Essaying: Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge”

Growing up in the 70s, a lot of my early reading consisted of TimeLife books and encyclopedias aimed at children and adolescents. Even today, I’ll spend an hour or so diving into Wikipedia wormholes, clicking link after link to find trivia I’ll annoy the husband with at dinner. This is why the first sentence of Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” grabbed me because he described how his parents brought home a ten-volume set of The Book of Knowledge in 1952. Originally published in volume 13, number 2, of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, it is the concluding essay in Best American Essays 2013.

I could not help but think that Cheryl Strayed, this year’s BAE editor, put this essay at the end of the collection for a reason. Many of us know Strayed because of the writing she did about losing her mother when Strayed was in her 20s. Harvey’s mother shot herself when Harvey was twelve-years-old. Soon after, Harvey and his brother began a new life in Kentucky (they had been living in Illinois) with their father and a new stepmother. Harvey says directly that this new life was a good one. He grew up loved and taken care of.

Then, after he was married and had his own kids, his grandmother (his mother’s mother) gave him letters his mother had written to her during the last years of her life. He wasn’t initially interested in reading them, perhaps out of a fear they would disrupt that stable life he’d built for himself. He kept them filed away until 2010 when he was in his sixties and over five decades had passed since her death.

He plays with narrative style in this essay, providing some historical background on The Book of Knowledge while using the style of the children’s encyclopedia to ask and attempt to answer questions about life and death that no one can answer, especially in a set of reference books aimed at children. Like Strayed, he searches through his mother’s life and death for some kind of meaning. Though his sense of loss seems much more dormant than Strayed’s, the loss is still there, even as a man in his sixties who has led a happy life. And isn’t the essay the place for such searching, such questioning? Of course it is.

Some of my favorite quotations to pique your interest:

“I remembered almost nothing of my life or her life before the suicide except a few vivid flashes–images, really—with the rest blown away by her death, and for years I was resigned to my ignorance, and perhaps even content with it” (277).

“Armed with letters and a children’s encyclopedia, I was determined to know who this woman was and, with luck, claim a legacy of beauty and wonder from a devastating event” (280).

“When I was a boy, I lay in bed at night listening to my parents fight downstairs. The arguments began as conversation mixed with the clinking sound of ice in glasses, the words spoken softly, clipped and brittle, dipping to inaudibility when whispered. The clicking of tree branches that is prelude to the storm. Eventually the voices rose until the two were shouting and finally screaming furiously, the sound coming through the walls in unarticulated growls” (284).

“Suicide is about the survivors” (290).

“When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really–know her and miss her. Miss her, not some made-up idea of her” (293).

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Books are Back: Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things

I am one of those people who was proud to be a fan of Cheryl Strayed (Wikipedia) well before she published Wild. When her essays were included in Best American Essays, people told me I had to check them out. I was hooked. Now she has earned–deservedly–a lot of acclaim. I just finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns she wrote as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus.

Anyone who has read more than one thing Strayed has written will recognize the consistency of her voice. Though it’s obvious she understands the craft of writing, I deeply admire how it is so clear when she is the author of something (and if any of my students are reading this, I do mean “author” in the Foucauldian sense). The advice she offers in this book aligns perfectly with the woman who tells the story of Wild, which itself sounds like it was written by the essayist I first encountered years ago.

She lives it, or she has lived it. She didn’t become Sugar because she believed she could speak on high about how people should behave; she just wanted to offer an engaged and thoughtful perspective. It just happened to be a perspective many of us needed to read. Excuse the cliché, but there is something in this book for everyone, and each reader will find something they need to hear (even if it’s not for the first time and whether they like it or not). It is beautiful, and its effects will not be tiny.

Here are some of the things I needed to hear right now.

“There will be a reckoning. There is always a reckoning. For every one of us. Accounting for what happened in our childhoods and why and who our parents are and how they succeeded and failed us is the work we all do when we do the work of becoming whole, grown-up people.”

“As my thirtieth birthday approached, I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.”

“You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.”

“But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happier too.”

“The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing.”

Essaying: Colleen Kinder’s “Blot Out”

I’ve been reading Best American Travel Writing 2013 and recently finished Colleen Kinder‘s “Blot Out,” originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. It’s another one of those essays I had to finish once I started. She is a journalist who spends a month in Cairo. One day, she decides to wear a full niqab and black tunic on a Friday afternoon trip to a souq. That allows her to explore life in Egypt as both a woman who can pass as a local citizen and as a foreign tourist clearly marked as an outsider. The results (and the way Kinder writes about those results) are fascinating.

She provides a lot of rich, evocative details. The biggest surprise to me is how she is clearly treated as a woman whether in the niqab or not, but the specifics of her treatment depend on what she wears–or does not wear. While covered and appearing on the surface to be a local, a man grabs her ass. While uncovered and appearing on the surface to be a tourist, men yell “Big Dick” and “Sex” at Kinder and her friend, Tori. No matter what, she is accosted and harassed.

