The pattern makes sense: that these winter months are a time of retreat, a withdrawal of sorts from the outdoor domain of wild that orients a significant part of my life. The weather is cold and even if it’s not—even if temperatures are freakishly warm, as they have been for most of February this year—the wintry factor of wind keeps me sequestered inside, more often than not.
That the body is confined certainly doesn’t mean the mind is. Winter is my season of exploration, of wide-ranging and wandering, of time spent at large in what I think of as the urban aspect of my life: the human realm, the social, cultural, technology-oriented domain of people, the things we make, and the things we think.
Books are a crossover of thinking and doing. I’ve been hinking about and reading them a lot lately, both because it’s that time of year and because literacy is a key theme in the new writing project I’ve been focused on since fall.
Writing seems like an archaic technology, and I suspect our ease with the technique of coding and decoding letter-forms inclines us to be dismissive of the written word these day. It’s so easy to exchange videos and pictures, images filled with color and movement and faces. Still, we rely on words, static and rendered mostly in black and white, to provide context and spirit, even if they’re formed up into the simple sentiments of “Hi” or “Wish you were here” or “I thought you’d like this.” Words hold their value as the currency of our much-vaunted connectivity these days, even if we’re seduced into twittering them down to the most character-limited formats we can get away up with.
My life up on this high windy ridge revolves around words—mostly cast in type but also written out the old-fashioned way, in ink on paper. Outside of my partnership with my husband, my paid work and most of my relationships proceed according to the rhythms of characters arranged in lines. I stay in touch with friends—the ones just down the road as well as the ones who live on other continents—via email. I spend my working hours indexing books that arrive on my computer as a stream of data. To say that I’m “researching” a new piece of writing is code for saying I’m reading books and articles. “Working” on an essay means I’m handling words, shuttling them back and forth from keyboard to page, drafting, reworking, looking up (as in flipping through the old-fashioned paper dictionary and thesaurus), wrestling, negotiating, scribbling out alternatives, checking them, trying again when they’re found wanting.
Maybe because writing is such an extended and sometimes tedious process for me, I prize reading: I appreciate spending time with the fruits of someone else’s labor. The marvel of it all is that I can be anchored in the wild place I want to be and still be exposed to the wider world, the urban universe of people and ideas. In theory, I’m far from the madding crowd, but from where I’m sitting it feels like I’m in the thick of it all.
Since December, I’ve been beckoned to think about food and cooking and immunity in new ways. I’ve considered scientists’ thoughts on ignorance and just how wrong Descartes was with his perfunctory separation of mind from body. I’ve accompanied a writer exploring the intersection of biomedical research with one family and listened in on history as Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses writing and reading. Right now, I’m weighing the argument that introverts are at a disadvantage in American society. My brain, in short, has been a busy place lately, all thanks to a collection of 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks.
I spend most of my time on this blog celebrating the place where I live, but it’s worth a shout-out now and again to the influences that bring dimension to that point of view. Some of those perspectives arrive by way of digital video and audio radio signals, but the ones that make my heart glad and encourage me to see my surroundings more carefully are almost invariably the symbols that make up the English language. My favorites take the form of the long, slow, human conversation we call books.
A selected list of the winter’s reading, so far:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan
The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson
On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss
How the Body Knows its Mind, by Sian Beilock
Ignorance: How it Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain