Posts Tagged ‘The Bibliophile Within, Without’

This summer has been fantastic so far, mostly because Boyfriend and I have been able to visit bookstores all over the place. When we went from Seattle to San Francisco, we plotted our stops based on proximity to certain bookstores. Being in all these wonderful places (and reading a recent list of some of the best bookstores in the nation) made me think I should make my own list. Because I really, really like books. And I really, really love being in a bookstore. Without thinking about it too much over the years, I’ve somehow come up with this whole philosophy on what makes a wonderful bookstore. There’s lots of subjectivity involved here: for instance, I do not enjoy The Strand in New York. Feeling packed in like a sardine among infinite stacks of books under grim fluorescent lights is not my idea of pleasant. No, a good bookstore in my opinion is a sort of lovely space between your home and books and mind, and another’s; there’s peace and recognition, excitement, shabby old books that break your heart, chatty and spacey owners who love their books like the sleepy dogs at their feet. Here are the ones I love most, and a few extra things.

Honorable Mentions

*Cellar Stories 111 Mathewson St., Providence, RI

Providence is a sorta darling town, or at least that’s my impression from driving through it every now and again. I like this place, though it does tend to be daunting when I’m either loaded down with new books on my way back South, or about to be loaded down with new books. But I’m drawn in nonetheless.

*Kramerbooks 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC

I’ve grown up with Kramer Books, and I still have a lot of love for this place. I’m no longer young and unemployed or working odd hours, and so going in there around six to look at books and have some wine is sort of terrifying for me. But it will always be wonderful to wander in here after midnight in September, have some pie, and wander off again with three or four new books.

*The Globe Corner Bookstore 90 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA

I love everything about this place. Browsing an entire bookshelf dedicated to Afghanistan? Finding my dearly loved Blue is the Colour of Heaven on the shelf? The Afghan Amulet? The Way of the World? If you like to look at dreamy, gorgeous cookbooks, or obscure books on the Middle East, Central Asia, Bolivia, Berlin, Cairo; really, anywhere in the world: this is the place. Expensive, but well-worth it, and the staff has always been super nice.

10. Powell’s Books 1005 W Burnside, Portland, OR

I can see the arguments for placing Powell’s higher on this list. And I admit, it’s something. Powell’s is just this enormous, sign-filled Goliath. I followed Blue Signs, and Gold Signs, and found entire shelves dedicated to Native American Literature, found one of the best science fiction stockings I’ve yet seen (though the former Book Alcove is always in my heart). The problem is just that it’s too big. It is overwhelming in a way I find cold. I like to know the people at a bookstore, to recognize them, to know these particular owners are passionate about Mid-Western cookbooks and bird-watching. Powell’s, on the other hand, takes up city blocks. It’s here for it’s fantastic, incredible selection that truly blew me away. It’s number ten though, because I need more than that.

9. East Village Books 99 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY

East Village has maybe 1/1000 of Powell’s selection, but what they have is pretty impeccable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in there and picked up a book I was utterly unfamiliar with, bought it, and fallen in love with it. Most recently I got all gooey over The Dud Avocado. But it happens all the time. Maybe I love it because it feels so intimate and low-key after I get dragged to The Strand. I’m sure there are cheaper bookstores with broader selections in New York, but this is the one I know best, and I’m glad of it.

8. Octavia Books 513 Octavia St., New Orleans, LA

One of our roommates in New Orleans complained to us about how no one in that city likes to read, which drove me crazy because that is so not true. People in New Orleans do everything overblown, and of course they do some things like drinking and porching more than others. But they also produce incredible literature. Note the italics: incredible. Not only has New Orleans and the rest of the South produced some of the finest writers in the United States, but New Orleans also happens to have some charming bookstores. There’s a lovely shop in the Quarter owned by a former lawyer who scours the country for books. It’s hideously expensive, but I still frequent it just to sort of breathe the air.  There’s some terrific used bookstores as well (I recommend McKeown’s); but my heart belongs to Octavia. The sunlight! The bakery next door! The fine Southern Literature section! The cookbooks! The history and political science books! Whoever selects the books for Octavia is doing an incredible job.

