I just finished Ken Kesey’s novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which had been a rather large hole in my Pacific Northwest reading list. The geography couldn’t be more familiar; all the action takes place within seventy miles or so of my house in Eugene, Oregon. Kesey, who lived nearby, captured the blue-collar grit of this part of the world as well as anyone. I never met Kesey, but I’d occasionally spot him around town before his death seven years ago. I last saw him at the Eugene Celebration Parade. He rode atop a knockoff of his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bus, which he dubbed ‘Further.’ As I recall, he wore a black leather trench coat and dark glasses, soaking up curbside cheers. Mephistopheles in his realm. On the day of his funeral, his parti-colored casket was braced by throngs of adoring pallbearers.
I usually have a novel going but it takes me a long time to get through it. I’m a slow and deliberate reader. I like to know the circumstances of any novel I read—the context in which it was written and something about the person who brought it into the world.
The writing I do is pretty much nonfiction; I find my reading habits gravitate in that direction, too. Currently I’m halfway through The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. The fiction on my shelf fights a losing tug-of-war with the field guides. I sit quite content with these books, learning about the migrations of gray whales, the winter diet of pikas. I’m delighted to discover that the fluorescent yellow dot I spotted under a Sitka spruce last weekend was an aggregation of slime mold coalesced for the purpose of propagation. The cedar waxwings that materialize each fall to feed on my backyard crabapple, the scrabbling of possums at night, the strange caterpillar in the garage, the leggy spider . . . all beg investigation.
In the back of my mind I keep a list of great books and great writers I haven’t yet made my way to read. I pick away at them. I have next to my bed a collection of short essays by John Updike about works of visual art that have captured his fancy. I’m progressing at the pace of about an essay a week. The writing is superb—I’m reminded that I should someday get around to reading Updike’s novels. In the past year or so I’ve read a novella by Naguib Mahfouz, poems by Elizabeth Bishop, a masterful collection of Chekhov tales. I try to stretch myself. I try to remember that people with different sensibilities might have something valid to tell me, even if it’s as simple as how to put together a sentence.
And yet . . . Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly doubtful about the assumptions of the world, I wonder why I should feel burdened to complete any particular reading list. Many a worthy bit of writing lacks the imprimatur of humanities professors. I spent an hour recently reading a Kinkoed collection of poems handed me by the author, a shabby fellow hanging out next to the post office. The poems were quite good. I handed him a buck; I should have given him ten.
I look back over my past ten years of reading and I see that there are some types of writing that I approach with a sense of obligation and others to which I go willingly. The latter is represented by writers who speak to my particular worldview. In the realm of high fiction, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. Poets such as Theodore Roethke and Mary Oliver. Chroniclers of nature such as David Quammen and Rick Bass. I’m OK with this notion of coming back around to what interests me, to what speaks to me most forcefully. Eventually you have to plant your flag on one side or the other, whether as a reader, a writer, a citizen. Moby Dick can wait.