Let’s go exploring.
More specifically, let’s explore the American South.
New Year’s resolutions and I make for poor company.
Like many reading this column, I have in the past made resolutions designed to correct some flaw in my character or my habits, which often are the same creature. I have rung in the new year vowing to lose weight, to give up drinking, to write more letters and emails to those I love, to keep my big mouth shut when the desire to offer advice wells up in my throat, to exercise more, to eat healthier foods, to pray more, in short, to write out and act upon some proposed change aimed at self-improvement.
Opposites attract, so the old saying runs.
We’ve all known friends, husbands and wives, and lovers who match this adage, and the same can sometimes hold true for books. This week, for example, rupi kaur’s milk and honey and William F. Buckley Jr.’ s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century snagged my attention. I can hardly imagine two books more different from each other.
In mid-October I attended the second lecture of three at my local library on the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). A visit to Rome the previous year had sparked my interest in him and his work, and the lecture sent me to the library “Holds” desk where, as the speaker had informed us, he had placed on reserve several books on the painter. Despite having missed the first lecture, and despite the crowd of 70 some attendees at the lecture, I found to my astonishment that no one had checked out any of the books.
Visit any bookshop or library and you will find loads of books telling you how to live a better life, how to take care of those around you, how to do everything from fighting drug addiction to getting accepted by the right college, from winning your fortune at the blackjack table to making out your last will and testament.
Fifty years ago this past spring, on Easter Sunday, Evelyn Waugh died of a heart attack in his home in Combe Florey, England.
Both during his lifetime and in the years following his death, Waugh’s literary reputation underwent several transfigurations. Though Waugh was regarded in mid-life as one of the greatest writers in the English language of his time, his later work was attacked by many critics as being out of step with the times. In the 1980s, with the BBC production of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s star once again began an ascent to place him rightfully among the literary geniuses of the twentieth century. Decline And Fall, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, his World War II trilogy, Sword Of Honour: these and most of Waugh’s other writings have not only stood the test of time, but are well worth a visit from readers unfamiliar with his work.
Of course, we’re intended to read from cover to cover many books — novels, histories, biographies, and more. It would make little sense to begin Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War on page 340 of its 860 pages. We might open and commence reading Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, on page 241, but we’d miss some of the main points of this fine biography.
In My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc., 2012, 378 pages, $23.95), 84 writers tout their favorite bookshops. The stores beloved by these writers range from Manhattan’s enormous Strand Book Store to our own City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, reviewed here by novelist and poet Ron Rash.
One of the great joys of reading occurs when we bump into a book by an author we’ve never heard of, idly turn the pages, and then find ourselves becoming entranced by the words, the story, and the characters. We take the book home from the library or bookstore, read it as if under a spell, and leave the last word of the last sentence feeling ourselves changed by the encounter, as if we have added some new component to our personality.
Nearly 20 years ago, while browsing the shelves of the Haywood Country Public Library, I came across a collection of videos about Richard Sharpe, a British soldier fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. My sons and I were already fans of Sean Bean, who plays the lead in this remarkable BBC television series of 16 films, each of them 100 minutes long. I knew the films were based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell, and occasionally glanced at one of the books but never read Cornwell.