised, that trees communicate with each other and form their own society. Richard Powers’s bestseller The Overstory explores these ideas further through several sets of characters.

The fairy tales we hear as children are often about venturing into the wild—Into the Woods, as Stephen Sondheim put it—and discovering our own talents and values as we encounter its dangers. The journey becomes a metaphorical basis for nearly all of our stories, the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell.

And then there’s coming home. For many people, the immediate shock of the pandemic’s stay-home orders was to actually be at home all the time, not spending most daylight hours at work or school or the myriad activities that fill some children’s schedules, not going out in the evenings to a restaurant or concert or pub.

For all the decades I was working a day job, the thought of being at home all day seemed like nirvana. I had worked hard to make my home a place where I wanted to be, that fostered my favorite activities and soothed my soul, yet spent most of my days in offices and laboratories. When I retired a few years ago from that job to write, I feared that being home all the time would not be the paradise I’d expected. Reader, it was. And is. Though I recognise that my personality is particularly well-suited to this life.

I also walk. A lot. Aside from the obvious health benefits of exercise, recent studies have shown the positive effects—mental, physical and emotional—of spending time in nature.

So, belatedly, we come to Thoreau. Most famous for his two years in the woods by Walden Pond, he was fascinated by natural history, anticipating what we now call ecology and environmentalism.

He begins this essay:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Where he wins my heart comes a little later when he says:

I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together . . . I wonder that about this time, or say between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, too late for the morning papers and too early for the evening ones, there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street . . .

He’s not just extolling the opportunity for exercise, but having the time to “walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Also, as a Transcendentalist, he considers what we can learn from nature, extolling even swamps and bogs as jewels.

I will leave you to enjoy the rest of this delightful and thought-provoking essay for yourselves. It’s readily available online. It’s time for me to take a walk.

Where are your favorite places to walk?

Green Card & Other Essays, by Áine Greaney

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be home. Many people are working from home these days. All the years I worked in offices I desperately wanted to work from home. Even now I remember each and every snow day when I was allowed to work remotely as a sacred and blessed time.

I know there are many who struggle with this new reality, extraverts who miss the interaction with others. And it’s true that I valued being able to step down the hall and get Laura or Jonathan’s input on some task. Still, this being at home to me is nirvana, to be able every day to be in this space that I designed for myself.

But home is more than this house, this place we’ve carefully adapted to our needs. It is also the places where we suddenly and unexpectedly know we are where we belong. For me, that was the first time I crossed the Tappen Zee bridge into New England. And again that early morning landing in England, a March morning, frosty and cold. Faced with a standard transmission car with the gear shift on the opposite side and traffic patterns that challenged my orientation, still, for all that, I knew suddenly that I had come home. I was in the right place. Many return visits over the years have only confirmed that initial sense of belonging.

For Greaney, that’s not the point. These brief essays fold us into the experience of leaving one not-unloved-home for another, of trying to find your way in an alien culture where you don’t recognise most of the references and your accent is legitimate fodder for jokes.

Immigration is much in the news these days, but it’s important to notice, as Greaney points out, that there are plenty of immigrants who are welcomed without question. When someone who has been complaining about immigrants says to her “Oh, not you . . . We weren’t talking about you,” Greaney appropriately responds, “’English speaking? White?’”

Interactions like this show up the racism inherent in today’s discussions about immigration. A white friend of mine who emigrated from South Africa, likes to challenge people by saying, accurately enough, “I’m African-American.”

Greaney explores the lingering strangeness. Not just the bizarre experience of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., but also seeing what U.S. prom night is like versus a quiet 1970s mass after Leaving Cert exams, commuting among pumpkin and alfalfa fields, wondering if the New England Methodist church down the road might hold a way forward for a Catholic girl.

One of the most affecting essays in this collection calls on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn where

. . . once Elilís Lacey (the daughter) steps aboard that ship, there are two separate and mutually invisible narratives—the tale of Eilís in Brooklyn and that of her widowed mother and stay-at-home sister back in Enniscorthy. Between those stories is an emotional firewall that blocks all knowledge of the other’s experience and, by extension each other’s respective wounds and losses.

