Loren Glass: Counterculture Colophon

August 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

0804784167Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45) – 978-0804784160 – Stanford University Press – Hardcover – $27.95 (ebook versions available at substantially lower prices)

This book has turned out to be one of the most influential on my recent thinking  about publishing and how it should work, proving that history can tell us a great deal about both the present and the future. Grove Press was immensely influential in changing American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s, and remains meaningful today, with its massive backlist representing the golden age of the literary avant-garde of that time. Its longtime owner and spiritual leader, Barney Rosset, has been an almost mythic hero to many who got into publishing because of what he accomplished with Evergreen Magazine and Grove Press.  How a publisher could become so powerfully influential makes for a terrific and inspiring story.

Grove’s accomplishments and innovations are legion and well documented by Loren Glass in this book. While Counterculture Colophon is written as an academic history, and sometimes Glass falls prey to academic terminology that may put off the non-scholarly readers, I was happy to overlook the academic jargon and focus on the compelling story he tells of Grove and what it has meant for modern publishing.

This heroic and sometimes tragic saga reminds us of what it means to be a passionate and committed publisher. It’s difficult for anyone alive today to believe that up until the 1960s it was illegal to publish and sell literary books that included sexually explicit content.  Battles were fought – and finally won at great expense -  by Grove Press against the US government and many local jurisdictions over DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch. These cases literally led to “the end of obscenity” and created the groundwork that has enabled modern literary publishing to flourish in our time.

Rosset and Grove, together with myriad editors and publishers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York, were at the heart of a revolution in publishing, both in content and in form that in many ways inspired and led directly to an equivalent revolution in the overall American culture, that reverberates today.  Grove was at the heart of political, cultural and literary ferment in North America, introducing new voices not only from here, but from around the world, to American readers. Rosset more or less invented the trade paperback, and was a leader in introducing trade books to be used as supplemental reading for college courses, of course hitting its stride at the very moment that the Baby Boom generation went to college. The magazine and press brought an emerging set of writers to an emerging generation of readers, inspiring and changing the way millions read and thought about writing, politics, theater and art. Grove Press was as much a cultural institution as it was a publisher.

And, importantly, what this book most strongly highlighted for me is the meaning and power of a publisher’s brand. It is widely accepted that most publishers today have no identity with readers. Grove Press and its house literary journal, the Evergreen Review, were made into powerful and coherent brands that recognized the publisher as enabled it to introduce formerly unknown writers and artists to their audiences. Using graphics, typography and a consistently subversive publishing program, Grove was able to become a recognized brand for readers, the power of which, seemingly very few publishers have understood or been able to duplicate.

Counter Culture Colophon is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary literature and of course, publishing. Loren Glass was able to interview Rosset and many other principle players in the story of the press. And for many, it will be a truly inspiring tale.glass-150

 

Loren Glass is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. There is a really nice video of Glass speaking about Rosset and Grove at the Chicago Humanities Festival here. (55 minutes)

Sean Davis: The Wax Bullet War – Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist

June 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

 

wax-bullet-war-coverThe Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist – 978-1932010701 – paperback – Ooligan Press – $16.95 (ebook version available at lower prices)

Sean Davis grew up in Oregon, joined the Army after high school, went to art school for awhile, had an unsuccessful relationship with an attractive woman, and was working at an unsatisfactory job as a highway worker on September 11, 2001. The next day he walked into the Oregon National Guard recruiting office and re-enlisted, on the working assumption that he would be contributing to the greater good and giving himself a sense of direction and meaning. He had no idea he would soon end up on active duty in Iraq on the front lines of the war trying to figure out how to be a sensitive warrior in a strange country.

