A season of political strife has reminded us that we generally don’t do a very good job of listening to each other. One way to learn listening, as Will Schwalbe noted in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, is to open up a book and read.
Books “speak to us thoughtfully, one at a time,” Schwalbe wrote. “They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly set aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s.”
That’s one reason I start each holiday season with a column about some of the most memorable books I’ve read in the past year. It’s not a “best-of-the-year” list, or a numerical ranking — just a nod to some titles I’ve liked that you might like, too, either as a gift to others or a gift to yourself.
Holiday reading, of course, shouldn’t be an act of grudging civic obligation. Sometimes, it’s more like a long excursion into a different world, as I discovered in the pages of a new coffee-table book, Robert McCracken Peck’s “The Natural History of Edward Lear.” Lear is best known for his silly children’s poems, like “The Owl and the Pussycat,” but he was also a bird artist, and Peck’s beautiful volume deftly recreates Lear’s life and art. Louisiana nature lovers who enjoy John James Audubon’s wildlife paintings will find this book a nice companion work.
Like Lear, poet Mary Oliver is a close observer of the natural world, and “Upstream” collects the best of her essays about what she’s seen in the woods of coastal New England, where she lived for decades before moving to Florida.
“Attention,” she tells readers, “is the beginning of devotion,” which seems an apt description of the wonder she brings to these reflections on woods and water, birds and dogs.
Oliver seems to recognize that nature isn’t always kind, a reality at the heart of “A Wretched and Precarious Situation,” David Welky’s account of a tragic expedition at the dawn of the 20th century to explore the Arctic reaches. It’s a classic adventure yarn, served up with lots of misadventure along the way.
Misadventure is a constant companion for Bill Bryson, an American who writes with sharp comic timing about his life as a Yankee transplant in England. “The Road to Little Dribbling” finds Bryson in trouble from the start. “One of the things that happens to you when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself,” he begins. “Recently, in France, I was hit square on the head by an automatic parking barrier, something I don’t think I could have managed in my younger, more alert years.”
My favorite Bryson book is “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” an account of his Iowa childhood that made me almost fall out of the bed with laughter.
After the year we’ve all had, maybe reading a little more — and laughing a lot more — isn’t such a bad idea.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.