This fresh blank computer screen is spread out before me like a flat snowy field, and the cursor blinks within it like a bird, a flash of black, a blemish against the white. I am thinking of snow, and frostbitten mountains, and pines and spruce trees standing tall within forcefields of white. In my imagination, those trees are like fingers, pointed in resistance, raised to make a speech. What are they saying? Nothing. They're saying nothing. Why is it all so quiet?
I feel wedged between two worlds. Two solid, unmovable globes: solitude and togetherness, peace and chaos. Books are my peace. Family seems my chaos. I'm straddled between books and family, and I want to push through and find a new place of my own where I can settle, explore the land, see with my own eyes, not anyone else's. I guess I just want to be alone for a while. I miss Maine, and friends my age, and I miss nature--mountains, loud gurgling streams, the softness of snow under thin-gloved fingers.
I don't know, readers, if I'm doing a good thing by reading all these books. I mean I think I'm doing good--by reading, I'm forcing myself to say no to other things, like television and Facebook and social media. Those things drain me more than they fill me. Books have the potential, don't they, to fill me (to fill us)? Don't stories and sagas and true tales about real human beings exist to. . . comfort us? Remind us that we're not alone?
It's a paradox, it is, to be physically alone while we read, but to feel as though we're with someone--even sometimes, an entire village--and to gain a sense of community, a heart-pat, so to speak, to tell us that everything will be just fine.
Good books have power. They remind us we're not alone.
Second Growth, this week's book, written by the literary giant Wallace Stegner, (Houghton Mifflin, 1947), moved me to tears, startled me and stilled me. It will linger a while in my mind. Good books linger, you know? When they speak to hard truths, they linger. It's right that they should and I believe that it's wrong to pass them over too quickly. I feel like I owe it to Stegner to let this book sit with me, at least for a whole afternoon.
Stegner, born February 18, 1909, is the author of numerous novels, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1967), Crossing to Safety (1987), and Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Angle of Repose stunned me into epistolary silence when I read it last summer; in Repose, Stegner includes a correspondence between the book's heroine and her dear friend, but there's always this deep-set distance between the two women. Feeling that distance, I felt Stegner was speaking right at my own life, right into the struggles I was dealing with and was literally writing about to friends. I felt like my life could be the same as Repose's heroine, and it frightened me.
But, good books do that. They frighten and thrill and inspire you, all at once. Stegner is, as I said above, a literary giant. In danger of getting political, I'll stoop right now to say that Trump would likely stop reading by page two or three. Stegner is too great, too wonderful an artist for our president. But that's Trump's loss. You, reader, should make it your gain. Read Stegner. I don't care which one, just read him.
If you choose Second Growth, you'll be dropped into Westwick, a village in northern New Hampshire, about 1960, and into the stories of three individuals, Helen Barlow (a poetic misfit, the only villager to have graduated college), Andy Mount (a teenage orphan with brains that could take him to college and beyond), and Ruth Kaplan (unwanted by the villagers, she's a Jewish New Yorker who comes to Westwick and quickly marries a tailor). Each character holds a chainlink of anonymity, wanting more but not quite knowing how to get there. As Stegner does so well, the village and the mountains of New Hampshire come alive through the footsteps of his characters. Always writing from a deep sense of place, the characters are as colored by their surroundings as they are by their unique, memorable personalities. All at once, you feel like you know the characters, and you want the best for them.
But, good books do that. They pull you into their worlds, want you to stay.
In a recent article paying tribute to Stegner on his 108th birthday, the author of the article makes notes of Stegner's refusal to allow personal doubts to be an excuse for selfish despair. "There were too many people who had fallen in love with the land, and who counted on him," the author writes. Such an attitude of selflessness encourages and inspires me to move past my own, current uncertainties and fears about the future; as Stegner intimates--I feel he's speaking almost directly to my face--I must forget, at least for a while, my frustrations and disheartenment, and live into hope.
I, and everyone, can only succeed in big things by at least momentarily setting aside the doubts and living into the confidence that lingers.
So, readers. I finally felt this week as though books are my friends. It's not that I ever doubted it, I just don't think I felt such a kinship before--or maybe I've just forgotten it? Now, again, I want to sit at their table. If I am the athlete and they are the nerds, I give myself over to nerd-dom. I'm with them. But still: I've got to leave sometime. I've got to say goodbye and let the books be books and my life move forward. Maybe it's an every day thing. Maybe it's okay to realize that sometimes we want to be quiet, and sometimes we need to have chaos.
Please do check out the "AUTHORS" tab at the top of the page for more information on Wallace Stegner and a link to his website.
Next week's book is Winterdance, by Gary Paulsen (subtitle: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod). (1994). The Iditarod started today, March 4, 2017!