7. City Lights 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco CA

City Lights is airy and lovely just like San Francisco. What a wonderful, perfect city full of wonderful, perfect bookstores. And what wonderful, perfect books City Lights is filled with; and isn’t their poetry selection stunning, and yes, I was insanely filled with book-lust as I looked upon all of Rebecca Solnit’s essays lining the shelves, and yes the light and the sky were other-worldly. Well, la-di-da. Yeah, I’m maddeningly jealous of people who get to live near City Lights. Someone tell me about Oakland. That seems like my kind of town.

6. Normals 425 E. 31st, Baltimore, MD

A bookstore where one has to step over a dog to get to the cash register and everyone is moving slow and calm: Yes. The hours are peculiar and strict. The selection is odd and fascinating. The vinyl collection is sterling. I’ve gotten some of the most interesting books in my life from Normal’s. This little place in Baltimore is never crowded. Like Baltimore itself, it’s an overlooked gem. An afternoon at Normal’s is to browse through obscure (and I mean obscure) science fiction and fantasy, great fiction, history, an enormous record collection, and to watch the dog never move. I love that dog. I love this place. Normal’s is fantastic and over-looked, but as long as they’re getting by and doing well, that’s fine with me.



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Okay, to be upfront about this, The Dud Avocado is a title that presents a lot of opportunities for witticism, but I’m not into it. I think it’d be rather a dud (see?).

Now, for my next insight which has little to do with the actual story: every single review I’ve seen includes something along the lines of “…and I had never even heard of Elaine Dundy but I was just enchanted by this book and Elaine Dundy was such a rebel and this book is actually something of a cult classic and I love avocados blah blah blah”.

Well, I guess all of  that is somehow relevant to the whole The Dud Avocado experience. It’s disgusting, but I have to be honest. I had never fucking heard of Elaine Dundy, I have a sickening obsession with avocados, it was really fucking cold while I was on a weekend excursion to New York and ohmygod I was standing in my favorite used book store on the Lower East Side and I saw this thing and bought it even though it was hideously over-priced and I am now a converted Elaine Dundy lover and who the fuck cares if its been said: this is a fantastic, charming novel, and if it’s good enough for Groucho Marx it’s goddamn good enough for me.

Cos honestly The Dud Avocado is enchanting. I’m a kinda overly-serious girl sometimes (this book came between Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Black Jacobins). Serious as in, (this is embarrassing), when I am delighting in the fictional revels of someone being a drunken disaster and drinking fifteen types of wine and being unemployed and wandering around doing nothing in particular, I feel shitty. Like, I’m being a self-hating middle-class brat with abundant disdain for people who actually don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck and rather just wishing I could be unemployed and have nowhere particular to be. But I mean, don’t we all?

And that’s sort of it. Our disastrous, sweetly cheeky and occasionally-flummoxed protagonist  Sally Jay Gorce was kind of bolting away from all that middle-class, go-to-college-and-get-yourself-a-career-in-a-nice-office-and-nice-house and all that. There are some glimpses into the smothering society of the 1950s, and I suspect Gorce/Dundy would be sympathetic to a reader wary and wondering if their delight comes from their own comfortable-middle-class-upright-young-citizen-laughing-at-the-late-night-messy-disasters-of-others. Gorce catches herself judging the mishaps of others,  labeling and categorizing all those brilliant young male artists of post-war Paris and their dowdy, bureaucratic counterparts back home; then she turns around and is hardest on herself. She hangs back after her revelries around the Champs Élysées and worries she might end up a librarian isolated from the passions and feelings of those daring to fail. She’s quite aware of all the middle-class people running from the middle-class, and then you forget all about it because who cares, this is about being young and alive.

