American Culture

WordsDay Special: Well read and well grounded

After feeding twenty-six books into my head in thirty days, I’d like to say that I’m letting my brain decompress, but I’ll be honest: I’m still reading. In fact, I have two books going right now, Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson. I want to hit up Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Wendell Barry’s agrarian essays, too, and I want to spend some time with David Cushman’s book on The Wilderness, Bloody Promenade. Maybe then I’ll be done. Maybe.

But there’s David Gessner’s Sick of Nature. There’s Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. There’s George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. And there’s still John Muir looming over everything, a backdrop to much of what I’ve read, as significant as the Sierra Nevadas, as significant as Thoreau and Walden.

So many books, so little time.

I’ve been cramming books into my head at an alarming rate–so fast that I literally lost count. Only after I finished did I realize I’d counted two books at #14 and so had, unbeknownst to me, finished a day early. My effort to jam in a final book before midnight on the last day turned out to be gravy, and I didn’t even know it. (I’ve since gone back in true Orwellian fashion and corrected the record–a little ironic since I didn’t get to Orwell yet, although he’s on the list.)

I’m a voracious reader, but even by my standards this reading endeavor has been grueling. But it’s also been intellectually rewarding and, just as important, fun. I even had the author of one of the books I reviewed write to say he was “pleased to see such a
thorough understanding of what I was getting at vs the BS I’ve seen in other reviews. Please pass along my kudos….” That was gratifying.

As I read these books, I was looking, specifically, at the way creative nonfiction writers write about place. So what did I learn?

Upon first reflection, there seemed to be three different ways to approach the notion of place: One could travel through it, one could be in it, or one could piece it together indirectly. For purposes of simplicity, I’ll refer to travel writers and nature writers. As you might guess, the travel writers travel through a place; nature writers exist in a space. I’ll hold off on talking about the third category for a few minutes.

Travel writers and nature writers tended to write about place in much different ways:

1) For a travel writer, a place is something to be experienced. For a nature writer, a place is to be reflected on. Certainly a travel writer may try to figure out what his/her experiences mean as he/she passes through. A nature writer might, indeed, have very meaningful experiences to reflect on, but it seems the real objective is to figure out what the place means.

2) Travel writers tend to weigh their travel experience against what they know about home. They contrast the new with the familiar. In doing so, they frequently learn something about both places, and they learn something about themselves, too. Nature writers tend to examine humankind’s relationship with nature and their own place within that larger scheme. They contrast the natural with the man-made. In doing so, they learn something about the relationship.

3) Travel writers tend to get energized by their experiences, as exhausting (and sometimes scary) as travel is. Nature writers tend to get inspired by nature but then get frustrated and/or depressed when they realize how unrelenting humankind is when it comes to pillaging the planet.

4) Travel writers tend to “show” by recounting experiences; nature writers tend to “show” by evoking mood and wonder. I didn’t read many “poetic” travel writers, but I read lots of beautiful nature writing. Likewise, I didn’t read a lot of humorous nature writing, but I read a lot of funny travel writing. (Bill Bryson falls into both categories, I think—and he’s freakin’ hilarious.)

5) Nature writers tend to value place for its intrinsic worth, while travel writers tend to value place for the experience they can get out of it. That comes across in the ways in which various writers interact with a place and communicate their reflections about it.

Those are all, of course, generalities, and they’re based on a sampling of twenty-five or so books. I’m noting the patterns that jumped out at me, but any other collection of twenty-five books read under saner conditions would, no doubt, produce different patterns for different readers.

The third category of writers I encountered created a sense of place through travel and occupation, and through experience and reflection, but the journey was the destination, so to speak. They created cultural landscapes. I’m thinking of Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln—what is Lincoln’s America and who is America’s Lincoln? Or Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself—what are these crazy, quirky everyday experiences that comprise the experience of living in America? Or Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic—what do “North” and “South” look like today? Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson is shaping up to be that kind of book, too.

I think of the definition of “creative nonfiction” offered by Philip Gerard, a writing prof at the University of North Carolina and author of Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. He says a creative nonfiction piece must have an apparent subject and a deeper subject—that is, what’s the story about on the surface and what’s really going on, what does it really mean. It’s like plot and theme in a way. That’s exemplified in the relationship between fact and truth. The “apparent subject” might include the history, geology, geography, and ecology of a place; the “deeper subject” might turn that place into a metaphor or a symbol that relates to the writer’s inner journey. Successful pieces balance the two.

Travel pieces worked best for me when they didn’t just overload me with the apparent subject (the trip) and all the factual information that went with it. For example, Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China was obviously a travel book, but the focus of Troost’s trip always came back to his quest to understand the potential impact China’s awakening was going to have on the world—and on him.

Other books, like Julian Smith’s Crossing the Heart of Africa gave lip service to the deeper subject (“Who am I?”) and emphasized the apparent subject (getting from this place to that place and offering background about the places as he goes).

Nature books that were most effective used the apparent subject (life at Walden Pond, the travails of a flooded wildlife refuge) as a way to contextualize the deeper subject (self-sufficiency, coping with loss).

Linda Hogan’s Dwellings almost entirely abandoned the apparent subject (the natural world) to reflect on the deeper subject (how to redefine our thinking about our relationship with the natural world). John McPhee’s grounded his Pine Barrens in the apparent subject (the pine barrens and the people who live there) and let largely left it to readers to find their own deeper subject (the importance of the barrens as a unique landscape).

As I mull over these things, I realize that they’re just convenient constructs for me to organize my thinking. I could easily look past these conveniences and set these books into conversation with each other (and with me) in other ways. For instance, I could reframe my thinking so that I could look at how writing about place helped these writers understand the human condition.

I will spend the next week and a half mulling over these and other connections between the books. I’ll step back and, like Tom Hanks’ character from The DiVinci Code, wait for more patterns to materialize for me out of thin air. Then I’ll write a long, long paper about it for my doctoral program and see if I can make some cohesive sense out of all of it.

And then I’ll start reading another book.


For anyone keeping track, here’s the original list I chose my books from. I’ve indicated which ones I read, and I’ve made note, too, of any book that got added in after I compiled the initial list.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire.

Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.

Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson, Bill. I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. (In progress!)

Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea.

Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. (added)

Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder. (added)

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring.

Casey, Susan. The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.

Cushman, Stephen. Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle.

Dennis, Jerry. The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas.

Elder, John. Reading the Mountains of Home.

Elder, John. The Frog Run: Words and Wildness in the Vermont Woods.

Ferguson, Andrew. Land of Lincoln. (added)

Gilman, Susan Jane. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

Gessner, David. My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism.

Gessner, David. Sick of Nature.

Heinrich, Bernd. A Year in the Maine Woods.

Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic.

Junger, Sebastian. The Perfect Storm.

Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. (In progress!)

Kohnstamm, Thomas. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism.

Lopez, Barry. About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory.

Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

McPhee, John. selections from The John McPhee Reader and The Second John McPhee Reader.

McPherson, James. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg.

Muir, John. Nature Writings.

Orwell, George. Road to Wigan Pier.

Smith, Julian. Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Life and Adventure.

Tayler, Jeffrey. Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness.

Thomas, Emory. Travels to Hallowed Ground: A Historian’s Journey to the American Civil War.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.

Troost, J. Martin. Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

3 replies »

  1. You know, this is great stuff, and you should keep it coming. You’ve got a book here, I bet.

    Boy, I envy you reading Arctic Dreams for the first time!