Fifteen years ago, Sunday nights were synonymous with jazz. A group of us often descended the concrete steps, moving in time to the thump of the bass, the music that beckoned us underground to a swaying world of smoke and rhythm and sweat. It was an overdose of sensation: sound, smell, motion, taste. Glorious and fleeting, I can still hear the crooning voices, still see the plucking strings, the amalgamation of colors on skin. It was authentically unadorned jazz: Black Dog. The only consolation when it closed was that I wouldn’t get lung cancer from second hand smoke inhalation after all.
For my husband’s birthday this year, we went to Scat Jazz Lounge, now the only jazz club in Fort Worth. It was our second time to give it a try. Dark and underground, nothing else would resemble the Black Dog days. The environment felt sterile in comparison. A high cover charge combined with a touristy environment keeps it trendy and homogeneously white. No smoke, no swaying, no blaring trumpet or cheap drinks, no black people and sadly, no jazz. Instead, quiet bands play elevator music in the background, taking record long breaks between sets, while cell phone screens light the place as people take selfies with their fancy drinks. As we left, I thought to myself, there is no more jazz in Fort Worth.
Two weeks later, and to celebrate my own birthday, a friend invited me to try the Third Thursday Jazz series put on by the Fort Worth Public Library with her. The idea of jazz inside a library was a bit confusing to me, but we went, not knowing what to expect, but certainly telling ourselves it wouldn’t be much, and quite possibly, it would just be us and a smattering of others at best. But as we made our way through the foyer, we were met with a crowd surrounding the opening to the room. We were informed it was standing room only. Four hundred seats were already taken, and every open space against the walls were occupied. And there, with the sun pouring in from the glass domed ceiling, people fanning themselves in the stuffy heat of summer evening, the sounds of jazz permeated, filling up every empty space. The women swayed, snapping their fingers to the beat, the men shifting side to side in rhythm, feet tapping, couples dancing, heads nodding, voices joining in affirmation. A kaleidoscopic depiction of our city- old, young, poor, affluent, with every color on the spectrum present. These people were here for the music; my heart was singing!
Black Dog was a glorious anomaly. But this is beautiful in its own way, and it beats the hell out of Scat Jazz Lounge. It is lacking in ambiance: folding chairs, bright light, kids playing, no Long Island Iced Tea in your hand…but in between the monologues, it is real jazz. Free jazz. So if you are homesick for propulsive rhythm and improvisational melody, or just want to experience a multicultural event in a highly segregated city, come join on August 16th or September 20th: 6:30 at the Central Library. I hope to be at both.
[In trying to find some archives of Black Dog, I came across this blog post. For those of you who used to attend, it will make you smile.]
I am a novice. Ray Charles is not. In sharing this need, it is clear to me that no matter how good one gets at their craft, they still hunger for company. Creating is a lonely endeavor, even more so I imagine, from the top, a lonely place in and of itself. And when you’re at the top, collaboration takes a great deal of humility, which is one of the most beautiful traits a person can possess.
It was with company that I read Animal Farm, followed by Politics and the English Language. This is the benefit of community: they will take you where you would not naturally go. Being so intrigued by the life of Orwell, I continued on my own to read 1984. One of the most prolific and varied authors I have ever heard of, Orwell began with his first publication in 1914 (at age 11) with his poem titled “Awake! Young Men of England.” His last publication would be New Year’s Day 1950, only twenty days before his death: an article in The Observer titled, “The Best Novels of 1949: Some Personal Choices.” By this time, he would have written nearly 650 completed works encompassing poetry, novels, book reviews, essays, editorials, investigative journalism, non-fiction books, and more.
Despite the popularity of Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell considered himself to be an essayist rather than a novelist. This comes as no shock to those who have read 1984, in which Orwell includes a fictional essay right in the middle of the novel, and sneaks another one into the appendix. Animal Farm and 1984 tell roughly the same story in two forms: one with humor and one without. Four years separate the two works; Animal Farm acting as a primer. But there was a greater depth needing plunged, and Orwell devoted himself in 1984 to communicating the intricacies of what was only mentioned in Animal Farm. The reader is left with much to consider and nothing to laugh at.
At a time when our words are rationed by Twitter and symbols replace entire phrases with emojis, the concept and implications of Newspeak were profound:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten..Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. (52-53)
Politics and the English Language is as pertinent now as it must have been when it was written. It is Orwell at his best- I mean by that, what he deems to be best, which is clear language, practical instruction, and relevant material. At its heart, it is a plea for language to be used appropriately: to reveal truth rather than create obscurity. But it is primarily a guide for recognizing the techniques of manipulated language, and it is fascinating.