So basically Elaine Dundy created a fantastic narrative voice in this novel, and I need to check out everything else she did. 1958, and this woman is describing young, unsupervised gals running amok in strange cities and getting in all sorts of dilemnas and she didn’t need to hear about feminism to simply to do what she wished. I really was astounded more than once, more than ten times, that this book was penned in the 1950s. Are you kidding me? I apparently have gotten the wrong impression of the times. Or at least, maybe some people were living one way… but Elaine Dundy seems to have been up to all sorts of fancy, unpredictable stuff.

And that’s about as interesting as the book. This woman! This woman came out of the 1950s scene, and all the years portraying that decade as a long exercise in dullness and oppressive sexism suddenly might not be quite as bleak as imagined. She wrote a book about Elvis… and his mom!! Her autobiography is entitled Life Itself! and she wrote some other novels after The Dud Avocado, which I now have to read. I’m not going to attempt to describe her or her work anymore though, because it’s so witty and joyful that I couldn’t do it justice, and I want to force everyone to go read her. Elaine Dundy! Gosh, why didn’t they give us this to read in English Lit, rather than Updike-Roth-Conrad-Heller-Hemingway blah blah blah? She was just as insightful, and far better able to have a laugh about it all.

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Iris Murdoch.

I was flipping through the NYT Book Review last week, being grossed out by all the fawning over the neuroses of white male writers. Updike, DeLillo, Roth, Eggers, Franzen, Chabon. Really? We’re still talking about these guys? What have these dudes contributed besides overly self-absorbed attempts to justify their selfishness and bizarre issues with life, women, responsibility, not being a general jackass… (okay, Roth, I still kind of like you. Still!).

Enough of them.

I like to think that the fierce Iris Murdoch was born at the gentle-sounding address 59 Blessington Street in Ireland. That’s absolutely Iris. The under-appreciated genius of 20th century literature; the woman whose most fascinating characters are insane and charismatic men; the post-war British writer in love with talking about England who was born an Irishwoman; the adamantly Plato-loving philosopher with ever-vague and shifting political and religious beliefs; of course all that feisty-ness and all that passion and driven would start life on a street called Blessington. That’s Iris herself, all intensity and contradictions with the idea always lingering in the background that there is a way to goodness if we pay enough attention.

Iris Murdoch wrote twenty-six novels beginning in the 1950s up to the end of the 20th century. They’re not all brilliant, but even the mediocre are worth attention. The frustrating thing for a woman and a reader like myself is in a world where the New York Times is still debating the White Men of Post-1950s Literature, Iris still isn’t a household name. Why is that? Why can’t I read some big pieces on people who wrote about shit besides the penis? And hey, if it means anything, Iris wrote about those too!

Iris Murdoch had ideas, and she wrote about them. At length. Her characters can be off-putting when they’re not downright intolerable. I’ve lent her books to so many people, and seen so many reviews, and many of them will say at some point something like this: “I really didn’t like any of her characters.” Which is fair enough. I mean, I don’t read Updike because I could never lie any of his characters. But Iris doesn’t try to make selfishness beautiful. She doesn’t color over them with pretty words to distract you; her books are intent upon pulling you into human existence and the way people treat people, the way people lie to themselves, the way people seek what is good and how they usually fail to reach it.  Oftentimes finishing one of her books is a disgruntling, disheartening experience. The people you want to do well have flaws as deep as anyone else, and there are no real laws of karma. Hell, I finished The Sacred and Profane Love Machine in tears and nearly stomped all over the book. Not because it was bad. Because it was infuriating, and more than a little accurate.

That’s why I go crazy not seeing Iris Murdoch get the attention she deserves. Sure, a movie was made about her and Kate Winslet played her and was all lovely and brilliant and Oxford-esque.

But the movie was ultimately more about Murdoch suffering from Alzheimer’s, and less about the lady with all the ideas, all the passion, the lady who wrote faster and quicker and more cleverly and with more insight into human beings than almost any other novelist from then till now. She never pulled back from revealing the ugly streaks, the lies we tell ourselves, our good intentions which aren’t really so good but we pretend they are and then are surprised when they don’t work out.

So she had a keen grasp of what people are like, an ability to dissect our motivations, feelings, fears, wants and needs. But Iris Murdoch as a writer was more than just that.

