Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Helen Nearing

Return to the Newberry Library

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If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.

In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?

Quote of the Day

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No job is overwhelming if you have a general idea of what you are about, break the project into manageable units, put through these units one at a time and have the thrill of fitting them into the over-all pattern.

Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2011 at 8:07 am

“Come home from land, with stone in hand”

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This week I’m reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the classic handbook of rural living that inspired the back to the land movement. While I don’t intend to relocate to a farm anytime soon, it’s hard not to be inspired by the Nearings’ combination of pluck, idealism, and practicality, which all but cry out to be applied to one’s own life. One of the book’s most appealing sections, for instance, details the building of a stone house, made mostly of stones that the Nearings gradually collected from their own fields, from walks in the woods, and from the roadside, keeping an eye out at all times for “well-shaped rocks.” By so doing, they were simply following the advice of Thomas Tusser, the Tudor poet and author of Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, who wrote:

Where stones be too manie, annoieng thy land,
Make servant come home with a stone in his hand.
By daily so dooing, have plentie yee shall,
Both handsome for paving and good for a wall.

Reading these words, it struck me that this isn’t so different from what a writer does. Writers are gleaners, picking up material wherever they find it, often in the course of doing something else. I’ve spoken before of Lawrence Block’s image of the novelist as a songbird, weaving bits of ribbon and cloth into its nest “for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” In a way, the Nearings’ example is even better, because it encompasses both discipline and serendipity: a writer often finds well-shaped rocks by chance, but only if he was looking for them in the first place. And the habit of looking for material at all times, even in casual reading or conversation, is one of the most important skills that a writer can develop.

Another necessary habit, of course, is saving and remembering what one finds. When the Nearings were building their house, they put up a series of signs on the building site, with labels like “Corner,” “Floor,” and “Chimney,” where they’d set appropriate stones as they found them. Similarly, a writer needs at least a permanent text file or notebook page for any project he might be working on at the time, where he can jot down new ideas or bits of material as they arise. For what I hope will my third novel after The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, for example, I’ve reserved a page in my journal for a better part of a year now, writing down fragmentary thoughts whenever they come to mind. The ideas aren’t in any order; it’s just a heap of stones. But whenever I go back and check it, I’m often surprised by what I find there.

And what about ideas that don’t fit into your current project? These stones deserve to be saved, too. When I was in college, I kept a commonplace book of quotes and ideas, and although I’ve since fallen out of the habit, I still try to keep notes as best I can. (This blog, especially its section on Quotes of the Day, has come to serve much of the same purpose.) And you never know what will later come in handy. A stone that doesn’t seem useful now may end up, to borrow one of the subtlest images in the Bible, as the keystone for a project you haven’t even imagined. The trick is to always keep your eyes open, in libraries and in life. As the Nearings write: “Stone gathering became a real preoccupation on our walks or drives, and it was a rare day when we did not come back ‘with stone in hand.” And that should be a writer’s goal as well.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2011 at 9:44 am

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