Orwell, the man – so let us call him Eric Arthur Blair – was equally intriguing, from his unusual childhood on. Remember, by clicking the books above you will be directed to Amazon, where you can find out more and purchase them. I’ll leave you with Orwell’s words, taken from 1984:
The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. (81)
The speed at which we do life (and isn’t that the strangest expression? “Doing life” in exchange for “living”) has increased so significantly and rapidly that we are only now beginning to see its effect upon the human soul. We live in a world that moves at a quick pace, that values productivity to the detriment of quality. We are a culture offended by waiting, by silence, by intimacy, and rest. The irony is that in all of that hustle, a significant amount of time is wasted; the mind is so scattered by multitasking it takes much longer to get work of value completed. I do my best to push against this in my own life, and in my home. We cut a lot of things that are fillers- by that, I mean things that tend to fill any and every empty space- such as TV or social media. Instead we read, I write, I sit and think, we play outside. But even in this, productivity as the ultimate pursuit trickled in. Rather than reading for pleasure, I came to read for information (not a bad thing) or for completion (enter the Goodreads Reading Challenge.) As soon as a book was closed, I was on to the next, like catch-and-release reading. But the absence of reflection robs the book/article/essay of having its effect upon the reader. At times, the language was so beautiful or the thought so provoking, it beckoned me to sit with it a while. But I was too hasty, and lost the full depth of the experience.
Speed of living inherently reduces quality of life, with little regard for the activity. To feel this physically, set a timer for one minute. During that minute, take rapid shallow breaths. When the minute is up, take a few slow deep breaths. The body is finally getting what it needs. In both cases you are breathing, but what a difference breathing deeply makes! Though in that minute you are working hard to bring oxygen to all the parts of your body, it does not satisfy. That frenetic feeling you get near the end of the minute is the same thing that happens under the surface of a perpetually busy life.
I knew if I wanted to read well rather than read much, I was going to have to make some major changes, and they would begin by slowing down. I came across the centuries old practice of commonplacing, or keeping a commonplace book. With the glut of information available due to the printing press, people used commonplace books as a filter for the overload, allowing the drossy information to fade away while saving the gold. Every commonplace book varied according to the life and personality of its author, but in general, it was a catch-all of information they wanted to keep: to store away for later use or to commit to memory, such as quotes, equations, speeches, recipes, poems, observations, etc. Studies show that writing things down helps to lodge information in the long-term memory, rather than the short-term. Commonplacing, then, is the practice of taking what is beautiful and worthy and letting it become a part of yourself. Then the commonplace book becomes the history of your intellectual (and even spiritual) development; an autobiography of sorts.
The most wonderful and yet difficult aspect of commonplacing is that there are no set rules. The book is whatever you make of it. And here, too, productivity can rear its ugly head and sap all the goodness from this habit. With both these things in mind, here are a few tips and examples to guide you so that joy and depth remain at the center of your activity, should you choose to begin your own commonplace book:
1. Begin with the end in mind.
Intentionality separates the commonplace book from other kinds of journaling, which are primarily reactive. A commonplace book should be thoughtfully proactive. Think of yourself as a curator. What do you want filling the walls of your mind? This not only helps you to know what to put into your commonplace book, but it works before that in guiding you in what to read. After all, your commonplace book is only as insightful as the snippets you put into it. Here’s what that looks like for me: I aim to keep my book focused on displaying the very best of what I come into contact with. I want it to be a place where I interact with what I am reading by writing responses to what I read. Finally, I intend for it to be a tool of growth, which means that while I do not love everything I read, I do not use my commonplace book as a means of criticizing works. I do, however, include passages that are thought provoking that I may disagree with. My response to them though is one of wondering out loud. In other words, my commonplace book is a place of testing; one of perpetual inquiry- and sometimes discovery- rather than final solution.
2. Let things sit first.
Don’t commonplace as you go. Read something in its entirety, underlining and making notes in the margins as you read. When you’re done, leave it to sit with you for at least a week. Do not move on to reading something else during this time, though it will be tempting. Your mind will continue coming back to certain parts and you will have an idea of what had the greatest influence on you. This allows you to return to it with a holistic perspective and you’ll be able to filter through what to keep more easily.
