Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Category: Lit

In Praise of Paper

Their lips pursed, their eyes like pancakes, friends and strangers often ask me, “What do you mean you don’t have a Kindle?” I mean that, yes, I prefer a paper book. Readers of e-books, please tell me your secrets.  By the time I’ve returned from the office, a day’s dose of the computer has jellied my brain, yet you turn on your device, summon chapter 12, and stare at another screen.

When I read books, I am leveling trees. When I’m 70 and my library has ladders, I’ll have leveled a forest. Reader of e-books, you are a better friend to than environment than I am. Now, can you please tell me how, on nothing but air, your digital page buzzes to life?

Click on that digital page. Poof, a dictionary defines the selected word. A handy service, I admit. But when I find a word I don’t know in my paper book, I reach into my pocket and there’s an iPhone. On that phone I have two dictionaries: the OED and the American Heritage. I’d start talking dictionaries, but I want you to keep reading.

On the subway, people bump me while I’m reading. I’d be worried if my book didn’t cost me $3 at the used bookstore on Washington Street. I tuck the book into my bag. Leaving the train, I push through the turnstile and it smashes into my bag on the way back up. Your e-reader? Destroyed.

Turn on a healthy e-reader. Browse the list of titles. Pick one, pay, and a satellite beams the text to your device; skip the intro and start on chapter one. Nobody can beam me a paper book, nobody other than Amazon.com (they beam by USPS), but no matter, because nothing matches the experience of going to a dusty bookstore.

Some of my favorite memories from college were in the used bookstore, Webster’s, where I ate a bagel sandwich, drank coffee, and read almost every day before class my senior year. I’d stalk between the shelves and crack open a tome. I’d breathe in the smell; it opens your mind as the smell of grill smoke opens your stomach. The page’s scant notes? Gifts from a fellow reader. The notes you will add to page? Something to reflect on when you’ve climbed down from your library’s ladder.

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Reading: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Three summers ago, I read an essay for a class that met in the woods. The class was Wilderness Literature, a fantastic and low-key course offered at Penn State, and the essay was “Living Like Weasels” by Annie Dillard. If you haven’t read Annie Dillard, run to the bookstore. She cuts closely to her subject, trimming away the fat and vanity and nonsense that makes most writing unreadable. She starts slowly, usually observing a small event in nature. Then she climbs and climbs (you can hear the clacking of your car on the roller coaster’s track) before plunging into some ecstatic conclusion. Here “Weasels” whirls at its near-end:

“The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t ‘attack’ anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”

Two years later I bought a book of her essays, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” The most memorable piece, “Total Eclipse,” saw Dillard see a full solar eclipse in the Pacific Northwest. As the moon blocks out the sun and the day darkens, culture evaporates, and Dillard feels as if she’s on the Euphrates and civilization is beginning. It absorbs you. At times you feel that Dillard’s so skilled she oversteps language and directly communicates raw units of information that have not been translated into words.

In 1974, before any of these essays, Dillard wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” It won a Pullitzer. She was 29.

I am reading the book now. It is a 20th-century Walden; having fled to the woods, the author lives a simple life and gives simple advice for living. Unlike Thoreau, Dillard at times veers far into the abstract. Here, when she loses me, I focus on the language and how it moves, knowing that the half-abstract and concrete stuff will be golden:

“Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: ‘This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.'”

She writes about blind people with cataracts, who, having gotten a once-new surgery, saw for the first time. These people saw the world as “color-patches” and could not understand size or depth or, like the baby playing peek-a-boo, the idea that when it object goes out of sight it can still exist. Always, you hear the clacking. You know Dillard’s small, cutting observations are whirling to some grand idea. Looking around on the climb up can be just as enjoyable as free-falling down the breathless drops.

Japanese Dinner Part Two: The Meal

Two days after I poured rice vinegar over cabbage, as the hour hand slogged to the finish line on its last of four laps, I was swirling chopsticks in a batter for tempura. I had been cooking for a few hours because I was curious to taste a Japanese meal as outlined by Shizuo Tsuji, whose book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art I was following. When the flour had settled and the last square of squid had been fried, I had a Japanese dinner for two.

