I’m a wanderer. A library-stack-wanderer. Though, occasionally, I’ve rambled around the non-fiction section — seeking guidance from ethicists or insight from astrophysicists, or revisiting the wonderful John McPhee — I am habitually a fiction-section-library-stack-wanderer.
I go without preconception and let impulse decide where in the alphabet to start. I do try to give every author a fair look, though I’m pretty cursory with the bottom shelf (bad back). Name-recognition can sway me (I was once in a fairly long-term relationship with Willa Cather), but I favor experiment.
That’s how I happened on Jim Harrison, a brilliant writer I had inexcusably never encountered before. I read The English Major, then Legends of the Fall, and went eagerly back for more.
There weren’t any more.
My stacks are in a small branch library, part of a big system where a book borrowed at one branch can be returned to any other. What may once have been a Harrison trove at my branch is probably now wandering separately, randomly, branch-to-branch (though, who’s to say that the two I brought home were not the first of his family to live at my branch?).
Sensible people will ask why I didn’t log-in and order delivery of other Harrisons, but why spoil an exciting adventure? He’ll be back, I’m certain, and, in the meantime, I’m free to explore in different directions.
Just last week, I was at my local branch. I decided to start near the end of the alphabet. Working back from S, I got to P (don’t expect a facile joke here), and gave the bottom shelf my usual passing glance. There, in the middle, was Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.
I hesitated. Reading a work that had been famous and influential for over half a century didn’t seem to qualify as adventure. Alan Paton was not a new name, even to me.
But my smaller, sensible part reminded me of the power of famous books I had once neglected — O Pioneers; Madame Bovary; War and Peace.
I picked up Paton. I knew the book was a passionate indictment of South
African apartheid. But I didn’t anticipate how understated and persuasive that passion actually is — unpreachy in its tone, measured in its narrative, and subdued, even, at times, monotone and repetitive, in its dialogue, as if the country and its people — black and white — were being worn away one slow, inexorable drop after another.
It made me weep.
What we know of the evils of South Africa at the time Paton wrote, and what we know of the changes the book helped advance, are emotional enough.
But we can’t help reading through the lens of our own era and experience.
I was weeping at least as much for my own beloved country, reminded of the crassness and stupidity and outright evils we endure, one slow, inexorable drop after another, but also of the ultimate power of human reason and compassion and kindness.
I can’t think of a better way to start exploring what we’re about, and where we’re headed, than wandering through the library stacks for something good to read. It doesn’t have to be limited to the fiction section. Every book, just by being itself, is a small kindness.