I’ve written in thIs space quite often about the books that surround me here in the shed. There are many others in the house. Today, I find myself searching for some I know I have but unsure where to find them, for I am not one of those who keeps my books on library shelves, stacked by author in alphabetical order. Goodness, that would be too convenient.
I have a former mentor who has books shelved floor to ceiling throughout this home and each volume is neatly categorized. Easy to find. Easy to rediscover.
That’s not me. So, here I am on my hands and knees checking the lowest shelf in the shed for a certain book. It isn’t on the top shelf, or the middle; it isn’t on the floor near the chair in the corner. It’s not on the desk. And apparently not here at floor level where I search. Must be in the house? On the shelves on the lower floor? In the teetering stack by the bed?
I should have alphabetized things.
I’m working on a project that involves a number of themes and I need to do a bit of literary research to see how some of my favorite books and their authors have done what I’m, at this point, rather inelegantly trying to do. I won’t get into all the writerly stuff on this; it’s too inside-baseball, too boring, really. But what I can write here is what it’s like to rediscover old favorites. To re-read them. To shine a new light on them. It Is an amazing process. Many times it is like reading them for the very first time but with new insight.
Four books, including the the one I’m still searching for, are part of this rediscovery.
Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer is the authors’s final true book. It was published after his death, but was essentially complete. He wrote it just before his health rapidly fell apart, pushing him toward suicide. It’s the personal account of his last visit to Spain and a re-look at bullfighters and matadors and the art of the kill. But it’s also a wonderful travelogue of an incredible country at an incredible time, and a close look at Hemingway just before he was gone. It is not on the top of the stack of Hemingway greats, but it is a soulful, important book, that originally was to be a long piece for Life magazine. Editors asked for 10,000 words. Hemingway gave them 120,000. It was edited. Thirty-thousand eventually ended up in the magazine in three installments. The book is a posthumously edited version of some 75,000 words.
I find The Dangerous Summer on the middle shelf in the shed between a copy of Camus’ The Stranger and a volume of poems by Mary Oliver.
The Dharma Bums is my favorite Kerouac book. That one is easy. It sits on a short stack on my desk in the shed. Below is Knausgaard’s final book in the My Struggle series and above is The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, which seems to always be nearby.
Here’s one I’m pretty certain you haven’t heard of before. Cabin Porn is an absolute gem. It’s a thick volume of tremendous photos and the stories behind dozen of out-of-the-way places. Unusual places of simplicity and invention. Cabins built into hillsides, in trees, on islands. These are not pretentious getaways for the rich, but imaginative creations, may times, made from meager means, and, as the books says, “inspirations for your quiet place somewhere.”
I find it on the shelf left of the desk, the spine facing out, next to a biography of Dylan Thomas.
The fourth book remains missing.
One more time through the shed’s shelves, I look again on the desk. Nothing. Got to be in the house. I head for the lower level and eye the tall book shelf near the window. Nope. The four-shelf bookcase near the bedroom holds maybe 100 books. I examine the case one shelf at a time, running my finger along spines. Nothing. Nope. Nada.
Where could it be, this book that I haven’t read in several years? Did I give it away? I’ve done that a few times, gathered volumes to offer to a local charity. But I wouldn’t give that one away, would I? That wonderful book?
Many years ago, a writing mentor told me as I studied prose: “If you want to write, you will never read a book the same way again.” He was right. I no longer read for pleasure, at least not the kind of pleasure I remember. It’s different; the pleasure of keenly observing how the best accomplish the art of the story. How the writer shapes his work. The book I’m looking for is a study in brilliance.
Wait. Here it is. Middle shelf next to the antique radio, below a copy of a collection of Tobias Woolf’s short stories, on its side, spine out. The English Major by Jim Harrison is a road trip story of a sixty-something man bent on righting the wrongs he’s faced, a book described as “a map of a man’s journey in, and out, of himself.” When he was alive, Harrison was the modern literary world’s closest thing to Hemingway. Not in style. But in vigor, masculinity, verve. A man of the wilderness; a culinary expert, dog lover, with the heart of a poet. Big, bold, uncompromising. A lust for life. A drinker. A glutton, in the good sense of the word and by his own description. A Buddhist. An absolute master.
I take the book to the living room and sit in the leather chair. Holding it in my lap, I think: What a tremendous read. And my plan: I am going to read The English Major again, and I am going to study it, and read particularly wondrous passages slowly and with purpose, and I will laugh and cry and wince as Harrison’s story unfolds, and discover, yet again, great new pleasures in every…single…word.