The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.

 

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

 

Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Not Your Summer Reading List

Summer reading lists can be fun. I’ve enjoyed compiling my annual list since I started this blog ten years ago. I also enjoy reading lists developed by others, as you often get insights into both great new books and the thoughts of the individual who passes along recommendations. My criteria for good summer reading lists include:  they must be focused on a short period of time when the compiler is away (e.g., for an August vacation), and the reading can’t be too heavy, as there are 10 other months to read tomes about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

What follows is not a summer reading list.

I’ve fallen so far behind in updating readers about the books I’ve found interesting, challenging, refreshing, and—yes—troublesome that I’ve decided to take a Twitter-like approach and provide two-four sentence summaries of everything I’ve read between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year.  Since I can’t remember the order in which I read them, I’m listing them in alphabetical order (by author).  Let me know if you find one or more books that pique your interest this fall.

Bad Stories

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  I began the summer with this work by the co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast and found it a coherent look at our current moment in history in America.  It was recommended by our former rector and Andrew’s godfather.  Almond makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”  Highly recommended.

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  This very impressive study by MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond is an important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.  Desmond’s research—coupled with real-life stories based on his years of living among the individuals he profiles—demonstrates vividly that evictions from homes often lead to a cascading of events that can trap people for years. The National Building Museum in Washington has a companion exhibit that runs through May 2019.  Highly recommended, especially for those interested in social justice issues in America.

UTC HQ

United Therapeutics Corporation’s Silver Spring Headquarters

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  Juan Enriquez was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in July, and you can watch his TEDx Talk for a general summary of the key themes of Evolving Ourselves.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.  The authors begin with a reminder of the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character is told the future is “Plastics” and then move forward to make the case that a similar scene today would use two words:  Life Code. While I may have understood one-half or less of this book (should have paid more attention in those science classes) this is still highly recommended, unless you believe the earth is only 10,000 years old (because in that case this book would make your head explode).*

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  These two Harvard professors have spent twenty years studying the decline of democracies all around the world.  Their research shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments.  This accessible book is highly recommended, and perhaps should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire Candice Millard.  The Churchill book starts slowly and doesn’t show the future prime minister in a flattering light, but it soon becomes a page-turner about a period of history that isn’t that familiar to me.  The Roosevelt story is amazing, especially when one thinks of the likelihood of any of our recent president going through such an arduous journey of exploration (i.e., highly unlikely).  Recommended.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. Now some 20+ years old, I came across this small book at a conference on geographic information systems and thought it was an intriguing topic:  a lone genius bucks the scientific establishment of the 18th century and figures out the “longitude problem” by building a clock that worked at sea.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world.  Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed. If you like to see how earlier eras addressed complex problems, and you enjoyed books such as The Invention of Nature and The Age of Wonder, this is a book for you.  Recommended.

The Nature of Parties

The Nature of Parties from Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  I read this short novel for the first time in August during a week on the Monterey Peninsula, and found it delightful. Steinbeck’s language is superb, focusing on life as it is and celebrating community while acknowledging the loneliness of the individual.  I keep returning to the line, “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”  Recommended.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  This seemed to be a good year to re-read this American classic about the collision of the Haves and the Have-Nots during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.  The author Ursula K. Le Guin said it best when she wrote, “So now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel . . . a year ago I would have said—for all its faults—Huckleberry Finn. But now—for all its faults—I’d say The Grapes of Wrath.” Highly recommended as a stark reminder of what we can be—both good and bad—as a country.

Beach Reading

Beach Reading

Now I’m caught up.  Happy reading in what’s left of the summer.

More to come…

DJB

*I also wanted to read this book to see if I could understand the work of one of our neighbors here in Silver Spring:  United Therapeutics Corporation.  The authors mention that UTC—at the time of the book’s publication—used technology developed by Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to “begin humanizing pig lungs—a project that could eventually help save the 200,000 people who die every year waiting for an organ that never comes.”  I love the fact that UTC has developed a big corporate campus, with fun and innovative architectural design (seen above), right in the heart of downtown Silver Spring.

Pacific Grove-by-God

Lone Cypress

Lone Cypress (photo credit: Claire Brown)

For several years I’ve regularly traveled for work to Monterey, California, a small coastal city some two hours south of San Francisco. So when we went looking for a west coast destination for this year’s family vacation, I suggested we check out the Monterey Peninsula.  Now that we’ve wrapped up a week-long visit to Pacific Grove—next-door neighbor to the city of Monterey—we’re just coming to realize how much we’ve seen and explored in this new (to us) part of the world.

Let’s begin with the coastline, the attraction to visitors for thousands of years.  I awoke every day shortly after 6 a.m. and went for walks of as much as two hours along the well-used (and well-loved) Monterey Bay Coastal Trail.  Pacific Grove’s portion of this 18-mile trail, which follows the path of the old Southern Pacific Railroad train tracks, hews close to the water and rock-strewn coastline, while Monterey’s comes inland a bit to incorporate Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Fisherman’s Wharf.  My walk often began before sunrise and was shrouded in fog.  Thankfully, Carmel Coffee Roasters in downtown Pacific Grove opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week, so I was well fortified with java.

Harbor Seals at Pacific Grove

Harbor Seals at Pacific Grove

 

Pacific Grove Coastline

Coastline along Pacific Grove (photo credit: Claire Brown)

Monterey’s submarine canyon is in such close proximity to the shore that the bay has deep, cold, nutrient-rich water all year. This brings all types of marine mammals and sea birds close to the shore.  I enjoyed watching the harbor seals lounge on the rocks and along the beach at the Stanford Marine Institute, listening to the sea lions bark from their perch along the rocks in Monterey, and tracing the flight of a wide array of birds out for their morning breakfast.  I would stop and read along the way and found that Pacific Grove and Monterey have done a good job of capturing the stories and people from their diverse histories.  It was on one of these markers that I learned that Pacific Grove developed an Episcopal camp-meeting history in the 1880s and that Monterey had a very diverse workforce in the commercial fishing and canning industries. That led one wag to suggest that you could tell Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey-by-the-Smell, and Pacific Grove-by-God.

