Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

High Tide in Tucson

[gary daily col. 3 Feb. 10, 2002]

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." -- Mark Twain

Why is it more people don’t read collections of essays?

I’m asking this question because one of the books chosen for the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” project is a collection of essays, Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now Or Never. The “If All” selection committee was aware that essays are not exactly what the reading, let alone the non-reading public, is known to be panting for.

But why this reluctance to read these polished gems of the writer’s craft? Here’s one take on the question.

I’m guessing that the term essay in the title of a book is the big put off. In many minds essay dredges up memories that make one cringe. I still remember a sixth grade science teacher assigning me this Herculean labor: “Daily,” he announced “your research writing assignment for this grading period is to write a 1000 word essay on molybdenum.” I still can’t pronounce the word. I wasn’t concerned with what molybdenum was. It might have been animal, vegetable, mineral or some atom bomb test fallout mutation of all three. All I heard from that lab coat with the voice of Charles Laughton was: “1000 words” and “essay.”

“Write an essay on . . .”Four haunting words. And thus we were painfully introduced to the art of the essay.

Of course, the products of those assignments were as far from “art” as Enron’s bottom line was from the truth. Writing these essays followed a pattern. There was a period of studied and arid grimness, then a chunk of words extruded from who knows quite what, and finally, a moment’s elation followed by an even longer sigh of depressed recognition at what had been wrought, produced, gerrymandered, or scrap-booked into, yes, finally, something edging close to 1000 words.

It was water torture self-inflicted through the instruments of paper and ink, processor and printer. “Write an essay on . . .” followed us all through high school—and for some, into the dim corners of otherwise bright college years. Try to remember the subject of those many essays. You will be thankful for the psychic mechanism that banishes such details from memory.

Barbara Kingsolver is best known for her fiction. Her last two novels, The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer have been best sellers. But Kingsolver is also an essayist of wit, power and commitment. So you won’t find anything on molybdenum in High Tide in Tucson. I didn’t miss it. But if Kingsolver should ever choose to examine the subject, in 1,000 or 10,000 words, odds are it would be fascinating, funny and insightful. Her essays may make you laugh, but more often lead you to smile in self-recognition. They always make you think.

Read her essay on child rearing, “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast.” It starts with her daughter, Camille, who appears to be in a full-tilt Terrible Twos stage of rebellion. Ignoring mom’s entreaties to be careful, the daughter defiantly sends her orange juice rattling to the floor. Kingsolver calls it another “breakfast war story.” Mother-essayist Kingsolver looks for solace and support from a friend. She doesn’t get it. Then, reflection replaces frustration. The essay expands into considering the difference between “independent” and “ornery” in children, takes a suspicious look at the “Terrible Twos” concept, and makes a pointed trip through the last fifty years of childrearing practice. It all serves to support the deserved pat on the back she gives herself, and by extension many a parent, when she observes: “My child was becoming all I’d ever wanted.”

It’s a bravura performance. From the platform of an incidental personal experience to which all can relate, Kingsolver’s essay magically shifts our thoughts into the broad realm of thinking deeply about children, their behavior, parenting and the means and ends problems of child discipline. I’m sending a copy to all of my friends with young children.

And I also feel the need to send a word out to those dedicated and underpaid teachers who quite properly find themselves regularly announcing to great sighs and barely audible hisses, “Write an essay on . . . .”

Keep up this good hard work. You are teaching many a student a lesson in humility and appreciation. It’s a lesson which registers with inescapable clarity when you are reading the essays in High Tide in Tucson and thinking back on efforts to make words on molybdenum sing, or at least halfway intelligible.


Let’s Talk About It Book Discussions
The Vigo County Public Library has organized a series of discussions on the three books chosen for the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” community program. These discusions are free and open to the public. They will be held at the YWCA, 7 p.m. on the following dates:

Tue. Feb. 19 -- High Tide in Tucson discussion led by Gary Daily
Tue. Mar. 5 -- Plainsong discussion led by Patrick Harkins
Wed. Mar. 27-- Snow Falling on Cedars discussion led by Scott Clark


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