Each year I compile a “best of” books list for two newspapers, The Providence Journal and The Day of New London, Conn. These lists sometimes differ (if I can give a shout-out to a local author for either publication, I do), but they share the same failing: limited to 2017 releases, they don’t begin to plumb the depths of the year’s reading.
I read 54 books last year, 13 more than last year and a new personal record. Part of this was due to a June reading binge that coincided with an embarrassment of riches from my book review pile and the end of the spring semester. My audiobook habit also contributed to this total, at 11 titles. Of the 54 books read, 23 were novels; 10 were biographies; and 13 were memoirs or diaries. More than half of the books, or 32, were written by women.
Scanning the list, I can see how one book leads to another, or one interest expands outward, enveloping other authors and genres. My interest in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson continued, bolstered by a summer trip to Concord, Mass. I reviewed Kevin Dann’s Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, but it was Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s 1986 tome, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, that resonated. Richardson exhaustively traces Thoreau’s intellectual interests and pursuits and manages to bring him to life; at the end, when HDT utters his cryptic last words (“Moose. Indian”), I nearly cried.
At the Walden Pond bookstore, I found Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, another exemplary intellectual biography that held in me in thrall in August after our visit to Emerson’s house. This time, however, the ending felt muted, despite the masterful job Richardson does of unweaving both Emerson’s state of mind and writing influences. A bonus: finding an errata tucked into the book that had been initialed in Richardson’s own hand.
Thoreau and Emerson were never far from my mind as I “discovered” another 20th-century nature writer. Much like Edwin Way Teale, Donald Culross Peattie was a best-selling author in his own time and has since faded from view. I found reprints of The Road of a Naturalist and An Almanac for Moderns at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., which consistently shelves an eclectic selection of fiction and nonfiction. If Teale is ultimately a journalist of nature, Peattie is a poet, painting evocative pictures of terrain ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina (where his mother, also a writer, retreated to a cabin) to the American West. Here’s Peattie describing the all-too-brief blooming of desert flowers, like blue gilias and Mojave aster:
We used to wonder, at the ranch, how far this flood of rare flowering washed across the desert floor. You couldn’t tell; you only knew it went on to the rim of the horizon. And you knew it was brief. It must be loved while you had it, like the song of the thrush in the southern states. Something that each morning you dread to find gone at last, whelmed by the advance of summer heat. (p. 14)
Peattie is writing about so much more than desert life cycles. “It must be loved while you had it” could be a philosophy of life. I had to look up whelmed, which, derived from the Middle English, means “to turn upside down” or “cover or engulf completely,” clearly the origin of our contemporary and, as I now realize, redundant overwhelmed.
The best writers send me to my dictionary. They prompt me to keep a pencil or pen in hand so I can annotate favorite passages. Emerson and Thoreau, of course, were both insatiable and wide-ranging readers; if you tour Emerson’s house, you can see his floor-to-ceiling bookcase, in fact a series of stacked bureau drawers he would pull out and take with him on lecture tours. Richardson notes that it’s not the volume of reading that is important, but “the active filtration and the tight focus of constant intention which convert that reading into real life experience and then into adequate expression,” what he calls “the exclusive properties of the great writer.”
This year also brought continued focus on Anais Nin, whose diary created a sensation when it was finally published in seven volumes beginning in 1966. I finished vols. three and four this year, and then read Deirdre Bair’s Anais Nin: A Biography, which fills in the gaps created by Nin’s elaborate evasions. You can read Nin many ways – and she has been condemned as a liar, a “minor writer,” or what Bair calls “a major minor writer.” She has been criticized for posing as an independent artist while her banker husband supported her (and her many lovers and hangers-on). You could condemn her for both bigamy (she was married to two men, on the East and West coasts, and kept them each in the dark for years) and incest (with her father, the musician and ne’er-do-well Joaquin Nin). She had multiple abortions, slept with two of her analysts, and suffered the miserable death of the promiscuous, dying of cervical cancer at age 73.
The bottom line, for me, is that she was a writer and artist who fought to curate her own life, in the face of overwhelming – or should we just say whelming? – financial, cultural, and patriarchal odds. Her diary is not the spontaneous outpourings of a romantic, as cliché would have it, but an extensively rewritten document that has been polished, sharpened, and cut to illuminate hard diamonds of truth. In this she can be likened to that most unlikely of comrades, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually spent two years indexing his own journals to make it easier to mine them for lecture and essay ideas.
Nin’s diaries were both her well spring and her albatross. She carried them across continents, from Paris to New York to Los Angeles, and secreted them in bank vaults or hidden compartments in her own closets. She hid them from some and shared them with others; Henry Miller borrowed liberally from her work in writing Tropic of Cancer. She relentlessly hawked them to publishers and agents, behavior that even her biographer condemned but which eventually paid off when she found a sympathetic agent, Gunther Stuhlmann, who edited and sold the diaries to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
If Nin had been a man, of course, her relentless pursuit of publication would have been lauded, not criticized. Her sexual habits would be the stuff of legend, not condemnation, and even her bigamy would be hailed as some sign of literary genius. We cannot separate her work’s reception from her gender, particularly as her life as a woman is such a predominant theme in the diaries (and in her fiction).
If there is any theme to this year’s reading, it is those writers and artists brave enough to create their own lives and talented enough to make them into art. In reading biographies of Andrew Wyeth, Tennessee Williams, and Daphne du Maurier, and memoirs by Joyce Carol Oates and Sandra Cisneros, I find this recurring struggle. From what well does inspiration come? How can the artist serve the dual masters of an intellectual life and a personal, human one? Who decides whether the artist succeeds or fails?
As a book critic, I make cold assessments of people’s work. As a writer, I pursue the seemingly impossible task of both living and reflecting, of trying to curate a life that is both creative and moral. It is a life that is firmly rooted in the written word. You cannot be a writer without being a reader, and the best books will lead you to the habits of great writers. So in 2017 I have considered the inspiration of the natural world; the possibility within journals; the necessity of never giving up.