December 26, 2011
A YEAR’S HARVEST OF BOOKS
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – At the end of each year it’s traditional – at least in linearly oriented cultures like ours – to look back and assess what we’ve managed to accomplish during the twelve preceding months. I have a feeling that as we age, most of us find that assessment increasingly embarrassing. As physical abilities fade, retreat, retrenchment, and recovery become more dominant features of our lives. For my own part, I’ve finally accepted that, whatever the reason, I’ll to the end of my life have work undone ahead of me. Delighted though I may be finally to have gotten the back porch ceiling up and done, the attic insulation and front porch railings loom yet before me. So I’m instead looking at the books I’ve read or reread this year that have been particularly powerful.
I tend to favor nonfiction (as much as it’s possible for any story to be). Almost all of them involve great adventures: ambitious undertakings with, at their outset, unknowable results. It may be a reflection of my generation’s mindset that I notice all of them involve almost exclusively men. If, for example, there were women on Magellan’s circumnavigation or on Marlow’s tinpot steamer thrashing up the Congo River, they haven’t been recorded or remembered.
Looking now, as I write, at the stack of five books beside me, I’m struck most of all at the marvelous things our species can accomplish in concert, as well as the crippling prejudices, jealousies, and power struggles that seem to infect our grandest projects.
First is Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World – Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. Magellan, like Columbus, believed that westward exploration of the Atlantic would yield a passage untroubled by hostile nations to the rich Spice Islands of the East Indies . He was right, but died in the effort, which called for a lot of desperate improvisation. The maneuvering and intrigue required for the small fleet even to leave harbor, let alone the desertions, mutinies, and executions that beset much of the trip, render it almost a miracle that the tattered, leaking [it] Victoria, [it] alone of the five vessels that started out, managed to return, three years later, with 18 skeletal survivors and enough cloves in her hold to pay for the entire expedition.
Second (a reread) is In the Lena Delta, by George W. Melville, Chief Engineer of the ill-fated Jeannette, which set out in 1879 to reach the North Pole via the supposed open sea north of the Bering Straits. The ship was crushed in the ice pack. As it sank, the crew set out in three ships’ boats in an attempt to reach the coast of Siberia. One boat was overwhelmed by a following sea as the horrified crews of the other two watched helplessly, and the remaining two became separated; neither knew if the other had landed safely. Melville spent the next year roaming the desolate delta of the Lena River searching for his captain and the crew of the other boat. He lived with native Yakuts in often icy underground squalor, visited a prison ship full of supposed enemies of the Czar, and advised Siberian exiles how best to trek to freedom. His sense of humor never deserted him, as when he described the geese the Yakuts killed during the molt and hung up for later eating. When they were thawed, he observed, they came back to life with hundreds of healthy maggots, which became part of the repast. Published in 1884 by Houghton Mifflin, the book has been reprinted. Melville did find the other crew, by the way – frozen to death.
Next is David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas, the story of the creation of the Panama Canal. Like Magellan’s voyage, it was a stupendous undertaking, which broke the French company that first attempted to build it, and next involved some sub rosa maneuvering by President Roosevelt and a freebooting representative of the French company. (The President stated later that he had exercised powers not given him by law; but, on the other hand, the law did not forbid him to use them.) The high-level intrigues finally resulted in a Little America (racial segregation and all) constructed on the isthmus to prosecute the ultimately successful completion of the canal. Again, like Magellan’s enterprise, it was infused with jealousies, falsehoods, and government bungling, yet finally changed the world in which it occurred. For me, it has three lessons: first, that the French engineers and entrepreneurs, imagining they were again building the Suez Canal, resembled military leaders still fighting the last war; second, both the early failures and much of the wrangling in Congress resulted from the power of preconceived notions to cripple men’s ability to perceive reality; third, that we too often ignore the voices of prophets, like the scientists who were pooh-poohed for claiming that mosquitoes transmit malaria and yellow fever.
Fourth, The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The book was out of the library when I wanted it, so I borrowed the CD and spent the next two weeks driving around Vermont with tears running down my face. Written by Enzo, an elderly, dying, but deeply insightful dog who belongs to Denny, a race car driver who’s unbeatable in the rain, it deals with techniques for regaining control of a car that’s beyond its limits – “Where your eyes go, your car goes.” – with trenchant reference to life off the race track. At the critical point in the story, just as Denny is about to make a terrible and uncharacteristic mistake, Enzo grabs the papers he’s started to sign and pees on them. It’s one of those stories that stay with you long after you’ve heard them.
Last is the Viking Press Portable Joseph Conrad. I’ve had the book since 1957, and the binding is pretty well shot. I took it on last summer’s canoe trip for old time’s sake – “Heart of Darkness,” “Youth,” “Typhoon” and others – and was blown away as always by Conrad’s writing. His native language was Polish; yet he wrote so beautifully in English: the cadence so nearly perfect, the male sensibility so clearly limned, that I read it often, and recommend it to every writer, no matter his age, to demonstrate what music can sound like when played by a master.