Non-Fiction Book of the Year

What is it about autobiography that’s so hard to get right? And yet is so powerful when it is? Possibly the ego, and what must be an almost overwhelming temptation to paint yourself in a better light than you actually were at the time. And that can be transparent. But good autobiography is compelling and this is the best I’ve read since I read Nabokov’s remarkableSpeak Memory, a few years ago now. This is the story of the emergig artist/writer, of accidental encounters and escapes, living through and participating in World War II on the German side, and emerging as a writer at the end. This generated some controversy in Germany as Grass recounts his involvement in the Hitler Youth, but it’s beautifully told and a compelling narrative too.


I also liked Gary Snyder’s environmental poetry essays, The Practice of the Wild and that particularly Californian brand of West Coast Buddhism that emerges. More in the natural world realm was Leviathan, the remarkable story of man’s encounters with the biggest creature in the sea: the whale, and all the tragedy (literary and otherwise) of those encounters. A nice surprise too was ex Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, an example of that very modern phenonomenon of a blog becoming a book and chronicling his close encounters with various cities of the world on his folding bicycle. Part travel diary, part musical exploration, it’s very readable. Did the fact that I saw this book first in the Strand Bookshop in NY influence my affection for this book and maybe even influence it’s inclusion here? Perhaps!


The Practice of the Wild


I’ve been a long time fan of the writing of Gary Snyder (do a search of this blog if you don’t believe me) so I was predisposed to enjoy his series of essays on our encounters with the ‘wild’, The Practice of the Wild, which I just finished. And I did!

It’s a book where I had to keep the 2B pencil close at hand and it touched on some of the ideas and concepts close to my heart: pathways and walking, forests, how we know place and the world. It had been on my Amazon wishlist* for a couple of years so I was delighted to find it under the Christmas tree this year (thanks Harriet)

Some passages from the text I liked are:

Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility (19)

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humour, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness (25)

The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces of the swirl of forces (29)

A text is information stored through time. The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swam, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of previous river-beds is text. (71)

The best purpose of such studies and hikes is to be able to come back to the lowlands and see all the land about us, agricultural, suburban, urban as part of the same territory – never totally ruined, never completely unnatural. It can be restored, and humans can live in considerable numbers on much of it. (101)

I think many of us would consider it quite marvellous if we could set out on foot again, with a little inn or a clean camp available every ten or so miles and no threat from traffic, to travel across a large landscape – all of China, all of Europe. That’s the way to see the world: in our own bodies. (106)

Repetition and ritual and their good results may come in many forms. Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick – don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores in not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path” – it is our path. (164)

*BTW: I don’t endorse buying from Amazon over your own local independent bookshop. In fact, I’ve only bought 3 things from Amazon ever, two of which never arrived! I just like the wishlist idea.