Davis is a talented writer and exceptional memoirist with a keen eye for details and a wry sense of humor. In Iraq he lost his best friend in an ambush and was himself critically wounded. He returns home after a lengthy period of recovery to deal with the aftermath of his experiences and suffers through what we now know is so common for the veterans of our seemingly endless recent wars, alcohol and drug dependency and a minimally helpful support system. Somehow, Davis managed to rediscover the interior place where his art comes from and was able to rebuild his life. He now has a family, an advanced degree, is actively an artist and a writer, and has created a nonprofit organization (A Rock or Something Productions: “veterans getting veterans into the arts”) to connect other veterans to the healing power of the arts.

Davis recounts the seeming insanity of daily life in the war zone with humor and clarity, and clearly cares deeply about the civilians he encountered in Iraq as well as the men and women with whom he served.  As an example, the wax bullets in the title were what was used in training exercises in Kuwait prior to active deployment – to save money. Evidently it escaped the thinking of military planners that in the plus 100 degree temperature there, the bullets would melt, fouling the soldiers’ guns, wasting time and endangering their lives. This is not the only example of how things go wrong for US soldiers and the Iraqi people in the midst of the war, which Davis describes with a soldier’s sense of black humor.

His description of what happened to him after he returned home is terrifying and powerful. When he does rediscover himself, we are right there with him, joined with his indomitable spirit to become someone better, someone who can be alive and present and fully engaged in the beingness of humanity.

The Wax Bullet War is a beautiful book, incredibly moving and compelling. I’d recommend adding it to the short list of great books about war and specifically about the real experiences of soldiers who fight and then must live their lives in time of peace.  Put aside some quiet time to read it and let it sink in.  Sean Davis website. Publisher Ooligan Press website.

Sean Davis bio: Sean Davis is an artist, writer, and returning veteran of the Iraq War. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University and an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. His previous work includes the novel Motivation and Toleration, published under the name Ian Avi, as well as contributions to the Portland Mercury, Nailed Magazine, and Split Infinitive. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and is one of the cofounders of Hubris Press in Portland, where he lives with his wife and daughters.

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Lee Gutkind: True Crime

March 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

TrueCrime_CoverTrue Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More – 978-1-937163-14-3 – paperback – InFACT Books – $15.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

Lee Gutkind is a long time writer and teacher of writing. He is the author or editor of more than 25 books and is also the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, a literary magazine that publishes narrative nonfiction exclusively. In many ways, he is a central figure in the growing category of creative nonfiction, a category of writing that has become significant only in the past thirty years.

True Crime is a collection, mostly but not all first person narratives of some very scary stuff. I think true crime writing can be much more disturbing than even the scariest fiction stories, mainly because we know these stories are true, and that the suffering we are reading about was experienced by real people. At the same time, what makes these experiences meaningful to us is the writers’ ability to transform direct experience into compelling narrative. They’ve still got to tell a great story or else the experiences they write about, regardless of their factual existence, will not have truly deep or meaningful impact on readers.

While this sometimes painful to read book is not what I usually am drawn to read, since my goal with Writerscast has always been to broaden my reading, with Lee Gutkind’s True Crime, I have certainly succeeded in going beyond my regular literary consumption. This is a powerful collection of narratives, almost all of which really do achieve the status of literary works, by virtue of their success in the transformation of direct experience into story telling. There is some excellent writing here, and stories well worth reading.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Girl Fighting, by Laurie Lynn Drummond, a former Louisiana police officer who is now (a very good) writer. Perhaps the most powerful and emotionally wrenching piece for me is Gabrielle Giffords Shooting: A Fatal Chain of Events Unfolds, a retelling that made me cry; perhaps the most painful and thought provoking is Spectacle: The Lynching of Claude Neal, but there are many others that moved me, and there were no stories I did not find interesting to read.

I can recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary American writing.Lee Gutkind Don’t mistake this book for journalism, recounting of violent crimes to entertain. This book is about the nature of violence and the varieties of human behavior we experience but sometimes do not understand.

Received a few days after I posted this interview: Open Road Media is pleased to announce the ebook publication of six classic works by Lee Gutkind, hailed by Vanity Fair as “the godfather behind creative nonfiction,” available on March 11, 2014.