I’ll be teaching this book next semester in the second-half of our first-year writing sequence, the research course. I’m sure this is going to be one of the essays that inspires students to do research and dig deeper. It’s having that effect on me. Some of my favorite lines:

“These are the ways foreign women get down the street in Cairo. These are the tricks they share, the ways they teach me to ‘beige out,’ as one woman put it, to fog up the glasses, whenever outside. Outside is the sphere of Egyptian men” (51).

“The niqab begins to tempt me like a secret passageway–a way to be outside without actually being seen. At the end of a month in Cairo, nothing sounds more liberating than erasing myself from this place” (52).

“Instead, the first gasp comes from inside my veil when Tori and I pass a full-length mirror in the furniture mart and neither one of us appears” (56).

“I ask this souq the same question I ask all public places in Cairo: where have you hidden the women?” (57).

“There are places that feel like the answer to the question of why we travel in the first place, why we bother to trespass, crossing the lines that looks like fences. This place is one of my few” (58).

Books are Back: Toni Morrison’s Sula

I know it’s not nonfiction, but it’s a great book. Last night, I led a discussion of Toni Morrison’s Sula (Wikipedia) at our local library (local news story). I love doing these things because the people who show up have always read the book and are eager to understand it more deeply. As long as I walk in with a list of the major characters, events, and symbols on the inside cover, I don’t have to do much of anything, yet I end up leaving having learned a few things myself. I hadn’t read the book since I last taught it in 1995, and I first read it in 1988, the summer before I started college. I loved being reminded what a great book this is.

We covered the standard topics: what love means, what family means, what good and evil mean, what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child, what it means to be happy. We covered the major symbols of fire (which kills women) and water (which kills men) and Morrison’s ubiquitous biblical allusions. I’m told to shoot for an hour even though it’s scheduled for ninety minutes; it was after an hour when I first looked at the clock to see what time it was.

While re-reading, I found some great quotations.

“Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for” (52)

“In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous” (121)

“And there was utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her  own abiding strength and limitless power” (123).

“Shadrack and Nel moved in opposite directions, each thinking separate thoughts about the past. The distance between them increased as they both remembered gone things” (174).

Essaying: Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls”

I’ve been reading the essays in Best American Essays 2013 randomly, so I never know what I’m going to get. Once I started Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls,” I couldn’t stop until I was done. She left her home in New York when she was fifteen in 1985 (the same age I was that year). At first, she was with her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend, but she was alone after about six weeks. She hitchhiked around the country, which means she met a lot of long-haul truck drivers. She was molested by some and left stranded because she wouldn’t consent to sex with the drivers by others. Once, on I-95 in the Carolinas, she was held at knifepoint and forced into the back of a truck’s cab. She talked her way out of that situation. Decades later, a friend emailed her a link to a news story asking if the guy in it was the same guy who almost raped her. It was.

The man was Robert Ben Rhoades, and he was a serial killer in jail since 1990. But serial killer is actually a very empty phrase. The man tortured women. He killed men, but it sounds like he killed them either to get to the women or as part of the woman’s torture. And I do not use the word torture lightly, but that is what he did. I won’t provide any details here to prove that. The essay does it well enough. I will be teaching the book in my first-year composition course next semester, and I’m wondering if I should require this essay or keep it optional. In the past, when I’ve made certain essays optional and explain why, a lot of students end up reading them. And other students thank me for the warning and the chance to opt out.

But the essay is powerful not just because it documents crimes that often remain invisible, crimes that eventually led to the creation of the Highway Serial Killings Initiative in 2009. The essay is about memory and how a woman can find evidence of what (almost) happened to her without any police reports or other official documentation to start from. It’s about how far you will go to find the answers to your questions; for example, do you visit the man himself in prison? That’s the power of this essay, that we get to read a deep, thoughtful account of how one woman tries to reconcile what she has learned about what almost happened to her decades earlier with the adult life she has today. What is worth knowing? What is worth leaving behind? Who has been forgotten?

The essay appeared in GQ in November 2012, so you can read it now (and you should). Here are a few of my favorite quotations, the lines that I had to underline and will continue to reflect upon. Page numbers refer to where they appear in the book.

“That first ride was a preview of how it would often go for me with truckers–dodging sex and getting stranded–but I had learned one crucial lesson: When a truck slows down, you get up” (42).

“I needed visibility to stay alive” (42).

“The question of what you do with your old SWAT jacket when you retire had never entered my mind. Clearly the answer is: Make a throw pillow” (48).

“The more I learned about Rhoades, the more I saw parallels between us” (49).

“Everywhere I looked, evidence of these girls was disappearing” (52).

“It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims” (52).

“Recently, the New Jersey State Supreme Court handed down a statement on memory, describing it as complex and often unreliable. The ruling went on to question the admissibility of eyewitness testimony” (54).