Any of us who have left our first home for a new and different world can identify with this dual storyline, this firewall: a parent who cannot or will not imagine our new lives. Excitement and terror and sadness swirled together to forge determination.

These are beautiful essays: short, intense, emotionally precise, moving. I loved the essay about the gifts her father slips to her as she is leaving to return to the U.S. “’You’ll need this over yonder,’” her says, and Greaney pulls us around to see, yes, oh yes, they are needed.

What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

Learning to Die, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky

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While the title of this slim volume sounds tailor-made for this pandemic with its hundreds of millions of deaths, the subtitle clarifies its theme: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Its two essays and Afterword give us perspective on the environmental catastrophe through which we are living.

These are not attempts to quote scientific studies to persuade us of the seriousness of our Anthropocene Era, though statistics are given and backed by numerous endnoted sources. Instead, the two essays address our inner selves and how we relate to the world, while the Afterword refutes a recent book which proclaims that there is no problem because more progress will save us.

In “The Mind of the Wild” Bringhurst reminds us that life survived and regenerated after each previous global extinction event, though it wasn’t the same life as before. I can’t help but think again about our current time, when it appears our post-COVID 19 world will not ever be quite what it was before.

Bringhurst goes on to say that after the coming catastrophe, it will be the wild—defined as “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control”—that “will rescue life on earth, if anything does, because nothing else can.” Humans may not survive; any that do will find their culture eviscerated.

He refers to an 1858 speech by the physicist Michael Faraday, who in a lecture on electricity said, “I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your mind. ” He goes on:

Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is an exercise in a certain kind of thinking: letting something happen instead of forcing it to happen, and simultaneously letting yourself be enlarged. Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is a way to practise thinking like an ecosystem, thinking like a planet, thinking like a world. But in order to let the facts form a poem in your mind, you have to have some facts to start with.

And of course you must have a mind in good working order. Increasingly we have been learning that one of the best ways to get our minds in order is to go out into the natural world, the wild. Bringhurst says that there we “enter a larger, possibly stricter, moral sphere” and encourages us to bring that “heightened sense of morality” home with us.

There is much more to this moving and persuasive essay. It is reinforced and expanded by “A Ship from Delos” by Zwicky. The title comes from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, which was delayed by the custom of not allowing any executions during the annual voyage to Delos to honor Apollo. The sight of the ship returning tells Socrates that his life will end the next day.

Zwicky says that “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with the black sails has been sighted.” Building on Bringhurst’s appeal to our moral selves, she proposes the virtues that Socrates embodied, starting with awareness (attended by the humility to recognise what we don’t know).

Here it is the recognition of our own mortality, which she describes beautifully as “to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music.” She goes through the other virtues, showing how cultivating them will serve us well as we enter our extinction event, both by perhaps postponing it a little and by giving us tools to handle it.

For the Socratic virtue usually translated as piety, she substitutes contemplative practice, saying:

At the heart of contemplative practice of any sort is attention. As [Simone] Weil observes, prayer is nothing other than absolutely unmixed attention . . . The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it.

I recommend this small book to anyone who wishes to go deeper into an understanding of who we are and who we are becoming as our culture rocks and is remade during this time of great change.

What writers help you to adjust and find your best life during difficult times?

Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle

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These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort. I welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father.

In this collection of short essays—a form he excelled in—Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness; in “The Sin” he describes losing his temper with his son, grabbing his shirt collar and roaring at him, frightening them both. He doesn’t avoid his own responsibility or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, he confronts himself, “ashamed to the bottom of my bones.”

Then he goes big: “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” As he ponders that question, and the further one of who must do the asking and who the forgiving, he is led to consider the grace alluded to in the book’s title.

Doyle is a Catholic and makes clear in his Prologue that many of these essays “use . . . Catholicism as a prism, a way of being, an approach”. Yet he keeps these works accessible for those of us who do not ascribe to that or perhaps any religion by using terms we can all believe in. Like Mary Oliver, whose work he much admires (and vice versa), he links prayer to attentiveness. And when he talks of grace, he speaks not of the Catholic God but of the experiences we all yearn for: the unearned gifts, the moments of being, the love that descends on us.