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Daniel Pink: To Sell is Human

January 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

To Sell is HumanTo Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others – 978-1594631900 – Riverhead Books – paperback – $16 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

Daniel Pink is a terrific writer and in addition, he is extremely cogent in his thinking and presentation of ideas. The result is that his writing is very persuasive. I have long thought that selling is something that most of us do in one form or another on many occasions. Selling in that day to day sense, is about persuasion. Some of us are better at it than others, but it’s part of the fabric of human relationships. So I was very excited to discover this book and having read it, am now a big fan of Daniel Pink’s thinking on this subject.

Pink spent a lot of time and energy studying how the new American labor force works. In To Sell is Human he shows clearly that in today’s connected world, with selling defined as *moving* or *persuading* others – customers or colleagues, those you work for and those who work for you – all of us are ultimately involved in a form of selling.

As Pink himself puts it: “Whether we’re employees pitching colleagues on a new idea, entrepreneurs enticing funders to invest, or parents and teachers cajoling children to study, we spend our days trying to move others.”

Pink brings this home by drawing on social science but his insights are what makes this book special. The old rules of selling don’t apply anymore, and he tells us what we need to do in order to be successful in the modern world of collaboration and constant change.

Pink presents six successors to the elevator pitch, three rules for understanding others, five frames that can help us be more persuasive then ever, and more. This books is both visionary and practical, and really may change the way you think and therefore how you act in both work and personal social situations.

Dan Pink is a prolific author and motivational speaker. Dan’s first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, was a Washington Post bestseller. He also wrote The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need (the first American business book done in manga form). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future and another excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In total, this is a very impressive body of work. And as you can readily imagine, he is a great conversationalist and therefore we had a terrifically interesting conversation.  A visit to his website is highly recommended.danielpinkdwellDaniel-Pink-Sketchnote-web

Margaret Talbot: The Entertainer

December 27, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

entertainerThe Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century – 978-1594631887 – Riverhead Books – Paperback – $18.00 (ebook versions available at lower prices) – published November 5, 2013

Margaret Talbot was the youngest child in the last marriage of actor Lyle Talbot, so when she was growing up in 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles, her father, as a much older man, was a direct link to a much earlier period of American show business.  Lyle was born in Nebraska in 1902, and left his small home town as soon as he could – in 1916 he joined a traveling carnival.  From there he went on to an almost emblematic life, acting in traveling theater groups and  getting to Hollywood just in time for the talkies.  Handsome and debonair, he was a solid actor in some major Warner Brothers pictures with stars like Humphrey Bogart and Carole Lombard.  Later he appeared steadily in B-pictures and has some renown for being the lead in the now famous (but infinitely terrible) Ed Wood made Plan 9 from Outer Space, and as many other former film actors did, he ultimately became a fixture on television, including the recurring role of Joe Randolph on the long-running Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

A respected writer for the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot does much more than just telling the story of her father’s life.  The Entertainer is a loving biography of Lyle, but it is also a cultural history of modern American show business told from the inside.  And because Talbot is a sharp observer and an experienced journalist – as well as a loving daughter -  she is able to see both her father and the world he lived in and through with both clarity and appreciation.  And she is a really good writer too.

Some relatively few individuals have had the great good fortune to find their way into this part of the culture; whatever their roles, actors, stagehands, directors, camera operators, it was and still is a business, a lifestyle, and a world that was both magical and mundane, real and made up.  For all who were and have been in the film and television industry in whatever roles, the magic is real, and many of them, if not all, could be imagined as the “lucky ones” who get to be a part of the cultural zeitgeist that so many aspire to but never directly experience.  While Lyle Talbot never achieved stardom, he was a deservedly working actor in Hollywood for almost sixty years. Now his daughter has placed him at the center of a story both brilliantly and beautifully told, allowing us to understand the era in which he lived and worked.

