Favorite passages from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Strap yourself in — I don’t think anyone has done a better, more complete or beautiful job describing apricots: “upholstered in a fine velvet.” Yes.

They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums.

Strikingly familiar:

For a long time, when I mentioned something eventful in my own life, she would change the subject in the very opening words of her reply.

On travel:

And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t as deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

Beautiful, symbiotic relationship:

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.

On parents:

When you say “mother” or “father” you describe three different phenomena. There is the giant who made you and loomed over your early years; there is whatever more human-scale version might have been possible to perceive later and maybe even befriend; and there is the internalized version of the parent with whom you struggle — to appease, to escape, to be yourself, to understand and be understood by — and they make up a chaotic and contradictory trinity.

On books:

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

On decay and rebirth:

Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.

On the interconnectedness of things:

You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.

Imaginal cells:

A mature insect, including a moth or butterfly, is called an “imago”; the plural is “imagines,” and the cells that bring about that maturity in moths and butterflies and other flyers are called “imaginal cells.”

Strangers to our own existence:

The contemporary poet Robert Hass once wrote of this most solitary of poets (Rilke), this man who was always putting distance between himself and intimacy, “There are pleasures, forms of nourishment perhaps that most people know and he did not. What he knew about was the place that the need for that nourishment came from. And he knew how immensely difficult it was for us to inhabit that place, to be anything other than strangers to our own existence.”

How stories sustain and expand us:

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

Caught by Lisa Moore

caughtCaught was short listed for the 2013 Giller Prize. It’s the story of a young Newfoundlander, David Slaney, who escapes from prison on the eve of his birthday to attempt a do-over of the crime that got him “caught” (incarcerated) in the first place: smuggling massive amounts of pot into Canada by boat.

I loved this book, not so much for the plot, but for Slaney as a character who is complex, thoughtful, and reflective. Patterson, the cop who hunts him, is equally well rendered — vivid portraits of twin protagonists, one “good,” one “bad” on opposite sides of the law.

Moore’s language is clipped yet lyrical, dense yet economical. The cadence of the prose is like an incantation, casting a spell that evokes the details of the working poor in Canada in the 70s, the strippers, truckers, barkeeps, veterans, students, huge families, and the mentally ill trying to live their lives. I read the book twice, back to back, and I’d read it again.

–October, November 2013

For want of a good method

I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method; I have
confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit, for want of art, order, memory, judgement. –Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

Nazi book burning — the destruction of memory

With the emblematic book-burning in a square on Unter den Linden, opposite the University of Berlin, on the evening of io May, 1933, books became a specific target of the Nazis. Less than five months after Hitler became chancellor, the new propaganda minister of the Reich, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, declared that the public burning of books by authors such as Heinrich Mann,
Stefan Zweig, Freud, Zola, Proust, Gide, Helen Keller and H.G. Wells allowed “the soul of the German people again to express itself. These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.””‘ The new era proscribed the sale or circulation of thousands of books, in either shops or libraries, as well as the publishing of new ones. Volumes commonly kept on
sitting-room shelves because they were prestigious or entertaining became suddenly dangerous. Private holdings of the indexed books were prohibited; many books were confiscated and destroyed. Hundreds of Jewish libraries throughout Europe were burnt down, both personal collections and public treasure-houses.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The library as resistance

Seven months after these directives were given, in September 1943, the Nazis set up a “family camp” as an extension of the Auschwitz precinct, in the birch forest of Birkenau, which included a separate block, “number 31,” built especially for children. It was designed to serve as proof to the world that Jews deported to the east were not being killed. In fact, they were allowed to live six months before being sent on to the same fate as the other deported victims. Eventually, having served its purpose as propaganda, the “family camp” was permanently closed.”‘While it lasted, Block 31 housed up to five hundred children together with several prisoners appointed
“counsellors,” and in spite of the severe surveillance it possessed, against all expectations, a clandestine children’s library. The library was minuscule; it consisted of eight books, which included H.G. Wells’s A Short History of the World, a Russian school textbook and an analytical geometry text. Once or twice an inmate from another camp managed to smuggle in a new book, so that the
number of holdings rose to nine or ten. At the end of each day, the books, together with other valuables such as medicines and bits of food, would be entrusted to one of the older girls, whose responsibility it was to hide them in a different place every night.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The alphabet came first

Tradition tells us that words, not light, came first out of the primordial darkness. According to a Talmudic legend, when God sat down to create the world, the twenty two letters of the alphabet descended from his terrible and august crown and begged him to effect his creation
through them. God consented. He allowed the alphabet to give birth to the heavens and the earth in darkness, and then to bring forth the first ray of light from the earth’s core, so that it might pierce the Holy Land and illuminate the entire universe.”‘

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

Borges goes blind while reading

Borges had inherited from his father the disease that gradually, implacably weakened his sight, and the doctor had forbidden him to read in dim light. One day, on a train journey, he became so engrossed by a detective novel that he carried on reading, page after page, in the fading dusk. Shortly before his destination, the train entered a tunnel. When it emerged, Borges could no longer see anything except a coloured haze, the “darkness visible” that Milton thought was hell. In that darkness Borges lived for the rest of his life, remembering or imagining stories, rebuilding in his mind the National Library of Buenos Aires or his own restricted library at home. In the light of the first half of his life, he wrote and read silently; in the gloom of the second, he dictated and had others read to him.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel