How many books are you reading right now?
Are you a one-book-at-a-time person? Some people, apparently, live by this rule obsessively. I wonder where that notion of literary monogamy comes from. Is it so you can focus? Does it somehow feel like “cheating” to start another book when you are still reading another?
Or do you have several books going at once? Maybe a classic on the coffee table, but a guilty-pleasure thriller on your bedside stand. Is there a stack of unfinished books sitting around waiting for you get re-inspired about one of them?
The Pew Research Center found that 72% of Americans have read some or all of at least one book in the past 12 months (2015 survey), with 63% having read a hard copy, paper book. The average (mean) number of books read was 12, while the median was 4. (The median, you might recall, marks where 50% of readers are above that figure and 50% are below). These statistics imply that a small percentage of avid readers pull the average way up by reading much more than 12, like my wife and daughter.
Four or More
Right now, I have four books in active reading mode all at once.Yes, I'm a polygamous bibliophile. I'm also one of those people who pulls up the average. I probably have another dozen books that I have started but put down, mostly forgotten. A few are kept in reserve for when a specific author or title might strike my fancy.
The four books I’m reading now are quite different, which must be part of the appeal: a different book for a different mood. Sometimes I prefer lighter fare when I want to be entertained, and sometimes a more intense, egg-head book appeals when I want to be enlightened. Now and then I like to read to study and appreciate the writer, while otherwise my goal might be research and learn new facts or insights.
So, what am I reading? Pretty much one of each type.
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell
On the egg-head side, I’m reading David George Haskell’s fabulous book The Forest Unseen (2013), a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I was fortunate to hear Prof. Haskell speak at the Northern Woodlands conference in Vermont last October, where he signed my copy. He gave a fascinating keynote based on this book and his more recent The Song of the Trees. Haskell is a professor of biology at Sewanee: The University of the South.
The Forest Unseen is the author's journal of his very precise and insightful observations about a small patch of forest that Haskell calls "the mandala." As such, this book is a beautiful reincarnation of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Like Leopold’s, his writing is poetic, scientifically revealing (yet modest), witty, hopeful, and reflective of our place in the universe.
The guy knows his stuff and he knows how to write, making his observations and scientific knowledge both entertaining and meditative. This is a book you don’t really want to plow through from beginning to end. It is worth savoring for the moments when it can be most appreciated. And I look forward to reading The Song of the Trees.
[Side note: Cheryl picked up a copy of Peter Wohlleben’s bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees at the library. I sat down and tried to read it, but couldn’t get through the second chapter. I flipped through the rest, finding it vapid and scientifically undernourished. Just my opinion. I like Haskell much better.]
The Plover by Brian Doyle
My second book, I’ll admit, caught my attention because of its name, The Plover (2014), by Brian Doyle. Judging a book by its cover is less risky at a used book sale, so I took a chance for a dollar. Then I let it sit around for a couple years before I picked it up.
The title caught my eye because my son, Garrett, had a summer internship at the time monitoring endangered piping plovers on Maine beaches. 'The Plover' in this wide-ranging novel is a boat that the protagonist sails on an epic solo adventure out across the Pacific Ocean. He chose the name because plovers are great migrant travelers, which was his own aspiration.
When I finally picked it up and started reading, I enjoyed Doyle’s writing from the start, but I’m only 20% of the way in, so I can’t give a full assessment, other than to say I like the premise and appreciate his storytelling of an inner and an outer journey in a setting dominated by Mother Nature. It’s funny, quirky and (so far) unpredictable. It’s a nice mental getaway that perhaps hits home because of my own recent solo adventure, albeit a largely land-based one. Also, I enjoy sailing so that adds another dimension.
A Treasury of the Maine Woods by Edmund Ware Smith
My third book is a collection of outdoor stories published in 1958. I had read one of the stories called “Mr. Smith Meets The President” when we were writing The Confluence. Smith’s first-hand account of President Eisenhower’s visit to the Dartmouth Grant was originally published in Sports Illustrated. I later read a couple more stories from this collection prior to my Storied Waters trip. I’m now going back through to read the rest after having read another collection of Smith's writing recently called Upriver & Down (1965), which I thoroughly enjoyed. More on that in a minute.
