ColumnRead a book. Sustain your mind.
In yet another new chapter of “What’s Going on Upstairs,” it seems that scientists have had a virtual breakthrough in figuring out what fiction does to our brains. Recent studies show that reading about a made-up event can trigger the same neuro-bells and whistles as does taking part in an actual event. That is to say, when we read, “See Spot run,” we in some ways experience Spot running. With this in mind, given that it’s Earth Month, let us consider how certain stories can make us feel as if we’re soaring through the air, splashing in the sea or, for the more grounded among us, happily playing in the dirt.
But first, let’s agree with our friends in the lab (no deniers here). There’s no doubt that certain words and well-crafted sentences can have a similar effect on our minds as does the smell of fresh-baked bread, taking us to a time and place far beyond where we are when the reading experience occurs. And that’s the point, right? We often read books to escape our current experience and trade it in for another. Moreover, in many of the best novels, place functions as a character in and of itself, complete with attributes that go beyond backdrop to both embody and tease all five senses; whether it be Paris or Pi’s pontoon, the venue of a novel informs how we “feel” about a story and allows us to “go along” with the action.
So let’s celebrate novels that take us outside – tales that get our tails off the couch, out of the library and up from our lounge chair (yes, a beach read implies that you’re outside, but you know what we mean) and take us someplace else—namely, someplace without a roof. Enclosed please find deserts, jungles and mountains, oceans and rivers, blue skies and lush valleys…
1. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather (1927)
A natural and majestic silence pervades Willa Cather’s story of Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Josh Vaillant’s humble mid-19th century journey from the Midwest to a newly established Catholic diocese in New Mexico Territory. From the onset, as the two travel first to the Gulf of Mexico before heading out into the Native American frontier, Death Comes for the Archbishop captures a feeling that is pristine, nascent and dry – a pure presentation of the American West on the eve of conquest. Reading the novel, you get a deep sense of (mis?)guided faith as you witness the two men’s plodding entrance into a new and largely undisturbed world. Every village, mesa, path and stone along the way is offered up for examination and contemplation. In contrast to later, typical Western novels where the outward thrust is violent and clumsily unobservant, Cather allows us to clearly see the trail upon which our nation was to tread.
2. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac (1958)
Dash, gallop and hop-skip from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada with Ray Smith (Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (based on the author’s friend, Zen Buddhist and Beat poet Gary Snyder) as they whoop and hike their way out of city life in a search of transcendence. Booted and ruck-sacked, these are perhaps Kerouac’s most “holy” characters. The plot of The Dharma Bums rises up, almost panting, as Kerouac’s signature freestyle prose is ideal for delivering the air and sounds of those epiphanies that only happen in nature. Even at rest, you’re there with them to catch your breath: “The yard was full of tomato plants about to ripen, and mint, mint, everything smelling of mint, and one fine old tree that I loved to sit under on those cool perfect starry California October nights unmatched anywhere in the world.”
3. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach (1970)
“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.” This is the poetic and unforgettable opening to this beautiful tale of rebellion, self-seeking and joyous aerial defiance. Jonathan Livingston Seagull flies both with and against the wind, and has touched millions of readers in that unforgettable, “I remember exactly where and when I read it” way. Richard Bach’s simple tale of the young hero bird is perhaps the closest you’ll ever to come to flying without leaving the ground. Each time he ascends from the confines of the earth, he takes us along with him to feel the assistance and challenge of every breeze and gust that affects his every… single… feather.
4. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel (1980)
Twenty-thousand years fail to distance us from the rich natural textures and challenges described by Jean Auel in her story of a chance coming together of a Cro-Magnon girl and a tribe of Neanderthals. You can almost smell the dank caves, primal mud and lush forests of the prehistoric landscape that hosts Ayla and her adoptive clan, as they navigate the edge of the era’s Ice Age. The first of the author’s Earth’s Children series, The Clan of the Cave Bear was based, according to Auel, on a great deal of research, with resulting language that allows us to trust (some have said too much so) the story’s historical backdrop and crawl into the cave of prehistory to enjoy a page-turning plot that, given the success of the series’ ensuing novels, may likely leave you craving more.