Take The Sea, The Sea.

It is all of the above: a meditation on the illusions of a wealthy man retiring from London’s theatre scene. Charles Arrowby’s inner life is more like a play than reality. He assigns motives and thoughts to people without ever paying attention to them, and his inability to relate to others wrecks havoc all around him.

But the book is great for more than just showing us what an absurd character Arrowby is; the book is sympathetic towards his failures. For what is life, much of the time, but repeated failures to step outside ourselves? Murdoch injects philosophy into all her books (more into others than The Sea, The Sea), and more importantly, she has an empathy towards her characters, failures though they may be. She can write with compassion of old men whose dreams have been destroyed but will create new illusions to keep going; she can write of the mercilessness and despair of youth, show it in all its egoism, and make the reader miss it and ache for it. And as she drags her readers through the lives of her many characters a feeling grows and grows that there is more to human existence than brilliance or wit; that what is most needed is a sense of goodness, an ability to truly love other people as much as ourselves.

Iris, John Bayley, and Books

I love Iris Murdoch. I wish I could give everyone one of her books (it’d at least be a nice change from all the fawning over endless middle-class white American men). When I pick up The Green Knight I never fail to see good, otherworldly Peter Mir, a force as strong as death. I see A Word Child and feel protective of the man walking by the river and cherishing his regrets as decades pass him by. I think of The Black Prince, and I think of Julian and everyone else and it’s like an overflowing. The Bell, and the convent and fairy tales and disaster and summer evenings. A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and I’m sitting at a kitchen table late at night with my tie loose talking to the disheveled and lovable Tallis. The Sea, the Sea, and I can smell summer and salt as if I’m standing in front of the rickety old wooden house myself, and people are swimming in the sea and eating cheese and old mirrors are breaking and what is life? Buddhism, Platonic philosophy, history, politics, Wittgenstein, can any of them help us be better to one another? How are we supposed to live? Is it possible to do good, to not lie to ourselves about it? Or is the best we can hope for a lovely swim in the sea and a peaceful disappearance?

Those are the questions Iris Murdoch tackles in all those novels, as well as her philosophical works. Her answers are noteworthy, but getting there is best of all.

From Iris, herself:

Often we do not achieve for others the good that we intend but achieve something, something that goes on from our effort. Good is an overflow. Where we generously and sincerely intend it, we are engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves – and because it is mysterious we may be afraid of it. But this should not make us draw back. God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better war; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.” – The Bell

Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgments on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.” – The Sea, The Sea

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonizing preoccupation with self.”

Good, not will, is transcendent.”

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I really like books. I feel like, I dunno, I should talk about that.  Because talking about politics just makes me melt into a puddle of fireworks.

What Happens When I Think of Politics, Only With More Sobs and Ranting and Anger.

So! Since I didn’t see enough movies last year in theaters to make a really decent list of what I liked best, I think it would be preferable to talk about some of the books I read and loved last year (though none of them came out in 2009). For the record, if I was to make a list of movies it would go 1) Goodbye Solo 2) Precious and 3) Inglourious Basterds. I also feel I shouldn’t have to see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans to know it is a work of genius. Plus, I think I will be madly in love with Departures if I can put my books down next weekend and watch it. Anyway! Books!

A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry

I did a lot of weeping when I finished this. I don’t think crying at a book or movie means anything special most of the time; I mean, I fucking teared up watching the Christmas episode of Little Bill (He just wanted Alice the Great to come home for Christmas! I love that show). But A Long, Long Way made a mess out of me because Sebastian Barry is such a compassionate writer. I didn’t just weep. I became nauseous and sick for the rest of the day. It’s about human beings caught up in the sweeping, senseless drama of their times; of war, of politics, of human folly, innocence, and maliciousness. Barry likes to tackle stories about people shut out of the dominant cultural narratives of their time, of how they are persecuted, of their failure to “get with” popular opinion, of society’s inability to empathize, and thus turns kind, harmless people into outcasts. Also, Barry writes prose like poetry. It is a completely beautiful book.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

