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.

Friday, January 20, 2006

It's Not About Real E$tate

[gary daily col. 43 December 1, 2002]

"There are too many books I haven’t read, too many places I haven’t seen . . . "
-Irwin Shaw

In the Saguaro National Park west of Tucson, Arizona, there is a circle drive that meanders up and down the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. You can stop and take short hikes through the forests of stately saguaro. Many of these cactuses are giants, standing twenty-five to fifty feet high and weighing up to eight tons. Some existed a century before Arizona became a state. Their arm-like branches salute the sun that creeps above the eastern mountains each morning. And each night they wave a sweeping farewell as that orange star slips in glory behind a wall of mountains far to the west. This is a beautiful place, a beautifully quiet place-yet a place of excitement.

Those saguaros are set solidly in the world of Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson. Kingsolver lives nearby and writes often of the desert and its life forms. She also writes of the place in which she lives. In one of her remarkable essays, she describes a trip to the post office. While traveling only twelve miles she passes through and describes six distinct neighborhoods. The first is inhabited by “jack rabbits and saguaros, who imperiously tolerate my home.” The others distinguish themselves by architecture, language and what Kingsolver calls “their creation myths.”

When she returns from this short trip through this layered place on the edge of the desert, Kingsolver writes: “From here I begin my story. . . .”

And this brings to mind remarks of Kent Haruf during his recent appearance at the Vigo County Public Library. Mere real estate may be about “location, location, location,” but literature can sanctify place.

Haruf is the author of Plainsong. He's a writer of highly tuned sensibilities in regard to place. He sets his work on the plains of northeastern Colorado. Part of his artistry is in his understanding of the alchemy of how place works in people. When asked about this setting and settings for his future work, Haruf said it probably would remain in and around the small community of Holt, Colorado. He knows this place and the people who inhabit it. As he humorously put it, Holt is a place where you can personally know the town’s mayor, the town drunk, the town bully and the town idiot and they may all be the same person.

Modest about his powers as a writer, Haruf says he is “still becoming a writer.” One of the writers he admires is William Faulkner. Faulkner never had to leave his deeply imagined Yoknapatawpha County in order to survey human life in its dizzying array of forms and fruition. Holt, Colorado, a creation of imagination, craft, and plain hard work seems to be the place Haruf will reside as he works toward creating life on the pages of his future novels.

And then there is the island of San Pedro, marvelously described and meticulously placed in an envelope of time by David Guterson in his disturbing yet affirming novel, Snow Falling on Cedars. During the many discussions I’ve led on this book thoughts and questions about island life invariably arise. No one is ever ready to see geography as destiny, but most close readers feel that Guterson’s San Pedro Island, caught tensely between the sea and the mainland, fishing and farming, the past and the present, and most importantly, “White” and Japanese-American populations, was a place very different from our “island” on the Wabash River, yet somehow very recognizable.

Many of you have visited “place” in one or all of these three books. They were the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selections for 2002. I hope you availed yourself of the opportunity to read and vote for one of the three and joined in the discussions of these important books. If you did, I feel safe in saying you have had quite a journey. The “If All” committee thanks you for your participation. And you should thank and praise yourselves for having the curiosity to search out the places of life found in the pages of these works.

In 2003, “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” will return. Watch for the official announcement in January. Some things will be changed. However, the excitement of enlarging our lives through reading and sharing our thoughts on what we have read will remain the same. Through the inspiration and craft of a great writer, we hope to be led to significant places on the maps of our minds and spirit.


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