I enjoyed this book as a work of cultural history well told, and it was also special for me because my own grandfather, like Lyle Talbot in love with theater and the movies, worked for Warner Brothers from the late 1920s into the early 1950s, and then my father worked in television and film for almost sixty years, so Margaret’s experiences as a child of show business were especially resonant for me, and having the opportunity to speak with her was great fun.

The Entertainer amplifies the story of 20th century Hollywood for any of us who still believe in its magic.  Visit the author’s website where there is more about the book and her work.Margaret_Talbot_6892final-210

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Paul Conroy: Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

November 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

conroy978-1602862364 – Weinstein Books – hardcover – October 8, 2013 – $26.00 (ebook versions available, prices vary depending on retailer)

Marie Colvin was an award-winning journalist who wrote principally for the London Sunday Times for almost thirty years until she was killed covering the siege of Homs in Syria in February, 2012.  She was raised in Oyster Bay (Long Island), NY, graduated from Yale in 1978 who worked for the British newspaper The Sunday Times from 1985 until her death.

Marie was an activist journalist in the best sense of the word, committed to reporting the lives and conditions of the oppressed and especially civilians suffering in wars, armed conflicts and governmental actions.  Her writing was vivid and clear, gripping and very muscular.

Colvin specialized in the Middle East, but also worked in East Timor, Sri Lanka, Chechniya and the Balkans. She was recognized by the British Press awards for her reporting in Chechniya (and an amazing escape from that war zone, also grippingly reported). In East Timor in 1999, she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees stranded in a United Nations compound that was surrounded by the Indonesian Army after the Timorese chose independence from Indonesia in a referendum.  Colvin and two other journalists refused to leave and forced the UN to stay as well, and eventually the refugees were extracted and taken in by Australia.

In 2001 she became the first Western journalist in years to enter Tamil Tiger rebel territory in northern Sri Lanka. When she returned to the government-controlled area, her group was fired on by Sri Lankan military, and she was wounded by shrapnel, losing the use of an eye.  She famously wrote a 3,500 word dispatch about her adventure while in the hospital in NY for surgery. From that time onward, her black pirate-style eye-patch became  the emblem that represented her irrepressible spirit to all.

John Burns, the veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, called her “one of the most respected and celebrated reporters on Fleet Street…She was, of course, absolutely fearless, though she knew the dangers well.”

Alan Philps, a former Telegraph foreign correspondent said: “What she brought to journalism was being a great eyewitness and being incredibly brave. It was a role she settled into and she never saw another form of journalism she wanted to do, but that meant she sacrificed everything for the job.”

In 2010 at a London newspaper industry service for fallen British journalists, she gave a moving speech about the work and risks of foreign correspondents: “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”

Marie Colvin reported from Libya in the middle of many battle zones during the revolution against Qadaffi, where she worked with photographer Paul Conroy, who became a close friend of Colvin’s.  In 2012, the two of them, working for the Sunday Times, made their way into Homs in Syria, where the government was bombarding the local population into submission.

Under the Wire is Conroy’s story about his friendship and work with Marie Colvin in Libya and Syria.  Most of the book is a blow by blow account of their time in Homs, where Marie was killed while trying to leave Homs after many days in terrible danger, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik and Conroy was grievously wounded as well.

The book is a vivid and powerful account, not only of the work of the foreign correspondents who went to Syria to document what was going on there, but of the people in the country on the rebel side, who wanted Marie, Paul and other western journalists there to report what was happening.  Acts of bravery, selflessness and heroism abound.

Paul Conroy’s story is a gripping and painful celebration of the human spirit, full of bravery and hope and a wonderful memorial to the work and life of Marie Colvin.  It’s also a reminder, as the civil war in Syria continues, of how much we need people like Marie to serve as a public conscience in the face of oppression and state sponsored violence.