5. Water Music, T.C. Boyle (1982)
The first novel of the always funny and insanely observant T. Coraghessan Boyle, Water Music is an historical and satirical examination of two sadly misguided, yet somehow majestic and even glorious tragic heroes—conman Ned Rise and the great adventurer Mungo Park. Taking place largely in Imperial British West Africa, the novel’s lavish language and plot are as twisted as its main characters who come together in the late-1770s/early-1800s in a quest to find fame and fortune—and the source of the Niger River. Tapping into the imagination of discovery, the relationship between the reader and the novel’s landscape—notably the river itself—is cemented early on and lasts through to the (fabulously) bitter end. Guaranteed you’ll find yourself more than once wiping the sweat off your brow in heat of the African day.
6. Galápagos, Kurt Vonnegut (1985)
Back to the sea. That’s where our “big brains” have gotten us in this ghostly accounted, post-apocalyptic tale of the last humans (among them Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and the evolutionary de-evolution that follows our gravest mistakes. What have we become? Wiser perhaps, but mercifully less brainy, the new humans of Galápagos are flippered creatures who hunt with their snouts, and are generally less capable than their ancestors who were, needless to say, occupied with ill-advised tasks like bomb making and facilitating global warming. Like all great Vonnegut tomes, we’re treated here to his rare form of fanciful pessimism, which in some weird way rings optimistic. A maestro of simplicity and irony, the author’s language transports us ethically and emotionally in terms of our relationship with our natural world.
7. Ishmael, Daniel Quinn (1992)
With the natural world embodied in the form of a giant Gorilla/Socratic instructor, Ishmael is Daniel Quinn’s philosophical manifesto as much as it is a novel. The story retells history through a stunningly fresh and clear lens that exposes, point-by point, the illusion of human greatness and superiority as a fantastic and cataclysmic lie. Zeroing directly in on the Bible and the great stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the book’s teacher unfurls for the narrator new explanations and interpretations of events and roles that allow him (and us) to rethink humanity’s relationship with the environment. While this story doesn’t so much take us outside, per se, it offers a new view of who we are here on this earth and our role in sustaining what is not ours.
8. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer (1996)
A biography that reads like a mystery (sorry for foray out of fiction here, but you can file this one under “you cannot make this stuff up”), the great chronicler Jon Krakauer invites us to join him in his effort to understand the life of Christopher McCandless. Later made into a truly great movie (in 2007), Into the Wild takes us along on the 24-year-old’s life walkabout, which culminated in his disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness with a 10-pound bag of rice. The journey is one of self-actualization attained by pushing, poking and prodding the natural world a in way that calls upon the painful alchemy of exposure and danger. Somehow this cautionary tale both beckons and warns, presenting the dichotomy of risk and reward in a way that leaves us breathless and wondering what self-discovery is worth.
9. Last Night in Twisted River, John Irving (2009)
Probably too often (and sloppily) referred to as the American Charles Dickens (and a more symbolic and postmodern writer than he would like to admit), John Irving is known for plot brilliance and character development nonpareil. His powerful talents, when turned upon the natural world and how we negotiate it – namely here, New Hampshire’s Androscoggin River and the logging professionals who work on its shores and in its waters – are a literary force to be reckoned with. Last Night in Twisted River’s time on and along the water drives the story forward with Irving’s characteristic power and engagement. While there, we are inside the camps, towns and forests of the Northeast for the plot-developing twists and turns of the author’s 12th and perhaps most natural world-oriented novel.
10. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (2011)
Reading this story of a Minnesota physician who chases her past and future up the Amazon River, one cannot help but think of the great Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (if you haven’t read it, think Apocalypse Now without the napalm). Indeed, we feel in our guts the upriver suction that possesses Marina Singh as she searches for answers surrounding the fever-caused death of a colleague who succumbed while searching for a mysterious and brilliant pharmaceutical specialist who has disappeared into her “research.” Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a page-turner (the plot flows as deliberately as the river itself), and you’re sure to feel the heat and bugs and hot rain as you see “civilization drop away again and again” into a jungle that breathes a single color: “The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn’t green became green.”
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly feature, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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Top image: Zach Welty