I call his essays unforgettable because each pierces me in ways I cannot describe. I often use his essays in my writing classes and, reading aloud an essay I’ve read fifty times, still, as I near the end, my voice trembles and tears start in my eyes.

How does he do it? In just two or three pages he builds a world that fills my heart.

Partly it’s his word choice, the unexpected verb or adjective that surprises and transports me. And there are the startling images he uses. Both can be seen in this excerpt from “Cool Things”:

. . . the way the young mother at the bus-stop has her infant swaddled and huddled against her chest like a blinking extra heart, and the way a very large woman wears the tiniest miniskirt with a careless airy pride that makes me so happy I can hardly squeak . . .

A blinking heart. Airy. Squeak. They shock us, these revelations; they draw us in to the world of the story by linking it in new ways to the world we know.

Partly his essays are unforgettable because he does go big. He doesn’t hesitate to take on huge ideas, universal themes, and look at them in new ways, connecting them to our ordinary, our extraordinary lives. For instance, in “On Miraculousness” he uses an exquisitely described encounter with a little girl who is terribly crippled, out on the beach with her family, to—implicitly—look at the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Another technique he uses is to take on the voice of someone else, easing into it with the slightest of transitions, but giving us this genuine voice, this glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. For instance, here is the beginning of “A Child is Not a Furniture”:

One time when I lived in Chicago I spent an hour talking to a woman who was wearing a dress of the brightest red I have ever seen in all my born days and I have lived fifty years. This was on the Cicero Avenue bus at three in the morning. She said she was returning to the apartment where she lived with her husband. I inquired after children and she said,

My husband and I trying to welcome children but as yet we have not been blessed. I would like to have five children. I am myself one of five. My husband however an only child of complex circumstances. He have misgivings and forebodings.

Most of all, though, what makes Brian Doyle’s work so profound is that, as dancers say, he leaves it all on the stage. He doesn’t hold anything back. He lets us into all his secrets, shows us his warts and his wonder, his deep appreciation for our flawed and amazing time on earth.

He is missed.

What books are you turning to for comfort and courage?

Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. Du Bois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of Du Bois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to Du Bois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what Du Bois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by Du Bois? What did you think of it?

London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.

“The Tower”, by Andrew O’Hagan

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I subscribed to the London Review of Books for the book reviews. I liked that they were longer than the couple of paragraphs usually allotted to a book review, and that they often placed the book in the context of the author’s oeuvre. Sometimes the long-form reviews told too much of the story, but that wasn’t a deterrence if I was truly interested in the book. I also became adept at skipping over those parts.

Over the couple of decades I’ve been reading the LRB, I’ve been a little dismayed at the increasing number of political essays they’ve been including. Sometimes I skip over them, but others have been useful in delivering in-depth portraits and histories of what is going on in the rest of the world, sadly neglected these days in U.S. news sources.

Still, I was surprised to find that an entire issue (Volume 40, Number 11, 7 June 2018) was devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’d heard of the fire, of course. Managed by the local council, London’s Grenfell Tower provided high-rise low-income housing. On 14 June 2017, safety measures intended to isolate fire failed, and a fire in one apartment quickly spread through the 24-story tower. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze, and 72 people died.

Accusations came thick and fast. Most people blamed the council, saying that they only cared about the predominantly wealthy neighborhood and not the poorer people, especially those in the tower. Some residents had been complaining for years about various problems and, as a result, the council had conducted a major renovation, completed the previous year, 2016, that among other things installed new windows and a new composite cladding on the exterior of the building.

In England, local councils provide some of the functions of local government. Elected councilors are responsible for overseeing things like education, libraries, social services, waste collection, and housing; but hire contractors to actually perform the work.

O’Hagan’s piece, researched intensively for a year, tells the story of some of the people who lived there. With six flats on 23 of the floors, you would think people would be strangers to each other, but as resident Alison Moses says, “‘It’s a funny little community . . . Everybody knows everybody, at least by sight.’” It was also a remarkably multicultural community. O’Hagan says, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”

I found the individual stories which make up the bulk of the article fascinating: their backgrounds, their joy and pride in their homes in Grenfell. But what really struck me about this piece was the political fallout.