3. Use pen and paper.
Of course it would be easier to make this digital. This is not a practice in what is easy but in what is lasting. Cut/paste will not make the information lodge in your long-term memory. It also doesn’t act as a filter. Knowing each passage is hand written will prompt you to really consider whether it’s worth it or not. Many people also think that writing it out with your own hand allows you to feel the rhythm and flow of good writing. It is slow and methodical, giving you the chance to notice every word in its place, to meditate on the details, and come away with a deeper understanding of what is being expressed and how it is imparted effectively. Using pen and paper also elevates the value of the information. If you have the means, choosing a high quality journal and making the pages as beautiful as you can through neat penmanship and attractive title pages convey the value you place on what is enclosed. (My favorite so far is the Confidant by Baron Fig.)
4. Utilize a system of organization.
You can be as minimal or tedious in this as you choose. I knew that if I used a very complex and thorough system, it would bog me down too much. I may find that later on I can begin incorporating more to archive the passages, but as it is now, I use a Table of Contents at the beginning of my book and I use two different colored pens: black for quoted passages, and blue for my own responses. You don’t have to tag everything, have a detailed index at the back, or have a digital database it all gets sorted into if you don’t want. (Though if this is how you roll, there are plenty of methods you could research by googling “how to organize a commonplace book.”) No matter what method you use, it ought to include numbering your pages. Some people find blank pages or dot grids more helpful than lined pages, especially if you will be including charts and graphs or you are one who responds visually rather than verbally.
I hope this is helpful to you. I have only been commonplacing for a few months, but it has made such a difference in the way I have interacted with my reading, making connections between different authors and subjects, and in the cultivation of new ideas. I will often be responding to a passage from a book I read and will look back later and think There’s an essay here. For writers especially, commonplacing is that bridge between the reader and the writer within you. If you know me in real life, I’d love to help you get started. If not, and you have more questions or you already commonplace and want to share about it, send me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.
I am finding it harder and harder to use my Kindle. There are things I absolutely love about it, most often that it allows me to read in bed at night without a light on if my husband is already sleeping or its portability when I travel. But I find a radical diminution in what I am able to recall from books I read on my Kindle compared to printed versions. However, I can think of other factors that make a significant difference: how long I take reading the book and whether or not I have people to discuss it with. This is a novella, and I believe I read it in one sitting. It was squeezed in one night as I found myself between books. So sitting with it once, on my Kindle, and not discussing it with anyone, all lead to my not recalling too many details about it.
But this I remember: It is heartbreakingly beautiful. I read it soon after a friend was telling me of her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I followed it by watching the movie Still Alice. Between the three accounts and their happening so close together, I was able to tangibly feel the slow drowning that is the process of losing one’s mind while the body carries on; being aware of it as it is happening and incapable of slowing it down. Each of the three descriptions were marked by a feeling of utter helplessness.
This story is one of an old man and his grandson, as they figure out how to enter this slow losing together and say goodbye before it gets to the point that they can’t anymore. Whimsical and heart-rendingly beautiful, Backman has created a world of the mind that captures within it the life of the heart.
I was very excited about reading this book, and it started off strong. The introduction to both the book as well as the 50 poets included in this anthology were excellent. I was completely surprised by the slave poetry, having in my mind a depiction of slavery and illiteracy going hand in hand, which was not necessarily the case in the 18th century, though it quickly became so, as ignorance is one of the greatest weapons of oppression. One thing that has always been baffling to me is the spread of Christianity among slaves. Simone Weil, visiting Portugal in the 1930’s writes:
There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.
Phillis Wheatley, one of the first authors included in this anthology and the first African American to publish a volume of literature, was kidnapped at the age of nine. She later writes this poem, titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” calling her kidnapping and subsequent enslavement, a mercy of all things, because it was the means by which she met God:
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
It has always seemed both strange and beautiful to me that slaves should adopt the religion of their oppressor. That despite the brutal beatings and rapings and lynchings, as the hypocrite opens his mouth, they are captivated by the beauty of God. The suffering Jesus was true even when introduced by a liar. The God willing to enter shame, enslaved to the Father’s will, was irresistible.
Like all anthologies, I discovered some authors whose poems I loved and many I didn’t care for. The slave poetry and that of the Harlem Renaissance were my favorites. The poems in this anthology do carry a common thread, found in the subtitle to the book: 200 years of vision, struggle, power, beauty, and triumph. (Though I would say struggle and beauty were the two most pervading themes.)
