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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): First published in 1972, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing explores how we look at art and by extension how we see—literally and figuratively. A rich mix of art history and cultural theory, three out of the seven essays consist solely of images—classical paintings like Rembrandt or Velasquez, early 70s advertisements and pop images of women or food. As Berger writes, “Seeing comes before words.” A thin pocket-sized book in black and white, it’s perfect to slip into your purse or backpack for long afternoons in coffee shops or short subway rides. I’m also reading the stunning sonnets of Gaspara Stampa, an Italian female poet of the Renaissance with an extremely modern sensibility who turned and returned to the sonnet form with more than 300 examples for the paramour who spurned her. “Let all the minds and tongues on earth come forth / With every style of prose as well as verse . . .”
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Like all readers, I stockpile recommendations. Every unread book on my shelf—and it often feels like hundreds—has a peculiar and distinct lineage. Time to time, in a mood pointedly sappy or stoned, I like to imagine the sprawling kinship map of my library, all the rambling and vivifying and argumentative and, yes, often stoned conversations I’ve had that led me to buy these books. Anyway, several years ago, during one of our summer workshops, Susan Bell told me about this overlooked Victorian masterpiece called New Grub Street, by George Gissing. I picked up a nice, cheap Modern Library hard cover copy and placed it on my shelf, right between my trapped Gass and my clip-winged Hawkes. As often happens with these things, though, more people recommended the book to me and I recently reached a breaking point while proofing our summer issue, which contains a fine Lost & Found by Pamela Erens, whose novel, The Virgins, Tin House Books will publish in August. I liked her essay so much that I pulled the book from my shelf and started reading. I liked it so much, in fact, that I started reading her book as well. Neither has been a disappointment: not the book I’d intended to read for so long and hadn’t or the book I wouldn’t have read so soon without it.
Rob Spillman (Editor of Tin House): The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Believe the hype. Kushner can flat-out write. From the Bonneville Salt Flats to the pits of Italian politics, covering what it means to love and what it means to make art, this is a serious and deeply engaging novel. “I was in an acute case of the present tense. Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed.”
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Many years ago, when I still worked in a bookstore, a woman I’d never seen before walked in with a crumbling box of books. After I explained that we didn’t buy used books, she pulled a slim paperback from the pile. “Have you read Travels with Charley?” she asked, “I think you’d like it.” I told her that no, I hadn’t read it, but that I’d always wanted to (this was mostly a lie—a standard practice among booksellers). Leaning over the counter, she inscribed the first page, “To Jacob [sic] from Brigette. Now you have it!” And then she walked out of my life forever.
Travels with Charley has lived in the bottom left corner of my bookshelf, untouched, for about eight years. I cracked it open last night while experiencing a bit of wanderlust. Brigette was right. I do like it.
Devon Walker-Domine (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Lately, I find myself craving the comfort that comes with returning to old favorites, to the beloved dog-eared volumes that have braved the storm of purses, backpacks, glove compartments, and moves innumerable: no surprise then that I should have pulled Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead off the shelf last week. And I am, of course, glad that I did: as always, I am struck by the elegant candor of her narrator, his matter-of-fact tone threaded as it is with a sadness strangely at peace with itself.
The story is told from the perspective of John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, who, after finding out his heart is failing him, decides to leave an account of his life behind for his young son whom he will not live to raise. And this book, to me, reads as an account in the truest sense of the word: Ames acts as a witness to his own life as he stands at the end of it, looking back and taking stock of so much longing and loneliness and grief, but also of wonder, beauty, and the ephemeral perfections imbedded in the everyday.
Gilead, in addition to being an account, reads as a prayer, full of reverence and intention and, at times even, a flicker of genuine anger that attempts, through language, to escape the soul. But this is not just any prayer, or merely an account of one life, because Ames’s language is clearly directed toward a human rather than a divine audience—something that leaves his readers with the question of what constitutes a prayer. For my own part, I leave this text wondering if those quiet questions a person raises up only to him- or herself could be prayers in their own hidden way, or, if not prayers, a secret sacrament of the self, a baptism of desire, a simultaneous greeting of and farewell to life itself. And it is, in large part, the unanswerable questions this book raises (with so much compassion and dignity) that draw me so readily back to its pages, to the steady thrum of its meditations and the quiet clarity of the words composing each thought.