This book is so important. I would like everyone I know to read this book. I wish I could give it a copy to every person who has ever spoken the words “free market” with the passion of an idolater. This is what historians in a hundred years will look back upon. I spend a lot of time reading excellent books on politics and contemporary issues, but this one is the only one I would really describe as epic, and that I believe will be relevant for decades to come. This is a beautiful, precious, enraging, overwhelming, nausea-inducing work of magnificence.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I will stop talking about being sick and reading books after this one, I promise. But first: I read Jitterbug right after I quit the worst job I’ve yet had and subsequently developed what must have been fucking swine flu. I swear. I was holed up in bed for nine days, unable to go to a doctor since I could no longer afford health insurance. And it was June, beautiful June. So I read this, and was subsequently delighted. New Orleans! Perfume! Immortality! Funny dances! I’m not obsessed with Tom Robbins, but this book is not only my favorite of his, it was also one of my favorites of the year. Also, I have been eating a lot of beets ever since.

Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks by Simone Weil

Simone Weil defies blurbs or explanations. This is a work of genius. It’s difficult to come up with a quotation or anything to describe it. Well, here’s a try regardless:

“Whoever does not know just how far necessity and a fickle fortune hold the human soul under their dominion cannot treat as his equals, nor love as himself, those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The diversity of the limitations to which men are subject creates the illusion that there are difference species among them which cannot communicate with one another. Only he who knows the empire of might and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice.”


“The universe is a memento for us; the reminder of some beloved being? The universe is a work of art; what artist is the author of it? We have no answers to these questions. But when love, from which the consent to necessity proceeds, exists in us, we possess experimental proof that there is an answer…Whatever a person’s professed belief in regards to religious matters, including atheism, wherever this is complete, authentic and unconditional consent to necessity, there is fullness of love for God; and nowhere else.”

I love her.

From Yale to Jail by David Dellinger

David Dellinger

I’d been excited to read David Dellinger’s autobiography for a long time since I love to learn about other people’s paths to non-violence and activism. He’s an overall lovely and sympathetic storyteller. It’s fascinating how even as a little boy, with no real examples, he came to surprising conclusions… and stuck to them. The dude once punched a guy after a high school football game when everyone was acting like an asshole and fighting. Dellinger swore he would never hit a man again, picked the guy up and walked him home, apologizing all the way. I know, right?

But there’s more to it than that. He went to jail for refusing to fight in the Second World War. But he was no coward (funny how people who speak out against insanity are called radicals, and then called cowards when they say they don’t think dropping bombs is the best solution). When he toured Europe with his family in the 30s, he leaped out of his car and yanked off a swastika stuck on his guards by nazis at a border crossing. His parents were terrified they’d all get in trouble and told him it wasn’t a big deal, but Dellinger was a courageous anti-fascist and refused to allow that symbol of hate and racism be placed on his car. In jail he risked being knifed to stand in front of the door of a new inmate that older inmates had sworn to rape. He insisted on recognizing the humanity of everyone and reaching out to it to prevent more violence.

He was an incredible human being, and his story is one of the most impressive autobiographies I’ve ever read.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle Eberhardt

It’s short. It’s strange. A good friend of mine gave me her copy one evening. She told me her grandfather loved it, and it was one of her favorite books. I liked it when I read it, but when I look back over everything else I read this year, this one stands out as being something completely different. Now, a biography of this woman is something I’d love. But her life was too brief and mysterious, it would probably be nearly impossible to amass anything much bigger than this little book. So I guess these vignettes of people living in the Middle East nearly a century ago will have to suffice.

The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the whole Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin

There is a reason that despite having all of these books at my parent’s house for decades, I had not read them until this year. The reason looks a little bit like this:

I Had One of These.

