Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lost in a good book

As I was halfway through writing the following post, I took a break to browse a few of my favorite blogs – and discovered that Green Bean is also blogging about books. More specifically, she’s given us a challenge! It’s a pretty accessible challenge, not too scary at all if you like to read: pick an ecologically relevant book, read it during the month of May, then share your thoughts. I’m totally in!

In the February issue of Harper’s, Ursula Le Guin wrote an article on books entitled “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading.” I’m not a fan of Ms. Le Guin’s books, but the article was interesting. In large part it laments big business and the destruction of the publishing industry, but she makes some good points about reading as well. Very relevant to Green Bean’s book challenge, she actually equates the publishing industry to Michael Pollan’s discussion of corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I also like her reminder that “For most of human history…Literacy…was power itself.” I think this is still true, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent. She also discusses the social bond created by those who read the same books. I do have to take exception to Le Guin’s contention that blogs have not yet developed aesthetic form, but that’s beside the point.

The most important point, in my mind, that Le Guin makes about reading is that
…reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness – not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; [thank goodness!] you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you.

I like this idea. After all, I’m doing lots of work on myself and my life lately. Books aren’t going to do that work for me, but they provide me with a tool that can help me do the work that I want to do. I also think this can be applied to many of the “green” changes I’m making in my life. Putting things in the recycling bin is good for the planet, but unless I give my heart and mind to what I am doing, this is really just another way of disposing of trash. When I give my trash my heart and mind, however (cheesy, I know, but bear with me, ok?), I find that just throwing it in the recycling bin is no longer good enough. I relate to it in a more active manner. I investigate composting, unsubscribe from catalogs, and think more carefully about packaging. It’s the same as watching a movie versus reading the book. The movie does the work for you; the book forces you to imagine what the characters look like, what their voices sound like, what sort of expressions pass across their faces as the plot unfolds.

But enough theory, back to the books…thank goodness I found paperback swap recently, because I’ve discovered I have a LOT of educating myself to do on all this green / simplicity / frugality business. Yes, there’s lots of info I can find online, but see arguments for books above. I am just about to cross the 200 mark on my wish list…but so far, I’ve restrained the urge to buy.

I recently finished The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It was an interesting mental exercise to go through, but I can’t say it was life changing. It did highlight a lot of the ways in which we impact our planet, and the speculations were interesting, but I felt at the end like there was something missing. It was basically a long-term look at what would happen to the planet over the next few millenia if we just vanished tomorrow. He writes another shorter piece in last month’s Vanity Fair imagining the world a century from now (with us still here).

Before “Buy Nothing” month began I had ordered a book called Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll. I have to get back to this one. So far I’ve only read the intro, but it seems like it’ll be a fairly accessible book.

Currently, I’m reading The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair-Trade by David Ransom – I’m only a few dozen pages into it, but it’s a pretty accessible book so far. It gives some background about the economic theories behind free trade, and then investigates what fair trade is and why it’s so necessary in today’s world. I think it’s important for me to read books like this because although I have a general idea of what fair trade is and why it’s a good thing, I have big gaps in my knowledge and really need to take the time to make sure I am making well-informed choices.

Somebody recently reminded me of Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which is a wonderful work of fiction that forces us to rethink humans and our role in the world. I’m going to revisit it as soon as I work my way through the stack that I’ve yet to read once.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t read Fast Food Nation, but luckily mom just finished it and is passing it along, so soon I won’t need to duck my head in embarrassment or change the topic every time somebody mentions it.

This is the part where I was going to ask you for your recommendations about your favorite books that have inspired or educated you; changed the way you look at the world; made you wake up and take notice…but instead, I think I’ll refer you to Green Bean’s Challenge. There’s a little button over on the side bar that you can click that’ll take you to her blog and the instructions on how to sign up. Check it out, choose a book, and share your thoughts with others. Of course if you’re not up for the challenge, I still want to hear what you think I must read next.

My selection for the challenge is Common Wealth (reminder: oldest younger brother, you are passing this on to me, remember?). I’ve heard good things about it, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between individuals, not just in our neighborhoods, but around the globe, so I am really looking forward to this read.

So go join the challenge, my fellow bookworms!


Heather said...

Great minds think alike. I have been prepping a post about the library for later this week. Reading has always been a love of mine. Happy reading and thanks for the link to green bean's challenge!

Debbie said...

Any post about books is a fabulous post,in my opinion. 'Fast Food Nation' awaits you and I would also recommend 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson to you. Written in 1962 this book was instrumental in the ban on DDT. I think I might have a copy up in the attic so I will go on a search for you. I signed up for the book challenge - what would you recommend?

Melissa said...

Heather, I can't wait for your post. I'm a total nerd when it comes to books :)

Amma - (that's you Debbie, btw) I would definitely like to read Silent far as recommendations, the ones high up on my list of "want to read" are "Affluenza" by John De Graaf, "Animal Vegetable Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver and "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan. I'm waitlisted for them all on paperbackswap now.

Blue Collar Crunch said...

World Without Us was actually going to be next on my list of general interesting reading before the didn't seem like it would be change-inspiring enough to me to make it my book for the challenge, though. More of just a very involved thought experiment (though an intriguing one!).

Paperback Swap is the greatest, isn't it?

Melissa said...

BCC - I think you're right on with your thoughts about World Without Us. I see you chose Deep Economy...I'm interested to hear your comments, as I've been meaning to read that one too! And yep, I adore paperback swap!