Marie Colvin’s work has been published as On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin.   Visit her website to learn more about her life and work, and the Marie Colvin Memorial Fund.  The Colvin family has established a memorial fund in honor of Marie. The fund will direct donations to charitable and educational organizations that reflect Marie’s lifelong dedication to humanitarian aid, human rights, journalism and education. artworks-000050004263-oznov1-t500x500Marie-in-jean-shirt

Douglas Rushkoff: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

September 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Present Shock978-1591844761 – Current – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices, and paperback edition due February 2014)

“If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.”

As it happens, I started this Writerscast project as an antidote to my own sense of what Douglas Rushkoff calls Present Shock, which is about how time, technology, attention, human intelligence, culture, meaning, advertising, commerce and belief systems that mark 21st century modern life have changed the way we experience our lives.  This is an important book that having read and thought about, I can highly recommend.

What is ironic is that all of the things about our time that Rushkoff talks about in Present Shock, our feeling of being too busy and overwhelmed with input, our inability to filter out what does not matter to us and to focus on what does matter most are all the reasons why so many people I know will end up not reading this book at all.  In fact the author felt those same issues during the writing of the book, and had to devise a plan and method that allowed him to concentrate on getting the work done.

You are not alone if you are feeling the need to make some space for yourself.  It took me much longer to read this book than it would have some years ago.  And it took me much longer to find the space in my life to write this short piece and post it than I am comfortable with.  Technology in communication has enabled tremendous gains for many of us, while at the same time enslaving us to our devices.

Rushkoff brilliantly describes what has happened to us – the end of narrative, changes in the way we perceive and operate in time, what he calls digiphrenia – mental chaos provoked by digital experience – our need to escape the present, and our inability to filter information and sensory input.  We instinctively know what he is talking about because we experience it ourselves every day.

But most of the time, most of us believe all of these concerns are personal and individual – how do I learn how to cope with the modern world?  I think Rushkoff’s point in this book is that these are not individual problems, they are structural, and we need to start thinking about ways we can alter the course of our culture, to take control of technology, to act rather than be acted upon.  In that way, this is an inspiring book, which I hope will lead to change in thinking and behavior.

I interviewed Doug about one of his earlier books, Program or Be Programmed.  He is a terrific talker as well as writer and I am sure you will enjoy listening to our conversation. Rushkoff

 

 

Staughton Lynd: Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change

May 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

detail_496_Accompanyingfront300_copy978-1-60486-666-7 – PM Press – Paperback – $14.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

For me and for many others who came of age politically in the mid-to-late sixties, Staughton Lynd was an early and important figure.  He had been a Quaker and war resister, Civil Rights Movement participant, was cogent and critical about social structures and an early leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement.  He taught at Yale, but left academia, earned a law degree, and with his similarly activist partner and wife Alice Lynd, moved to Youngstown, Ohio and became active in the effort to save the steel mills there.  While that effort did not succeed, the Lynds have remained in Ohio for over 30 years working at a grass roots level in the labor movement, as well as with imates of Ohio prisons and with others across the country.

Accompanying is a short book, but extremely focused and coherent.  Lynd contrasts the hierarchical “organizing” efforts of the sixties civil rights and antiwar movements with the concept of “accompaniment” first articulated by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, wherein organizers listen to their colleagues rather than instructing them.  Lynd then applies this distinction between organizing and accompaniment to the social movements in which he has been a participant for the past fifty years, which include the labor movement, civil rights, antiwar organizing, prisoner insurgencies, and the Occupy movement of the past few years. Alice Lynd, who has been his partner in all these efforts, adds her experience as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War era and now as an advocate for prisoners in maximum-security facilities.

The Lynds together bring an incredible range of experience, dedication and commitment to the human spirit and to the kind of social change that so many have wished for and demanded for so long.  I was struck by how their description of accompaniment resonates so well with the principles of cooperation and listening espoused by so many who have grown up in the Internet era.  It’s crucial to connect these ideas to political and economic analysis and to questioning the organizing principles of our society.  Anyone interested in social change in the modern world should read this book and attend to its simple and powerful precepts.  Here’s a great piece by Lynd speaking at the IWW Centenary in 2005, a website with more information about his work, and the publisher page for Lynd and his books (recommend buying directly from the publisher, PM Press, to support its work). 2006_staughton_lynd  I am honored to have been able to have this conversation with this ever intelligent, dedicated, and coherent activist and writer.