When I was a young lass, I liked space. And wizards. I watched Star Trek (especially TNG) constantly. I had Star Trek books (Q!) I had written out who I thought should play Gandalf in a movie remake of The Lord of the Rings (hint: see above picture) as well as all the other characters. I would watch over and over the terrible cartoon versions of TLOR and old Star Trek episodes. When we would play Capture the Flag in the woods, I would imagine I was Eowyn or Galadriel about to do something wild (I would not tell anyone else this, obviously). It was bad. It was real bad.

So why not Ursula LeGuin? I mean, it seems only natural. Why stop? Why not dive in and embrace it? Well, because of that Picard doll. And Catwings.

Mom had given me a copy of Catwings, a children’s book by Ms. LeGuin, as a girl. I loved it. Cats! Wings! The title would come into my head sounding something like “jazz hands” and I would add it silently after sentences. And be embarrassed. Because what the fuck? Why was I thinking about cats with wings? Why did I have a doll of a sixty-year old imaginary space captain with not a lot of hair?

I had to draw the line somewhere. No, Mom, no Ursula LeGuin for me. On it went, for years. No, Mom.  Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Maugham, I don’t care who. But when I thought of Ursula I saw my Captain Picard doll and heard a breathy voice cry “Catwings!”

What changed things? Well, when you’re packing for New Orleans and you really want to read about a wizard but you’re sick of reading about the same old ones and only thinking of epic movies, and you can’t stand any of the thousands of books you have because you’re an ungrateful brat, well, you let someone give you A Wizard of Earthsea and you thank god there are still more wizards in the world to fight off your spoiled sense of ennui.

It was awesome. I read ’em all. Then I read The Dispossessed, which was wonderfully brilliant and compassionate and insightful. Then The Lathe of Heaven. And it was just heavenly (ha?), and now I have to steal all of Mom’s Ursula LeGuin books and I am finally, after all these years, able to think of something besides Picard and “Catwings!” in my head when I see one of her books on a shelf. Well, kinda…

So those are the books which made me full-on swoon this year. I read some mediocre books which I’m ready to forget. I read some horrible books (The Magus, The Corrections: I want those hours back!) There were other books I read this year which were wonderful too and really deserve a mention:

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty: southern, sad, mortal, and joyful.

The War Against Women by Marilyn French: enraging and fantastic.

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal: tragic, lovely, compassionate.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: enthralling.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker: a completely enjoyable novel.

Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant: a depressing portrait of life in a small, conservative town in Virginia which was written with great love of the people involved and left me with an unforgettable image of fathers and sons walking with their guns in an early morning November mist, the mist blotting out for a moment all the desolation of their hometown and the mortality of their lives.

The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox: a fascinating and not-depressing essay on faith today.

A Moveable Feast by Hemingway: well, it’s Paris, and it’s beautiful. What else do you need?

Middlemarch by George Eliot: love her, loved this. It truly is a novel for grown-ups, as Ms. Woolf said.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild: infuriating and should be required reading by everyone, ever. I hate how people neglect their history! What is the use of spending so much time and money teaching children about math and science when those children don’t know how to use those skills to avoid doing harm? When they don’t know how to avoid past mistakes? Rant over; read this.

There were some I re-read (I passionately believe in the importance of re-reading books) which were as good, if not better than the first time: The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch, Mystics as a Force for Change by Sisirkumar Ghose, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, The Razor’s Edge by Maugham, The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman, Jesus by A.N. Wilson. Gosh, I love books. So much so that I have to stop writing now and go back to reading instead. Books: my true love.

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On June 14, 2009 The Washington Post’s Book World ran a beautiful collection of memories/vignettes by Latin American author Eduardo Galeano. I imagine I would have been entranced by the piece regardless, but I was in the midst of reading Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America which meant I spilt a lot of things in my excitement. The essay is a lovely introduction to an author who I had never heard of until I read The Shock Doctrine a few months ago. I ordered it on-line right after finishing Naomi Klein; a few days later I discovered Barack Obama was given a copy of the famous yellow book by Hugo Chavez, and its popularity skyrocketed. Then Thom Hartmann, a favorite person of mine, reviewed said book for BuzzFlash. At that point I was getting pretty excited for my own copy to come.

