A few thoughts after burying some roots:

photo 1
Quick study, in pencil & strong tea, of Giant Solomon’s Seal root (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)

During solstice-week, some roots and bulbs I ordered came in the mail. They were tied tenderly into bags full of loose, moist soil. When I went out in the cold and wet to bury them, I thought about what it means to be dormant; after nutrients are recovered and stored, after the aerial parts have withered, the plant’s metabolism slows. It performs minor renewals and maintains its cell walls. It waits, quiescent, for the return of adequate light and favorable temperatures.

Dormancy seems to be less about sleeping than about a kind of timely introversion; all inessential things are pared away, needs are reduced, and purpose is focused. It is less about retreat than it is about varieties of gathering in preparation for a coming emergence. I note some valuable intimations for the practice of writing.

Setting out roots is an emphasis in distinction. It’s important that the root make good contact with the soil in order to start taking up nutrients and maybe developing mycorrhizae, but no matter how well I pack the soil around the root with my palms, or how closely the afternoon rain fits the soil to the root’s skin (a plant’s outer protective covering is called its epidermis), the root remains distinct. It performs endless exchanges with the substances and organisms that surround it, but it is always engaged primarily with its own growth, its own becoming. Correspondingly, if it is uprooted, the microstructures of the soil will reform, and soon the earth won’t remember its shape.

Maybe prolonged proximity has a blurring effect on boundaries; when I come in from my garden to my bookshelves I see a very similar ground. Some of the words we use to talk about reading suggest implantation, embedding.
I can’t help having the sensation that between the closed covers of books and inside my own skin there is radical activity that goes on unseen. In my imaginings this activity resembles a churn. Every time I reopen a book I am faced with something that has undergone some sort of mysterious rearrangement whereby, even though I read the same words, I experience something other and cohere to unfamiliar surfaces.
Book and reader meet like two active processes working in tandem. There is the presentation, as between the earth and the root, of a collaboration in growth.
What kind of a form will I elaborate when I am ‘into’ the book? Correspondingly, where and in what shape does a book exist when it isn’t being read?

photo 2
Quick study, in pencil & strong tea, of Blue Camas bulbs (Camassia quamash)

Reading an essay by Mary Ruefle I came across a moment where she considers the book-reader relationship in terms of breastfeeding: “Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.” There is something about the relationship between book and reader that is slippery and metaphor resistant. Who is the breast and who is the suckling is the same question as who is the root and who is the earth or who is the woman and who is the apple. None of these questions have meaningful answers.

What is important is the number and sort of exchanges that are made, the sense of reciprocal nourishment, and the feeling of expansion through participation with the other. What’s important, in other words, is a kind of tending.

Notes:
Roots from the lovely people at Strictly Medicinal Seeds
Ruefle, Mary. “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Seattle: Wave Books, 2012. 183-99. Print.

 

The Book Snob Inside

photo (2)Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.

-Ezra Pound, ABCs of Reading

When I first noticed that the people whom I asked “so, what are you reading lately?” often began their responses with the disclaimer “oh, nothing you’d be interested in,” I realized that I had a problem. I also realized that the problem was somewhat widespread among the literary.

In a way, readers are always in the company of the books they’ve read like a statement of predisposition. If we’re aware that a certain reader favors one sort of book we assume that we can predict what other sorts of books might attract or repel that reader.

It’s easy to prize our own literary habits over everyone else’s, and it’s easy to find fault in the choices of others by stacking books in highbrow piles and lowbrow piles. It’s pleasurable to think that no other readers are so submerged in the lives of books or so able to appreciate their worth as we are. This is the kind of self-indulgent, self-elevating thinking that is apt to bring on the condition of book snobbery.

The choices a reader makes have to do with the reader’s needs, and a reader’s needs are subject to fluctuations. This fact, observable in ourselves, should pause our evaluations of others. What might happen if we were to first seek deeper recognitions when encountering another reader? Would our connections over books be strengthened and elaborated if we were to consider and celebrate the reading desire before examining the reader’s choices? Should we be asking, “so, what have you felt like reading lately”?

Maybe the tendency to book snobbery has something to do with the individual nature of the act of reading itself. Whether or not a reader associates with a community of readers in some way, the reading act is one that happens alone and in a private space. A reader develops and hones a fine ability to exclude ambient activity at will. (A reader with children develops this talent to olympic proportions.) Because of this, the reader inhabits a willfully exclusive place. Maybe it isn’t too much of a leap from one expression of exclusivity to another.