George Gmelch: Inside Pitch

March 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

9780803271289_p0_v1_s260x420978-0803271289 – University of Nebraska Press Bison Books – paperback – $16 (no ebook edition available!)

Given my longstanding interest in baseball and an early background in anthropology, it’s kind of surprising to me that I missed knowing about the work of George Gmelch until very recently.

I ran across George’s books in some random searching having to do with baseball, and happily was able to get an introduction to him through my anthropologist brother.  When he was young, George was a baseball player, and a pretty good one.  Like so many others, he played for several years in the lower minor leagues, but never made it to the Major Leagues.  It’s possible he quit too early, but it’s also likely that he made the right choice to quit baseball and go back to school (and got his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara) and then became an accomplished cultural anthropologist, studying tourism, sport cultures, and migration. He has worked among and written about Irish Travellers, English Gypsies, return migrants in Ireland and Newfoundland, commercial fishermen, Alaska natives, and Caribbean villagers and tourism workers, and has taught at several universities.

Given his training as an anthropologist and his unusual background as a minor league baseball player, it made sense that he could study baseball players, perhaps in ways that non-players could never manage.  So some 30 years after his playing days ended, George arranged with friends still in the game to spend time with major and minor league players as an observer.  Over the course of five years, he interviewed more than 100 players, coaches and managers, and got to experience and document the inner workings and social milieu of modern day baseball as it is lived by its participants.

Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball is nothing like a typical anthropological ethnography.  There’s a great deal of George’s personal story throughout, and it’s neither dry nor academic.  But the observational techniques and abilities of the trained anthropologist are brought to bear, as George ruminates on the differences between modern players and those of his own era.

It’s unusual for us to get an insider’s view of the game that gets past the public relations walls that the institution and all its participants have build around it to protect the image of the game.  Minor league players, though rarely interested in George’s own experience as a player, were always willing to tell him about their experiences, and even normally wary major leaguers were willing to talk to him once he explained that he was a former player doing anthropology, not a reporter looking for an angle.

So if you love baseball, Inside Pitch is a terrific read, and will enrich your understanding of what it is really like to play professional baseball.  I was especially taken with the writing about and the interviews with players that illustrated the psychological struggles that players go through.  I recently read the excellent RA Dickey memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, which is a terrific complement to Inside Pitch, as so much of Dickey’s story is about how he managed to conquer his personal demons and harness his inner being to finally become a successful pitcher after years of struggle.  Gmelch both give us many quotes of players talking about their mental struggles and writes about these issues perceptively.

Baseball is generally considered a cerebral game because of its complexity and pace.  That, and the fact that there are so many games in a very long season, create a very challenging emotional and psychological environment for players.   We rarely, if ever, get to see close up what that can mean for them.  And because the vast majority of players who play in the minor leagues never make it to the majors or only get there for a brief time, reading about their struggles can change the way you think about the players who do get to the majors and stay there for any length of time.  They really do have to be special, lucky and to have developed a solid psyche in order to be able to survive and thrive in such a difficult and fraught environment.

George Gmelch has written eleven books and now teaches at the University of San Francisco, where he co-directs the anthropology program. I’ve now got an earlier book of his, In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People on my reading list as well.  Talking to him about his experiences as a player, anthropologist and writer was a terrific pleasure for me.2147483669_u_gmelch_georgedickey.book1  Alert to listeners: we had such a good conversation that I lost track of time, and this is a longer than average podcast at 54 minutes.

