Bay Reads - January 2020
- Story by Scott Naugle
To recall milestones in our lives, it’s common for us to snap photographs, eventually assembling them into albums, either physical or digital. My library, and more specifically certain volumes within it, serve the same purpose for me, transporting my thoughts to a time and place in my past.
I came to slowly realize over time that I associate the experience of reading a memorable work of fiction or nonfiction with my physical surroundings and emotions at the time. Prose becomes inseparable from place. The impact of the work is intellectual, sensuous and tactile.
It was a warm March afternoon in 1997 on the Jackson campus of Millsaps College. The professor, Dr. Anne MacMaster, suggested that our small class move outside to reconvene on the lawn, the early Spring grass a crisp emerald green, fresh and untrammeled, to discuss Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room.
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Woolf’s prose, the precision, lush with allegories and metaphors, eliminates all barriers between thought and the physical world in a pure flow of words and associations. That semester’s class, Woolf and Morrison, was my introduction to both authors.
“’But it is the way we are brought up,’ he went on. And it all seemed to him something very distasteful. Something ought to be done about it…” I continued reading to my fellow students from Jacob’s Room as the automobiles rolled by in the distance on North State Street.
I recall thinking at the time that the other students and myself were encased in a small, soft intellectual bubble, the air warm, the breeze as soft as the flutter of wings, passersby in the distance moving with a gentle purpose, smiling, and the sky cloudless, azure and endless. I was happy, comfortable.
As I glance now to my bookshelf at the worn paperback copy of Jacob’s Room, my senses, the smells, sounds and how I felt over 20 years ago, flood back to that March afternoon at Millsaps. It all seems like only yesterday.
trailing the boat – streamers, noisy fanfare –
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee –
half reminder of the men who served there –
a weathered monument to some of the dead.
I was in Austin, Texas, when I first read Native Guard. The thin, paperback book was convenient to pack in my luggage. I had about two hours between a long, numbing day of board business meetings and then dinner again with several members of the board.
My mind was reeling from repetitive attacks on grammar and language throughout the day. I was weary from others wanting to “reach out to me,” or who promised to “circle back to me next week” or professed that they were “super pumped” over several nuances added to the digital onboarding protocol.
At a Starbucks, directly across from the Ruth’s Chris Restaurant on Congress Avenue and West 6th Avenue in downtown Austin, I read, “Why the rough edge of beauty? Why the tired face of a woman, suffering…” from “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971 in Trethewey’s collection.
These are words with substance, history, and gravitas. There is a thoughtfulness in this expression of meaning. It is the opposite of glib or commercial. Inside the words and phrases one can peel back the layers to the beginning of modern time.
I began to rejuvenate in the spaces between the words, inhaling clean, pure literary oxygen.
In the background, the swishing and whooshing sounds of the automated expresso machine enveloped the room. There was friendly chatter across the counter. I heard the repeated banality of “What may I get started for you today?”
But it didn’t matter. I was protected within the fortress of Trethewey. My heart began to beat again.
Looking at Native Guard on my bookshelf now, I can see beyond it and out through to the floor to ceiling glass windows on Congress Avenue in Austin and recall the moment and how I felt. The immortal literary photograph from my album of books erases the years and miles.
Non-fiction also conjures the same qualities of time transport and memory. I recall the time and place where I first read Nicholas Basbane’s A Gentle Madness, May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, or Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
To date, I don’t have memory or photo storage capacity issues like a digital camera, iPhone or three-ring scrapbook. No monthly backups of my bookish recollections are required.
It’s all up in the cloud, my personal cognitive cloud.