For people who do not know much about Eduardo Galeano, as I knew nothing till recently, he is a political and historical writer/poet who hails from Uruguay and focuses largely on the history of the Americas and of the oppressed. He writes about the pillaging of his home continent and is able to say why this has happened, who has benefited, and why it is still happening. This has meant, since life is the way it is, that he’s had to flee for his life and live in exile more than once. Since Open Veins was published in 1971 he has continued to explore the history of Latin America and the world through his work. His most recent achievement, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone will be released this month.


There are several aspects of Eduardo Galeano’s style which I find immensely appealing. The obvious is Galeano’s incredible storytelling skill, which is bound up with one of my favorite traits in an author: his interest in others. Pause for a moment. It’s assumed that writers simply must be interested in other people and the world, because what else is a story? This is absolutely false. A great many authors (just like a great many people everywhere) are interested entirely in Themselves, and their writings reflect this. No matter how they may turn a pretty phrase, no matter how stinging their hilarious sarcasm may be or how accurate their analysis of a certain situation is, they are primarily writing about Their moods, Their troubles, the wrongs They have suffered, the indifference/superiority They feel, how They cope with the world and get by. They are writing to be adored, to be seen as brilliant, but not because they are burnt up about the way things are or should be. I would call them the anti-Kurt Vonneguts. They are so unlike the man who could write absurdly and be sarcastic and tell the truth and feel complete compassion for our species while deploring the state we’re all in. That is the sort of author who really has something to say of value. The best writers, in my opinion, are writers who are passionately interested in what it means to be human, in how society and humanity work and fail, in the pain of being alive, the injustice, the loss… and have this anger at suffering actually mean something because they are passionate about celebrating life. Eduardo Galeano is this type of writer.

He is a man who sees people, who takes an utter interest in everyone around him. Unlike people who lock their doors when driving through a crummy neighborhood, Galeano is the kinda guy who would hop out and start asking questions and making friends. Unlike our mass media which is devoted to keeping its eye on the lives of the wealthy, Galeano does his best to yank our attention to how the conspicuous luxury at the top rests entirely on the backs of others. As I’ve read our major newspapers and magazines through our Great Recession I’ve been thoroughly sickened by the obsessive focus on our elites giving up a yoga listen here or a cruise there. Only recently did the lives of our worst off get any significant attention, and as usual it was up to Barbara Ehrenreich to provide that voice.

The United States is a country with some of the greatest extremes between the rich and the poor in the industrialized world at the same time as there is the greatest divide between the two in human history. Normal people who think of themselves as good have been taught to ignore poverty; if they see it they learn to blame the poor for not pulling themselves up. The media encourages this attitude and works to exacerbate it by shows, news programs, and articles which demonize the poor, the minorities. It becomes so easy to forget the existence of people who have lives unlike our own, and easier to forget about our culpability.

The segregation between NW and SE DC is tied in to our country’s tendency to threaten, oppress, bomb, and intervene in other countries. A man like Hugo Chavez becomes an easy target to demonize because we know so little of the lives of the people he represents. We take so little interest in the lives of others in our own communities, and then we pay even less attention to the lives of the dispossessed around the world who make our lifestyles possible. Our elites attack anyone who does not show subservience to our ideal lifestyle, they chant their mantras about letting the free market decide and accuse anyone who wants to do things differently as being an agitator, a communist, a real mixer. I don’t mean to say the US has never done any good anywhere. That’s baloney. But there have been some real crimes, and they have not been redressed; many are on-going. Oppression and wrong-doing are not things which only Happen in the Past because We Have Good Intentions and Are Different. Because of this we need to hear someone like Eduardo Galeano, who goes through the world telling us the stories of people we’ve refused to listen to.

The highlight of the stunning essay that was featured in The Post provides a heartbreaking example of what I’m talking about:

The Bolivian town of Llallagua lived from the mine, and in the mine its miners died. Deep in the shafts in the bowels of the mountains, they hunted veins of tin and lost, in a few short years, their lungs and their lives.

I spent some time there and made good friends.