From this anthology I enjoyed a renewed love for the greats: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. But I also discovered a new love for James Monroe Whitfield, Frances E.W. Harper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Robert Hayden, and Lucille Clifton, all of whom I hope to read more of, and soon.
If you talked to me at all in January, you have heard about these two books. They were both, fascinating and beautiful. I read them alongside one another. Each day, as Steinbeck sat down to write his greatest novel, he got warmed up by writing a letter to his long-time friend and editor, Pascal Covici. If you disagree it is his greatest novel, you will have to take it up with him, for he believed this to be the crowning achievement of his career; the book he was born to write. I let the two keep pace with each other, reading the story while simultaneously reading about the writing of it, which as a writer, was extremely edifying.
The slow, leisurely pace and depth of character moved East of Eden from a good story to a beautiful rendering of human life. Some have argued that the book is not enjoyable for the tragedy within it. It is true that the tragedies of this story are not beautiful; they are familiar. It’s themes are as old as the Fall. I found pieces of myself in nearly every character. There is one as ugly and dark as Satan, and she is difficult to read, ever more so as we share a name, but she is real, and therefore needs to be endured. As for me, I loved the book and consider it one of the greatest I have ever read or likely will ever read. Far from feeling despair, I closed this epic drama with great hope. You may as well.
Years ago, while going through the permanent collection at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I came across a miniature of an elderly woman. Her hands were clasped, her back hunched as she sat, weariness marking the lines around her eyes which were tinted a dark pink at the edges. She took my breath away. Had she been rationally sized, I would have mistaken her for a real woman, so lifelike was everything about her, from the complexion of her skin, to the wrinkles, the grey hair, the expression of her face. I loved her, and had I been able to place my hand over hers, I would have done so, and whispered hope into her ear, for despondency was chiseled in all her features.
Untitled (Seated Woman), 1999
On February 16, the Modern opened its second exhibit by the fantastic Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are realistic in every way except in scale. Born in Australia, but residing in London, Mueck’s career began as a puppeteer for children’s television shows, such as Sesame Street. By the mid 90’s he was transitioning to fine art. He is incredible, not only for his realistic detail, but for his ability to convey emotion and thought in subtle ways. Take, for instance, this larger-than-life couple at the beach:
Couple Under An Umbrella, 2013
So much is expressed by the way he held her arm- in an affectionate, familiar, and leisurely way- as if after all the years, it was his nature to reach for her, rest on her. And yet, this resting he does on her points to another of the subtleties of this exhibit, which includes six sculptures completed over the last ten years. Five of the six consist of human subjects: two male, two female, and this couple. I couldn’t help but notice the antithetical activities between the sexes: work/leisure; struggle/enjoyment.
Notice the disparity between these two figures:
Woman with Shopping, 2013
One feels the weight she carries between bags and baby, while he floats, buoyant on the water. Her hands are full while his, adorned and empty, rest at his side. Even the weather surrounding them seems a signal to the radical differences in their environments. She is dressed against the cold, bundled and pale. He is slick and tan and enjoys a cloudless sun.
The next figures also pair together in my mind, possibly because they are both nude and holding sticks:
Woman with Sticks, 2009
While she is carrying a load, burdened by the back-breaking work, he holds a singular pole, fashioned himself, for an unknown purpose. However, looking at the title, one can assume it is for a laugh, for pure enjoyment.
All of this is speculation; Mueck is silent, allowing his art to speak for him. After seeing the marvelous woman bent backwards, I wanted to know the title. What more could Mueck tell me about this woman? Why did he make her? What is he trying to say through her? I found the placard and it simply stated the obvious: Woman with Sticks. The next figure was the same: Woman with Shopping. He says nothing more, but the women themselves disclose enough. After viewing the man in the pool, I expected to find the title similar, perhaps “Man with Float.” Instead, Mueck wrote something entirely different- Drift– and leaves the interpretation up to us. He does the same with the other man. Rather than “Man with Pole,” we see the title Poke.
In addition to the six statues, (of which four are miniature and two on a grand scale) there is a video of Ron Mueck at work. Like his figures, it is silent for the most part, and yet it proclaims persistent toil as he gives all of himself over to these masterpieces, most of which take over a year to complete. He is fully concentrated, deep in thought, in a world all his own as he forms these characters he knows in the profound way only a creator does. I left in awe, grateful for Mueck’s ten years of dedication to his craft, invigorated by the myriad of ways to communicate and the intrinsic value of art for its ability to touch the soul of a person and make them better for it.
