Tag Archives: Cheryl Strayed

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).

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.”