Edmund Ware Smith (1900-1967) is on many outdoor writers’ lists of favorite authors, including my own, but oddly he doesn’t even warrant his own Wikipedia entry. Maybe I’ll fix that. A native of Connecticut, Smith visited Maine as a boy and later moved to Maine which he adopted as his home state, knowing he would never be considered a native no matter how long he lived here, as he explains humorously in his story "How To Go Native in Maine." He settled in Damariscotta and owned a camp for many years on Grand Lake Mattagamon at the headwaters of the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
Like many of his contemporaries in the 40s and 50s, Smith published hundreds of stories in the major magazines like Field & Stream, Saturday Evening Post, Atlantic Monthly and Reader’s Digest about hunting and fishing in Maine. In the days before television, his vivid writing would transport thousands of readers to the Great North Woods for real-life adventures with his group of seven friends who called themselves Jake’s Rangers. These weekly or monthly stories were high entertainment, replaced now with the sad caricatures of backwoods adventure on reality TV shows like “Survivor” or “Alone” or Charlie Moore's Outdoors.
Anyway, Smith’s writing is masterful, pulling you into an intoxicating time warp, back before interstate highways, cell phones and Goretex. Sadly, all of his books are out of print, and used copies sell on ebay or Amazon for upwards of $40 to $250. The Portland Public Library has a rare copy of his classic The One-Eyed Poacher, but it's so valuable they won’t even let you check it out. You have to read it in the rare books reading room! I say it is well worth getting your hands on a copy of Smith's stories somehow. They're marvelous.
In one story in Upriver & Down, Smith tells of the day he received "a letter of staggering concern" from Washington, DC. Turns out it was from Chief Justice William Douglas, a devoted fly-fisherman, who, out of the blue, wanted to join the notorious Jake’s Rangers for a fishing trip to Baxter State Park. The Rangers were willing, if a bit nervous, to be his guide, and fretted about the “grub list. What does he eat?” they worried.
None of us knew. Prenatal veal? Watercress? Pedigreed sirloins from that place in Kansas City? Quail eggs on Melba toast?... On the subject of diet for Supreme Court Justices, the Rangers’ knowledge was a straight cipher. Abjectly, we settled for the casual Ranger grub list.
“If he doesn't like beans, johnnycake, and hamburg,” said Eddie, “we could all go up for twenty years.”
Justice Douglas turned out to be a pretty regular, if brilliant, guy and returned as a guest on later trips, appearing in several more stories.
Another favorite yet short chapter is called ‘Along Thoreau’s Canoe Trail.’ Smith explains that his lakeside camp looked out over an island where Henry David Thoreau had camped in 1857 while on one of his famous trips in the Maine Woods. I like this one because it echoes my own visit to the East Branch of the Penobscot on the Storied Water tour with the spirit of HDT.
I hadn’t read Smith’s story when I wrote my blog entry about this leg of my journey, so I was quite a surprise to read Smith’s similar “conversation” with Mr. Thoreau about portaging around Grindstone Falls. Great minds think alike, perhaps?
The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta by Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer
This last book was a very thoughtful Christmas present from my daughter, Rosa. It’s a Charles Scribner & Son’s first edition from 1898 with a hand-written pencil inscription that reads Susan H. Wilkins, Christmas 1898. The title means “The Good Woman of Manhattan” with the subtitle “At Home and In Society 1609- 1760.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the early Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley during the 1600s, as that was when my great, great, great, great, great-grandfather, Hendrick Gerritse Van Wie, emigrated from Holland to what is now Albany around 1660. Rosa accompanied me on a Van Wie genealogical “reunion” in 2000 to meet other distant relatives interested in our family history. She knew I’d appreciate a book about that era, so she found this unique and rare book at a used book shop. How cool is that? But the book is even cooler.
About a hundred years ahead of her time, Mrs. Van Rensselaer researched and wrote this fascinating book: “the work of a woman, done in a womanly way, from a woman’s point of view.” Her preface notes:
History is generally written by men, who dwell on politics, wars, and the exploits of their sex. Household affairs, women’s influence, social customs and manners, are seldom chronicled, and are only to be discovered underlying what are deemed the important events of life, more by inference than from anything that is actually written about them.
So, Mrs. Van Rensselaer took it upon herself to write history the way she wanted it written. My sister Susan, the feminist history major, will appreciate that, as would my son, also a history major.
The Goede Vrouw is not exactly a page turner, but this old volume opens a remarkable window into the history of the Dutch settlement. It’s a fine complement to other scholarly works I’ve read about that time period, including Russell Shorto’s acclaimed The Island at the Center of the World about the history of New York City. (It's also available on Archive.org.)
My dream is to someday write a novel set in the wilds of New Netherland near the remote outpost of Fort Orange (now Albany) and Rensselaerwyck, so this is a rich and helpful resource to move me steadily in that direction. It may take me a while. I have lots of reading still to do.