In the isolation of the reading space the reader goes through extraordinary things. Complex neural systems are at play activating emotions, senses and integrations. In the upheaval of the moment it is difficult to imagine that someone else might have the capacity to empathize with or even comprehend our response. The reader is isolated in a kind of rapture. The sweetness and violence of this feeling is somewhere near the heart of the desire to read.

Exposing an experience that was meaningful to us to someone else is dangerous. Maybe book snobbery is a way of erecting barriers, of closing vulnerabilities. What might we discover if we allow these interior experiences to be an impetus to connect? What if we are more open to these connections when they are offered? How might our own literary lives be enriched, or our relationships in general?

To wit, a possible bookcover:

image2

Posing a Literary Invitation

openPray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.
-Ben Jonson, Epigram I

Go, and take the little book which is open in the hand. Take it, and eat it up; and it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey, but it shall make thy belly bitter.
Revelation x

Oh, Grow to know me. I am not happy. I will be open.
-Muriel Rukeyser, “Effort at Speech Between Two People”

A reader is subject to invitations. A book is closed, but it might be opened. Is it worth the risk?

A literary invitation is private and particular as well as open and universal. From each encounter it seeks acceptance and a certain amount of attention.

What the invitation has to accomplish is intrigue, and so provocation is its nature.

An invitation might be considered a kind of a promise, albeit an ambivalent one, and so no invitation is accepted without just hesitation.

Of the receiver little is required but to attend; some trust is involved.

The question that hangs at the end of the invitation is vulnerability. Care must be taken on both ends.

I once heard the poet Jane Hirshfield describe a practice of seeking the divine in every stranger. She demonstrated this by tilting her head sideways inquisitively, peering at the invisible stranger and saying “Buddha?” with the smile of someone on the cusp of recognition. This is an old idea. To the Greeks the gods always dwelt in the most unlikely form. It’s an idea with positive social implications; imagine everyone treating each other like gods.

When I think about it, I am a person who approaches invitations in a very guarded way. Will my attendance be rewarded? What will it cost? Is it the right time? My hands are up, palms outward in that gesture we use to mean non-involvement. When I think about it, I wonder what I’ve missed with my hands in this shape.

What if in our conception of books as objects we embedded the act of opening into the book-form in order to ready ourselves to receive/read? In other words, to open a book we have to become open ourselves. It isn’t easy or safe. It might take practice. We have to understand outer appearance as potentially misleading. We have to conduct our minds the way a person might conduct a group of diverse instruments into a sort of fugue that will actively build toward understanding. Curiosity can vibrate in its own tone along with unbias, generosity, various experiences, conscious moderation of judgement and all the other particular things a particular invitation might invoke.

Once our minds are composed, once we’ve gotten past appearances, the last obstacle is fear. I think the cost of accepting an invitation might be a willingness to be bruised, or punctured or burdened. Maybe this is the offering a reader makes when approaching a text or accepting an invitation. Maybe the interchange between book and reader has a sort of sacred aspect to it in that the reader makes an offering in order to receive something in return, and the nature of this thing is unknown until the moment it arrives. Fear and potential should be balanced, and the reader should decide which is weightier.

It is risky to accept an invitation, but is it riskier to refuse?

Prospectus

Books inhabit our spaces. As objects, they populate our physical experiences in nearly the same way that other people do, as beings with unfixed interior lives around which we constantly reconfigure ourselves. The daily interactions we have with books deserve scrutiny and consideration, and it may be that greater attentiveness will clarify and optimize these relationships.

In this site the habits, interrelations and generations of books will be observed and recorded with particular attention to their community-forming tendencies. Examinations of the ways people handle books, and cohabit with them and use them to connect with other people will be made. In this site the invitations books offer will be accepted, no attempt will be made toward perfection and no divergence or digression avoided.

The question guiding this inquiry will be simply this: how do books live with us? More succinctly, if all book-encounters happen within a physical context, how does that context, in particular a reader’s material habits, influence the way books are meaningful to us and direct our literary explorations and thought? The working hypothesis will be that mindful reading can have a dynamic impact on our experience of books and the way we integrate their content into our thinking. To determine the nature of this impact is the work of this site.

A search for strategies of mindful reading will require experiments, some of which will certainly fail, and so I’ll have to learn to embrace failure. It will require me to draw from my own environment, thereby exposing myself in uneasy ways. I’ll also need to visit the places books congregate and gather other personal accounts, and these things will require me to work past my timidity and get comfortable with feeling awkward.

I’ll post my findings every Friday in the hope that eventually patterns will emerge and this study of stacks will gain form and direction. But more importantly, it’s my hope that the act of writing about reading can open a practice that is so essentially solitary into a space where substantial connections can grow, and that you, reader, will become one of those connections.