Issue #3: Nowhere Places Matter, Too
Plus, the book cover of the week and our favorite links from around the bookish web
Before we begin: Today marks four months since our doors opened. Kind of amazing that one-third of a year has passed. When we opened on November 18th, in the midst of a pandemic, we didn’t know what to expect, but we did know we wanted to open a peaceful place, a respite, a place where you could find beautiful books while also getting away from the chaos out there. Our door is heavy and loud and when it closes behind you we like to think it shuts out the noise (figuratively as well as literally). We’re honored to be here. Thanks to everyone who has come by to browse, say hello, or just sit a while. Here’s to many more months. Happy reading!
Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind by Grace Olmstead
Midway through The Seer, a documentary about author Wendell Berry and the Kentucky county in which he makes his home, Berry claims that “the great cultural failure that we have made here in the United States is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own character, their own needs and demands . . . For nowhere. And of course there’s a penalty for that and of course we’re paying that penalty.” Berry has great affection for places that have been forgotten—those are that are out of the way and considered out of touch—and over the years his work has been dedicated to reminding his readers that such places have value.
Grace Olmstead’s new book, Uprooted (out this week from Sentinal), has a similar mission. Like Berry, she is concerned about the penalty that must be paid by a society that forgets its people and places. It’s an exploration of what happens when you view small places as “nowhere places”. “Many rural towns,” she writes, “are considered interchangeable and expendable, valuable not for their own sake but because their resources . . . Have for many decades been exported to other places by large corporations. These towns’ worth (or lack thereof) is contingent on what other spaces think of them, take from them, or offer them.” And later she writes, “it’s easy to exploit places we don’t know, places we believe to unimportant . . . But extraction of value at the expense of the land and its people destroys both the nowheres and the somewheres, if you give it time.”
But Uprooted isn’t a sentimental hagiography of the American small town. Olmstead recognizes the flaws of many small places, acknowledges the lack of opportunities many of them offer. She knows many of them can be provincial and prejudicial. Thus its not an ode to such places so much as an invitation to reevaluate how we think about the role such places play in our society-at-large.
You don’t need to live in a small town or a rural community to care about her thesis. After all, “wherever we decide to live,” she writes, “we must learn to stick: choosing to invest ourselves in place, to love our neighbors, to leave our soil a little healthier than it was when we arrived.” And that sticking needs to be done in a responsible way:
Growth is often new and promising. It’s important for growing the diversity and health of [an] area. But if it isn’t cultivated in a thoughtful way—in a way that preserves even as it innovates—then all the touchstones that gave people . . . Their sense of purpose and heritage will be lost.
Only when we change our thinking and our approach to these far-flung “nowhere” places can we “begin to fight off the exploitation and abuse that have so often characterized our rural homelands. It is the only way we can begin to build places that both draw newcomers and keep the children of the land in place.”
Uprooted belongs alongside recent titles like Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, Phil Christman’s Midwest Futures, Jessica Goudeau’s After the Last Border, and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock—books that ask us to rethink the way we approach our collective future by caring about people and places that aren’t popular or exotic or flashy. Our lives depend on it.
You can buy Uprooted in the shop or online by going here.
Book Cover of the Week
There’s a lot going on here! You could spend an afternoon just contemplating the color.
Around the Bookish Web
As a man is, so he writes, and Ishiguro’s sentences have nothing to prove. In the hands of some of his contemporaries — Martin Amis, say, or Salman Rushdie — the novel can sometimes feel like a vehicle for talent; high-burnish prose comes at the reader in a blaze of virtuosity, but the aesthetic whole isn’t always equal to the sum of its parts. Ishiguro, a practitioner of self-effacing craft, takes a contrary approach. At first glance, his books can appear ordinary. “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” is the far from dazzling first sentence of “The Remains of the Day.” The real action happens between the lines, or behind them, as when Stevens justifies his taste for sentimental romance novels on the grounds that they provide “an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one’s command of the English language.” That they might also provide a dose of wish-fulfillment to a disconsolate, middle-aged bachelor is something we are left to infer for ourselves. It is not for nothing that Ishiguro has named Charlotte Brontë as the novelist who has influenced him most. From “Jane Eyre,” he learned how to write first-person narrators who hide their feelings from themselves but are transparent to other people. Rereading the book a few years ago, he kept coming across episodes and thinking, Oh, my goodness, I just ripped that off!
Margot Enns reviewed the new biography of John Steinbeck for the Kirk Center: a piece with the headline, “America’s Angriest Writer.”
Souder’s biography does what Steinbeck claimed the purpose of a writer should be: “exposing our many grievous faults and failures, dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams [and reflecting] … man’s proven capacity for greatness.” Souder presents Steinbeck’s wavering contradictions throughout his life—his fear and desire for success, his hatred of both good and bad reviews, his love for women, yet difficult marriages, his compassion for the disenfranchised and yet his philosophy that, as Souder puts it, the world is “‘not driven by some external imperative but simply exists’ … [which] offered no comfort to the disadvantaged.” But his capacity for greatness comes through in his novels.
“The blurb has become its own idiom, its own genre,” says Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life and the forthcoming story collection, Filthy Animals. “What happens is [blurbers] try to take their enthusi-asm for and their enjoyment of the work and turn it into something that can be used as marketing copy. Because the marketplace is so noisy, they’ve got to turn the volume to a 10 just to cut through.”
That’s all for this issue. See you next time.
— Your Friends at Goldberry Books