This exhibit is on display until May 6, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it before it’s gone. P.S. Sundays are free, so bring the whole family! (Note: exhibit does contain nudity. Use your best judgment.)
I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.
As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; maintain a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:
When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.
I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.
What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.
For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)
The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.
The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.
As many of you know, WWII historical fiction is right up my alley. A majority of my “Want to Read” fiction on Goodreads consists of WWII fiction. I even have a book in my mind that I will write someday. So I went into this thinking it would be a layup.
It starts with two stories: the 1942 story of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the French police. It is the story of one ten-year-old girl and her family and their tragic separation. The second is a modern-day journalist studying the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (nearing it’s 60th anniversary) and finding her own link to the history there. The chapters go back and forth between these two stories.
The 1942 story is wonderful. It draws you in and you picture what is happening in your mind; you put yourself there. You do it despite the writing. The 1942 story is told from the third person: The girl did this, the girl thought that, etc. It detaches the reader from the story, but despite this, you enter in.
The modern-day story of the journalist, however, is told in the first person. Yet I found myself struggling to relate to her. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t really even like her that much, though she gave me little to like or dislike. She, and her story, was bland. About half way through the book the 1942 story ends, and the rest of the book is the modern day story, which by now has intertwined with the story of the past. I remember getting to that first chapter that didn’t take me back to 1942, back to the little girl- my heart sank. That was the story the reader wants to hear.
In literature, there is story, and there is beautiful writing, and a handful of times, you find a gem that combines the two. This one absolutely leans toward story- there is nothing beautiful in the prose. It doesn’t read like music, it isn’t moving, it doesn’t create a scene you are entranced with. It is plain and tells a story. This is ok when the story is fantastic. This story could have been fantastic. But in the end, it wasn’t. Rosnay had a great beginning in her mind, one with amazing potential. But in the making of it, too much was lost. I wish she had stuck with the 1942 story and seen it through to the end. I wish she had made that the only story, the first-person account. It could have been….so much more.
This book took the majority of my reading time for two months, and it is one of the best books I read all year. As I shared in another post, I am doing self-directed schooling with a friend. I have, historically, stuck rather closely to fiction. I am so driven by story that instructional nonfiction is difficult for me. But I want to get better, so I am bridging my way into nonfiction with books that still contain story, like biographies and memoirs. In several books I was reading, mentions of Theodore Roosevelt abounded. Knowing little about him, I began to feel that I would enjoy him very much. So for my passion assignment, I decided to read this book and practice some letter writing between Roosevelt and some of his closest companions, working at writing from different voices, both male and female, as well as from a different time period. When the book arrived at my house and I saw that it was nearly a thousand pages, I considered changing my assignment. I still carried memories of the Bonhoeffer biography and, though I am fascinated with WWII, it took everything in me to trudge through that giant book. This book, in contrast, took as much work as sailing on a breezy summer day- so enjoyable one hardly notices the effort. The wind simply carried me where I wanted to go.
One reason for this, no doubt, is Theodore himself. He is a difficult man to be neutral about. Then as now, one either loves him or hates him. And despite my being in the former category, some of his actions or ways affronted me. Edmund Morris did a wonderful job of describing both the strengths and weaknesses of his peculiar personality. He depicted Roosevelt enthusiastically but neutrally, with few exceptions. Roosevelt made this easy to do because of how public he made his life: befriending countless journalists, having written thousands upon thousands of letters, and consistently journaling from a very young age.
I especially enjoyed his youngest years: traveling with his family, the boundless energy, the early fascination with ecology, and more. I attended Harvard with him, where he began to stand out amongst his peers, grieved with him over the death of his parents, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law. I rode West with him through the Badlands becoming a cowboy, rallied with him for justice in the Civil Service Reform, prowled the streets of New York in the middle of the night as the Police Commissioner, prepared and potentially provoked war as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, only to head the Rough Riders and lead out in battle amidst the jungles of Cuba. I returned with him to take the Governorship of New York, quickly succeeded by the Vice-Presidency, and only months later, the day in which he became the youngest President of the United States, following the assassination of William McKinley. That is where this book ends. To read more (as I will) you can follow him through the Presidency and the after years of his life.
If you enjoy biographies, this is a fantastic one, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being selected by the Modern Library as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. I enjoyed every hour of it.