David George Haskell: The Forest Unseen

February 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Forest Unseen Cover9780143122944 – Penguin – paperback – $16.00 (ebook versions available, hardcover also)

Most of us are not very good at seeing the details in the world that surrounds us.  We’re in a hurry, we’re overloaded with information, and we don’t really have the patience for the kind of looking that it takes to absorb and think about that kind of information.

The brilliant geographer, Carl Ortwin Sauer observed this about naturalists:
“Much of what [they] identify and compare lies outside of quantitative analysis. Species are not recognized by measurements but by the judgment of those well experienced in their significant differences. An innate aptitude to register on differences and similarities is joined to a ready curiosity and reflection on the meaning of likeness and unlikeness. There is, I am confident, such a thing as the “morphologic eye,” a spontaneous and critical attention to form and pattern. Every good naturalist has it…”

This is a fairly apt description of the work that naturalist David George Haskell undertook before writing The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  And what a beautiful book it is!

Haskell is a biologist at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  He located a small piece of old growth forest nearby (old growth forest typically still exists in relatively tiny pockets in places where the terrain was too difficult for loggers to get into).  With a certain nod to Buddhism, Haskell found a one meter by one meter square piece of forest he termed his mandala, and committed to spending a full year in close observation of this tiny sampling of an original and relatively undisturbed ecosystem.

Over the course of that year, he intrepidly sat and watched, and sometimes closely examined with a magnifying glass, what happened in his square meter of land.  Each time he visited what ultimately became his meditation place, he recorded what he saw, and then researched and wrote about what had happened during that day.  Of course this sounds mundane and almost plodding.  And in lesser hands, this would just be a perhaps valiant exercise in close observation,.  But it’s in the writing and the meditative exploration that Haskell was able to transform his seen experience into magical prose explorations of nature and what it means to us.

Finding a tick on him leads to a discourse on the life cycle of the tick that is worth re-reading several times.  Hearing a chickadee in winter leads him to write about the amazing ways that these little birds survive the winter.  Finding a golf ball in his sacred space (this may be a piece of wilderness but it’s boundaries by a nearby golf course) provides Haskell with the opportunity to explore the meaning of what is the definition of “natural” and the relationship of humans to nature.

David Haskell writes beautifully about nature, but as well, writes brilliantly about the ideas that closely examining the natural world inspire in an intelligent and perceptive human being.  You can read this beautiful book simply to learn a great deal about a wide range of creatures and plants that we often take for granted, how an ecosystem works across time and changing seasons, and how in fact any of us could learn more by close observation.  You can also read this book simply for the sheer beauty of the writing, and the brilliance of its descriptive passages.  Haskell has extended beyond scientific or nature writing with a poetic and spiritual grace and the power of contemplative thought to create something very special and uniquely his own.

This is a book I have been buying frequently to give to friends and family (I am related to two active biologists), and recommend to everyone as one of my favorites.  It was a great pleasure to talk to David Haskell about his work.  I’ve been enjoying reading his blog, called Ramble, now on a regular basis, it’s a wonderful journey for anyone interested in the natural world and how to see it clearly.

Haskell holds degrees from the University of Oxford  (B.A. in Zoology) and from Cornell University (Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). He is Professor of Biology at the University of the South, where he has served both as Chair of Biology and as an Environmental Fellow with the Associated Colleges of the South. He is a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and was granted Elective Membership in the American Ornithologists’ Union in recognition of “significant contributions to ornithology.” He served on the board of the South Cumberland Regional Land Trust, where he initiated and led the campaign to purchase and protect a portion of Shakerag Hollow, where the The Forest Unseen is set, a forest that E. O. Wilson has called a “cathedral of nature.”  David Haskell lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he and his wife, Sarah Vance, run a micro-farm (with goat milk soaps available for purchase at Cudzoo Farm’s pretty cool website).DavidGeorgeHaskell

Note to listeners – I read this book in its lovely Viking hardcover edition, this interview is being posted in February, 2012; as of the end of March 2012, the paperback edition will be available.  The cover here is of the hardcover edition.

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