August 29, 2011

READING: Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry

I went to Dallas for my sister's wedding, and while I was there, I stopped at Half Price Books. I shipped most of my acquisitions and I'm still awaiting their arrival, so I'll post about them later. I wanted to read Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen in Texas, so I carried it with me and finished it on the plane. It was the right choice.

Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove, sits in a Dairy Queen in his hometown of Archer City reading the Walter Benjamin essay "The Storyteller," and begins reflecting on his sixty-plus years as a Texan. He writes about the effect of wide-open skies on the psyche, the spartan and silent nature of cowboys, his memories of favorite drugstore paperbacks, his finds in dearly-departed New York City bookstores. He tells stories about his grandparents, about a local dairy farmer who milks his cows before committing suicide (why?), about riding half the day to pick up the mail as a kid. He imagines how those stories might relate to "The Storyteller." How does a small town in desolate West Texas compare to, and prepare someone for, the ideas of Walter Benjamin? As a reading-obsessed Texas native, it's question I'm familiar with.

McMurtry has spent his reading life imagining and trying to understand Europe, and his writing life coming to terms with the fact that the American West doesn't have the historical depth to produce anything on par with the best Europe has to offer. A voracious reader from a young age, McMurty describes how, after a quadruple bypass surgery, he lost the will and desire to read, how he's never fully recovered it. For a while, the only books he could pick up were "the White Nile of Proust" and "the Blue Nile of Virginia Woolf." You can feel the weight of his loss.

Next time I'm in Texas, I'm going to spend a few days in Archer City: McMurtry helped turn it into a town full of books. He's been buying up casualty stock from dying urban bookstores and libraries in an attempt to keep the thrill of the find alive. There's so much, he can't even come close to sorting it all. It sounds like a book hunter's paradise...

Books it made me want to read:
Grasslands by Richard Manning
Sky Determines by Ross Calvin
Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan

August 25, 2011


Last year, on a field trip to the Northern Catskills town of Hobart, also known as Hobart Book Village, Darbie and I discovered Bibliobarn, which, as the name implies, is a giant barn full of books. Darbie even posted about it.

Last week, we passed through Margaretville on a day of wandering, and I stopped at Bibliobarn Too, the smaller, though no less charming, sister store to Bibliobarn.

Here's what I got:

Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay
Part of the Penguin Lives series, which I've been interested in investigating. I've also been looking for a Mozart book.

Freud: A Life for Our Time by Peter Gay
Reading the flap on the slight Mozart biography drew my interest to Peter Gay, whose life seems to have been spent mostly thinking about Freud. And the Enlightenment. This book is by no means slight.

Here Am I -- Where Are You? by Konrad Lorenz
Following a lead from Wildwood, I looked for King Solomon's Ring, but found this book instead. Lorenz, a controversial German naturalist, spent years living among and learning how to communicate with greylag geese, and this book is the result.

Parts Unknown -- A Naturalist's Journey in Search of Birds and Wild Places by Tim Gallagher
Itself an unknown. It was near the Lorenz book on the shelf, and starts with Gallagher explaining how, as a kid, he developed a fascination with the regions of old maps designated "parts unknown." Auspicious.

Expression in Singing -- A Practical Study of Means and Ends by H.S. Kirkland
The front of this book is printed with what is either a summary or a crazy screed (or both) detailing how "the author shows that a student of singing must learn to think before he can understand the thoughts of others; that he must have definite ideas before he can express ideas definitely; and that he must understand the cause of emotion before he can express the concepts of emotion." I've been looking for something to help me sing like Tom Waits. Or Morrissey.

The Hudson River 1850-1918 -- A Photographic Portrait by Jeffrey Simpson
I want to follow the Hudson from Lake Tear of the Clouds to the harbor in Manhattan. I want to know what everything looked like here in Kingston, in the Hudson River valley in general, back in the time of the ice barons. I started flipping through this book waiting for Darbie, and it followed me home.

August 24, 2011

READING: Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin

A sudden decision to write a series of songs about the concept of wilderness led me to pick up this book that's been lingering unread on my bedside table for months.

It's a series of essays, each of which deals in some way with trees. It's captivating, and you can really imagine what it's like to wander deep in ancient forests and to feel their dark and arcane magic. It's also full of interesting anecdotes, histories, and insights into the diverse and particular varieties and cultures of the woods.

It gets into the difference between ash and willow, between coppicing and pollarding, between root and burl. Deakin attends an ancient ritual, enacted every year, whereby the British woodland poor reassert their right to pollards cut from manorial forests, chanting "Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely!" He describes the contrast between the shady world of burl dealing, where shotgun-toting schemers soak rare walnut deformities in water to increase their weight before selling, and the sterile burl libraries where the slivers are kept, barcoded and serialized, before they are applied by hand to the interiors of Jaguar XJ6s. He helps artist David Nash chase one of his creations, a giant wooden boulder, as it wanders up and down a tidal estuary. He tracks down wild Ur-apples in Kazakhstan, and explains how they gave birth to all modern cultivars. He watches birds, catches moths, and follows green roads, holloways, drovers roads, and ridgeways, all of which existed long before any kind of plan or pavement.

This book made me want to do a lot of walking around, to watch trees patiently -- for years even -- as they grow and change, and to learn lost arts, like laying a hedge or building a bender. I finished it feeling profoundly sad: I know I'm going to miss Roger Deakin.

Books it made me want to read:
King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Lorenz
A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy