Monthly Archives: July 2013

My blog has been reborn

New posts aren’t here. My new site has all this content & more.

Gilbert Logos x

I’ll keep this blog up under this old richardgilbert.wordpress.com address, which some readers have bookmarked. Many others have already been using the current url, where the blog and its five years of content are now located for ongoing posts:

http://richardgilbert.me/

For some time I’ve been paying WordPress a little extra for that custom url. So most readers should transfer seamlessly without having to do anything. If you bookmarked my first address, which had continued to function with the custom url, you will have to make a new bookmark. I’m not yet sure about this transfer’s impact on subscribers, because I had two addresses in play before and either one worked. Now they are separate.

Please visit my other location for everything that’s here and all the new content that has been uploaded since July 12, 2013.

Thank you,

Richard Gilbert

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How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Review: Ted Kerasote’s new dog book

Pukka’s Promise charms & irks this reviewer, a lover of canines.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 388 pp.

Pukka in action.

Pukka in action.

Once when I was farming, I visited another shepherd and was stunned by the tameness of his sheep. Dave was a retired librarian, tall and energetic and assertive, and passionately in love with his little farm and his flock. Now sheep are timid creatures and know we’re predators—with our staring, front-placed eyes, dominating movements, most of us reeking of meat—but Dave’s let us amble right up. They greeted us with trusting eyes. I saw why: he spoke constantly to them, calling each ewe by name, commenting on her pretty lambs, and inquiring how she was doing. No predator does that. I realized that I didn’t use my own voice enough, but also felt I wasn’t as fine a shepherd as I’d supposed. Busy and all business, I took good care of my hoofed wards but seldom communed with them.

Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs had a similar effect. I adore dogs and have tried to be a good master to mine, but Kerasote is in a different league—it’s one lucky dog, with one glaring exception, who has him as his master. He hikes and hunts and plays with his pal, talks to him constantly, teaches him many words, and selects the best diet, playthings, and beds. Kerasote’s new book tells how when his beloved Labrador cross Merle died at age thirteen, he set out to replace him with a dog that might live much longer. This means one free of genetic defects and given the best home and veterinary care. Pukka comes from a Minnesota kennel that specializes in genetically screened field-type Labradors.

Canine age-extension is the book’s marketing peg and also a theme that unifies its meld of memoir—his first two years with Pukka—and how-to advice. There are extensive researched sections on diet, breeding, and vet care.

Kerasote’s advice and practices may seem nutty to your average dog owner. For instance, he scorns what he views as unnecessary scheduled vaccinations and also opposes neutering, making the case that both practices shorten dogs’ lives. The first issue I agree with, having grown to resent the way many vets now push products and procedures, though it’s been easier to go along to get along with my vet. The second, while perhaps true, is problematic for typical owners. As would be Pukka’s favorite breakfast: ground elk meat, chunks of elk heart and liver, chopped spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, and cauliflower, mixed with a raw egg and fish oil, and topped with an elk rib.

Given his dog’s diet, Kerasote is surprisingly moderate about kibble—if its maker abjures grain. But when I looked up one of his recommended elite brands I found that it just underwent a massive safety recall. Fact is, legions of dogs have lived to ripe-old ages eating mainstream and boring and grain-extended—and usually fresh and monitored—brands like Purina and Old Roy. Of course Kerasote doesn’t accept that thirteen or fourteen is sufficient. And he’s got a great emotional point, one that might be addressed by the intelligent selective breeding and conscientious care he advocates. Wouldn’t it be wonderful indeed if our dogs lived to at least twenty-five?

Kerasote lets his dog out

I was charmed by Kerasote’s warm-and-fuzzy persona, and admired his bravery in revealing it, while doubting I’d go half as far.

The deal-breaker for me was when he let Pukka roam his Wyoming village with other dogs. To Kerasote, this teaches a dog independence and helps it become an individual and attain the je-ne-sais-quoi Merle possessed after living in the wild before Kerasote found him. But even if Kerasote’s burgh is as dog-friendly as he says, he’s expecting everyone to love dogs, which they don’t. And roaming dogs get into garbage, harass other dogs, kill chickens. As a farmer, I saw the horrors to farm animals that loose dogs inflict. The late lamented Merle carried a bullet, and Kerasote admits this probably was from the gun of someone whose livestock Merle was chasing. He says he teaches Pukka to leave domestic ruminants alone, and depicts use of a shock collar to break a deer-chasing habit, but neither lesson’s foolproof when dogs are untended and in packs. It’s weird to learn that Kerasote is exposing Pukka to the risks of roaming even as he frets over the composition of Pukka’s toys and the effects of herbicide residues in his environment. I sense that Kerasote’s expressed antipathy to industrial agribusiness is larger, the blind spot of a hunter-gatherer toward all agriculture. I imagine he’d have a hard time grasping a husbandman’s distress over maimed ewes or massacred hens: You’re just going to kill them anyway, right?

I gathered from Amazon.com reviews that some readers devoured the book’s memoiristic passages while skimming, as I sometimes did, its swaths of technical information. Kerasote’s melding of the two aspects was impressive, though, and the information is there when and if you need it.

And, again, what a loving buddy he makes. When Pukka rides in Ted’s car, he has his own seatbelt, naturally. When Kerasote backpacks, Pukka also totes—panniers containing a supply of his own dehydrated elk meat—and, needless to say, Kerasote’s first-aid kit includes dog-specific products.

Memoir aspect reveals a poignant choice

You gather as you read that Kerasote is alone in life as in the wilderness, other than Pukka. He’s aware of your awareness and curiosity, and late in the book sets a revealing and poignant scene. As he spends a freezing night in his tent, cuddling Pukka for warmth, he recalls his recent break-up with a woman he still loves. She, president of her own company on the East Coast, can’t relocate to his remote western valley; he won’t abandon his location and lifestyle—both choices inseparable from his career as a top outdoor writer and photographer.

A snippet:

I unzipped the bag and put it over both of us, spooning him against me, my sweet young pup, his head under my chin, his back against my chest. I held him and thought, “How curiously things have turned out.” Here I was—more than halfway through my allotted run—still without a human partner, but with this very fine dog, with whom I was spectacularly in love: alone on the great divide, but not.

Perhaps Pukka felt my restlessness. Rubbing his face against my jaw, he gave me a lick on the cheek. I pulled him closer and felt his heart beating against mine. Then he relaxed completely and let out a sigh: “Ah, that’s better—touch, together, as we should be.”

How curious it would be—in truth, ironic and sad—if Kerasote’s sentimental view of dogs one day costs Pukka his life. Then again, I’ve never sustained his constant connection to a canine, and I admire it.

Which brings me to a real dilemma in rating Pukka’s Promise. Do I give this five-star book four stars because I disagree with and lament one immature notion? No matter what he says, I’m not going to let my dog roam; I presume his other readers won’t either; and surely 99.9 percent of the owners of roving dogs don’t buy 400-page books like this or expect affirmation for their rudeness and neglect. So maybe this extremist, with his surprising and stimulating contrary vision, is simply challenging the moderate middle to become a little better with our dogs, more worthy of their love.

Reluctantly, and in truth guiltily, I do dock Kerasote’s fine book for my one major disagreement, finding his practice odious. I sense it’s the dark side of his rare virtues as a master, a writer, and an outdoorsman.

Explore Books Photo

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