The last night, we were drinking, my friends and I, singing laments and telling bad jokes till just before dawn.

When little time remained before the scream of the siren that would call them to work, my friends fell silent, all of them at once. Then one asked, or pleaded, or ordered: “And now, my brother, tell us about the sea.”

I was speechless.

They insisted: “Tell us. Tell us about the sea.”

It was the most difficult challenge in all my storytelling life. None of these miners would ever know the sea; each was doomed to die young. And I had no choice but to bring them the sea, the sea that was so far away, discovering words that could drench them to the bone.”

That is why Galeano is a great writer. More than that, it is why Galeano is a necessary writer. He brings to the forefront the voices of men we’ll never hear, a reality intertwined with ours, a reality we depend on, and yet is mostly unacknowledged. Celebrate Columbus Day and go to the mall. Yeah, he didn’t really discover anything and he enslaved, raped, and murdered the people of Hispaniola, but that’s not cheery. Let’s make that a side note in 9th grade history, explain “sadly slavery was acceptable back then”, talk about cultural relativism and point out that Columbus was only acting in the way his hierarchical, isolated, racist, sexist had taught him to behave, and move on. We won’t have to draw a connection between those crimes and how we ignore , rationalize and marginalize them, and then see how they relate to the crimes and injustices of today. The subtle dangers of such thinking are a huge threat. By not calling things by their name and denouncing them we can pretend they don’t exist and keep going to megastores because clothing and food just pop up here like that don’tchaknow?

I have never understood people who found history boring, or those who didn’t understand why I could never read enough. When I set out to college I just wanted to study history, literature, learn more about philosophy and religious history. How could people not want to spend time studying what human experience has taught us, and what is has not? How could anyone not want to commune with past minds, to see how others found our world? Do people not realize how neat it is we are here, existing? Maybe not, since a great many of them seem eager to shut their minds and hearts down with whatever they find as quickly as they can. Perhaps history books have focused too much on the winners, on analyzing how people have risen to power without asking why, on following a sequence of events without asking what they signify. Perhaps literature classes have too often asked their students to focus on the style of the writer, to monitor what themes and motifs are employed. I know I’ve been frustrated repeatedly by professors who kept wanting me to write about how Hemingway or Morrison were doing something when I just wanted to talk about why they were writing, what they wanted to tell people, what their purpose was for each book. For sure there are those who write conscious of the symbols they employ, who use repetition to reveal something quite meaningful. But to miss the forest for the trees is a great and often-repeated crime when teaching literature and history. The best wonder why, and so many don’t ask. Maybe they don’t want to have to live with the answer.

Eduardo Galeano is writing spectacularly beautiful books that bridge the gap between history and poetry/literature. This is heartening. He looks at the marginalized, the disposable people of the world, all the Surplus Humanity. He dignifies them, he makes them more than statistics of tragedies, or tools/means to perpetuate our lifestyles. He summons up the power of a real artist and uses it to step into the role of a prophet. He’s what I think of as a connector, a person who points to something here and something there and explains why it’s like that. This isn’t rewriting history, and it’s not empty art, but living words which seek to break the grip that this bland, drugged, sanitized worldview has on so many.

As he says so poignantly in  Days and Nights of Love and War (translated by Bobbye Ortiz):

“One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read…One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate….Our effectiveness depends on our capacity to be audacious and astute, clear and appealing. I would hope that we can create a language more fearless and beautiful than that used by conformist writers to greet the twilight.”

Those are meaningful words, those are ideas to remember when we talk about reality if we want to describe it with any relevance. Galeano reminds us that there are those who will never see the sea, and whether or not it’s fair, the facts of our very different lives are bound together. We don’t live in a vacuum; rather, our every move and every act is connected to everything else. Whether we like it or not that’s the way it is. If we recognize that perhaps we can work to make some real good happen and end some of the injustices around us. The worst crimes happen because we refuse to admit we are involved and turn inwards. Galeano challenges us to change the way we see things and one another, and live in not just our own small world but with everyone else too.

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