Pacific Grove Panorama

Pacific Grove Panorama (photo credit: Claire Brown)

We also took advantage of the coastline for a day trip down to Big Sur along California Highway 1.  This coastal road—famous for its stunning views—did not disappoint.  Along the way we stopped to take in the Lone Cypress (technically on the 17-mile road at Pebble Beach), the famous Bixby Bridge, and McWay Falls, a beautiful waterfall that fell into the ocean at Big Sur. We happened to go on a simply glorious day, with no clouds or fog and a California-perfect 80 degrees.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge (photo credit: Claire Brown)

 

DJB at Bixby Bridge

DJB at the famous Bixby Bridge

 

Lone Cypress

Candice and DJB at the Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach

 

McWay Falls

McWay Falls

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the major tourist attraction in the area and after a visit it is easy to see why.  They have crowd-pleasers (how can you resist the feeding of otters and penguins) mixed in with educational exhibits (don’t miss the live-narrated films) and secluded tanks where one can sit and marvel at the amazing creatures found under the surface of the Bay. We spent an entire day at the aquarium and felt we’d only seen a glimpse.

School of Fish

School of Fish at the Aquarium (photo credit: Claire Brown)

 

Jellyfish

Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium

As we were leaving Pacific Grove on Saturday morning, Claire and I took in a Whale Watching tour on the Bay.  It was a wonderful three hours, where we saw a humpback whale breach the water in a way that takes one’s breath away, countless dolphins looking so playful as they swam by, sea lions that came up to give our boat a close look, and sea birds too numerous to capture in a blog post.  Very memorable.

Sea Lion

Sea Lion comes in to inspect the Whale Watchers

 

Dolphins in Monterey Bay

Dolphins seen on our Whale Watching tour

 

Humpback Whale Dives

A Humpback Whale Dives into the Monterey Bay

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the family over for a behind-the-scenes tour of our National Trust site, the Cooper-Molera Adobe, which will reopen in about a month after three years’ work to reimagine this hub of Monterey history, commerce, and agriculture.  The Barns at Cooper-Molera are already busy hosting special events, and the new bakery and restaurant, along with the re-interpreted historic adobes, will soon be ready to greet the public.

Of course, this couldn’t be a Brown vacation without great food. Two Pacific Grove restaurants became favorites, as we visited both twice over the course of seven days: Passionfish and Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar.  And after taking Claire back home to Oakland on Saturday, we had a culinary feast at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, this time in the downstairs restaurant. (Our first visit a year ago had been to the upstairs cafe.)  Here’s a description of what is intended for the restaurant, from the Chez Panisse website:

“From the beginning, Alice and her partners tried to do things the way they wanted them done at a dinner party at home, with generosity and attention to detail. The Restaurant, located downstairs, is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, by reservation only. The fixed menu consists of three to four courses and changes nightly, each designed to be appropriate to the season and composed to feature the finest sustainably sourced, organic, peak-of-their-season ingredients, including meat, fish, and poultry.”

We found it to be one of the most thoughtful menus—and meals—we’d ever encountered. It was delightful, and we were pleased to share it with Claire and her friend Blair, who joined us for parts of the vacation.

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

Finally, I went on something of a John Steinbeck kick while in Pacific Grove.  I’d begun to read The Grapes of Wrath on the plane ride out to California, as I’d decided this was a good time in our history to revisit this classic tale of the best and worst of America. But while in Pacific Grove, we stopped in a wonderful independent bookstore and I picked up a Steinbeck Centennial Edition of Cannery Row, the short novel/poem on accepting life as it is and putting the highest value on “the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.”  Or, as Steinbeck writes early in the novel, “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”

Nature of Parties

“The Nature of Parties” by John Steinbeck from “Cannery Row”

Reading Cannery Row proved to be an unexpected joy in a vacation full of joy and thoughtfulness.  I’ll let Doc’s last words in the book close out this remembrance:

“Even now,

I know that I have savored the hot taste of life

Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.

Just for a small and a forgotten time

I have had full in my eyes from off my girl

The whitest pouring of eternal light——”

Family along Monterey Coast

The Browns along the California Coast

More to come…

DJB

Finding Perspective

I recently asked my colleague Priya Chhaya to open a retreat with a reflection on changing perspectives.  We were discussing a familiar theme, the future of the American city, in an unexpected place—in this particular case, under the night sky in the American west.  For one of the readings, she chose the Sylvia Plath poem Stars Over Dordogne, calling out the second verse in particular:

“Where I am at home, only the sparsest stars

Arrive at twilight, and then after some effort.

And they are wan, dulled by much travelling.

The smaller and more timid never arrive at all

But stay, sitting far out, in their own dust.

They are orphans. I cannot see them. They are lost.

But tonight they have discovered this river with no trouble,

They are scrubbed and self-assured as the great planets.”

Priya noted that when in a city, which is home for many of us, you often only see what is right in front of you: the buildings, the roads, the cars, the noise, the obvious density. But a change in place can clear our minds to think beyond what is immediately in our line of sight to things that exist but which can be difficult to comprehend.  Our perspective is changed.

Plath takes a similar line of thought in ending Stars Over Dordogne:

“And what if the sky here is no different.

And it is my eyes that have been sharpening themselves?”

August is a time when many of us head off for summer vacations.  If that fits with your plans, think about how a change in place can bring a change in perspective.

The Montana landscape following thunderstrom

The Montana landscape following a western thunderstorm

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB