I answered a few questions for Oregon Humanities recently. While the inevitable spate of year-end "Best of" lists from the literary world get me dyspeptic, I can understand the urge to mark the calendar's closing with recommendations and anecdotes. For our purposes here, let this little Q&A stand.
What book did you read last year that you've recommended other readers read right away?
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle — Published last year by Seattle’s incredible indie wellspring Wave Books, Madness, Rack, and Honey is by far one of the most impressive, inspiring books I’ve read this year, or perhaps ever. Collecting fourteen gloriously idiosyncratic essays by Ruefle, an accomplished poet and teacher, this book is never theoretical or academic. Ruefle’s mind is thoroughly alive to the vivid pleasures and discoveries of reading, and her means of communicating her enthusiasms are ingenious. I’d call Madness, Rack, and Honey indispensable for anyone who cares for the art and experience of literature, and anyone who wishes for a broader, more constant conversation about it.
Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, Nicholas Roe’s new biography John Keats, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness.
For my workspace I’ve refurbished a tool shed in my backyard. It’s a kind of micro Cape Cod with rough, yellow-painted cedar sides and moss-covered, tarpaper roofing. There’s a small colony of sparrows in the eaves and, seasonally, bees in some exterior chinks — both of which lend the place a healthy atmosphere of industry. Inside, it’s all file boxes, stacks of paper, and bookshelves overstuffed with around 400 volumes, nearly half of which (to echo Thoreau) I wrote myself. There’s an L-shaped IKEA desk, a green-keyed Royal HH typewriter, circa 1960 (a boon to my process), and, on index cards tacked or taped up everywhere, hand-copied quotations meant to goad and inspire. A favorite of late comes from John Berger’s book Here Is Where We Meet:
“You put something down and you don’t know immediately what it is. It has always been like that. ... All you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re telling the truth, you can’t afford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer.”