Activist groups immediately blamed the council, claiming that they had cut costs by having defective cladding installed; they hadn’t responded to tenant complaints, and they did nothing to help tenants during and after the fire. These cries were taken up by the media swarming the site and quickly became the dominant story about the fire. However, when O’Hagan interviewed these activists, they provided pages of accusations, but no actual proof.

When he interviewed council members, he found that they were on the ground immediately and in force, setting up shelters and getting people there. As one council officer said,

We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything.

The problem was that they hadn’t identified themselves as council, their philosophy being to just get the job done and not make a fuss about it. As a result, no one realised who they were. A senior council officer said,

The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”

And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”

Similarly, the issue of the cladding—the culprit in the spread of the fire—was hardly the council’s fault. It is not their job to verify it met safety standards; that had been privatised to a company that “both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing.” The blame lies with the lack of industry regulations, the lack of independent testing, and the contractor’s omission of a fire safety inspection—it turns out the cladding had been tested “on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” Also, this cladding was already in common use, installed on many other low-income housing around the country.

The government, eager to distance themselves from the catastrophe, put the blame on the council as well. They made things worse by promising the public things that they knew the council couldn’t deliver.

I could go on, but the chilling thing for me, in this era of fake news and hollowed-out journalism, is how quickly a false story can become “the truth”, not just among the chanting crowds who ignore right-wing politicians’ lies, but among progressives as well. We need responsible journalism more than ever. And we need to attend to our social reputation, the only thing the council neglected. Your reputation is everything, as my mother used to say.

How can we best manage our reputation in this age of social media and devolved journalism?

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris

An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

Home, Edited by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer

Home

A friend gave me this enjoyable collection of essays, subtitled American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own. Each author takes a room as a starting point for remembering: the porch, the hallway, the dining room, the closet, and so on.

This structure is similar to a writing exercise I use in my memoir classes. I invite the participants to think about a room in their house, perhaps the living room or their bedroom. Then I ask them to stand in the center and mentally do a 360° turn around it, noting the pieces of furniture, the various objects on them, the pillows, the curtains, the pictures on the wall. Select one and tell the story of how it came into your life.

From there, I say, follow the trail of memories. Writing a memoir is like being one of those clowns pulling a silk handkerchief from your sleeve. It’s attached to another handkerchief, and that to another, and you keep pulling and pulling until you have a huge heap of linked hankies. Memories work that way. Once you start pulling on one, you’d be surprised how much it brings along with it, a bit at a time or all at once.

Here, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recollection of his childhood living room brings with it the solidarity of seeing any person of color on television—each siting was an event to be yelled out to the neighborhood. And then the television brings the drama of the Civil Rights Movement into their lives: watching the news “to see what ‘Dr. King and dem’ were doing”, watching black children walking up to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Alex Kotlowitz uses “The Boys’ Room” to describe his relationship with his brother. It is a place apart in the first-floor apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The boys make forts and play at war. They raise hamsters, gerbils and turtle doves. They wrestle and box, all without adult intervention. Through all their fighting, though, there is a thread of caring and protection. They watch out for each other in little ways and big.

Given the allusion to Virginia Woolf, I expected these brief memoir pieces to relate somehow to the author’s writing life. The introduction by Sharon Sloan Fiffer does, relating how she would hide on the sixth stair down to listen to her parents and sometimes her older brother talk and argue as grown-ups do when the little ones are in bed. Then she relays these stories to her five-year-older next-door neighbor Nora. Trying to keep the older girl interested and therefore willing to let Sharon hang around, she learns when to tighten up a story and when to embroider it. She hones her comedic timing. Most of all, she learns to listen, not just to her parents and brother to gather material, but also to Nora, her audience to see how her story is going over.

The other essays don’t seem to go in this direction, but it doesn’t matter. They are heartfelt and true. They tell stories of other times and places. Most of all they tell about the families with whom we share these spaces, the love that lurks in every corner, and the memories that bind us together.

Look around your home and select one object. How did it come into your life, and what does it mean to you?