Caption: At 8:00 sit the pickles, now pink; circling clockwise we see, at 11, a bowl of dark miso soup and its tenant tofu; a spinach salad in sesame dressing appears with the witching hour; sweet potato and squid tempura, the slippery squid having stubbornly shed its batter in the safflower oil, sizzle on their towels at 2; next comes green tea; and finally, a sunny scoop of short-grain brown rice, framed by a wavering red corona.

Each dish comes from this book:

Tsuji writes well in English. An anecdote he tells before his section on pickling reveals that he was once a journalist. Tsuji laces the text with anecdotes, and the divine details of his stories and aphorisms give us a crisper picture of Japanese food and culture. One of these asides drove me to the vinegar. “For the older generation,” writes Tsuji, “no meal, be it humble or a banquet, is complete without its final pickles.”

So I fished the cabbage out of the mason jar when the cooking was done. You can see the purple pickles, now pink, below. They are in a dish painted with wine barrels and grape pyramids and bolded words like “Chianti.” Here I let slip my familiar food experience, though I can handle a few slivers of cabbage and a scoop of rice, the rice thanks to a rice cooker, a measuring cup, and an on-switch.

Miso soup isn’t much harder. You simmer water with seaweed (kombu) and bonito flakes (shavings from a dried tuna), whisk in miso, and add tofu or mushrooms or veggies or anything. But I have heard of people skipping the broth, of people heating water in a tea kettle, of people pouring this water-flavored water into a pot and then stirring in the miso. Tsuji tells us that miso soup, rice, and pickles form the foundation of the Japanese meal. They are the bread and cheese, the pasta and wine, and the tempura and whatever else are just for kicks.

Japanese Dinner Part One: Purple Pickles

For a while I have wanted to pickle something. Recently the chance came by UPS and with a Japanese cookbook, Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. According to Tsuji, pickling is popular in Japan but fading with the years, as we no longer need salt, brine, or vinegar to keep our food fresh. He writes a section on pickling. Having read and tasted it, I better understand the limp ginger served alongside my sushi, as well as the pickled plum that often forms the center to a ricey circumference.

Pickling is common across cultures. Japan pickles plums, turnips, and daikon; Korea salt-pickles cabbage and chiles for kimchi. Chiles, eggplant, and garlic become a pickled dish in Sicily, and in Mexico jalapeños and jicama bob in baths of vinegar. In the US, we pickle mostly cucumbers and tomatoes, but also salmon and eggs. The Japanese recipe I tried featured cabbage, which I swapped for purple cabbage, a change that met three of my needs: pickling, pretty pictures, and alliteration.

Preparation for the pickling was painless. I chopped a half-moon of cabbage, dried the pieces, and packed them into a mason jar. Then I heated vinegar with sugar and salt, and, when the pickling solution started to boil, I poured it to the jar’s glassy lip. The cabbage will pickle in a cool, dark place (right next to the limoncello). In two day’s time, the pickles and the rest of a Japanese dinner will be ready.

Thoreau on Winter

Tone endears readers to writing, and Thoreau strikes the most pleasant tone of any writer I’ve read. In his essay “A Winter Walk,” he marvels at winter in a time before gas heating and electric refrigeration:

“We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields.”

From the fireside you can see the snowy yard. There is HDT, standing next to you, and you’re having a one-sided conversation. Though he can speak Latin and Greek, Thoreau never talks down to you. His humility and optimism and love for the natural world make him likable, and for his charm we are likely to listen to his ideas when the vector of his story makes an unforeseen turn into philosophy. But his simple observation will do, especially when the flurries fall and he profiles, exactly, the cozy character of winter.

Sounds and Mr. Nabokov

The other day, a snowy Saturday, I sat in my unheated but warm apartment and read stories. Among the stories were “The Wood-Sprite,” “Russian Spoken Here,” and “Sounds,” each by Vladimir Nabokov. As the wood-sprite opened the door, the cold air blew in, and a runny candle flame tilted, I felt a familiar hot prickly feeling. I knew the feeling wasn’t from my thermal socks or the neighbors’ heat leaking in on all sides because I had felt the strange feeling before, and so has any writer who has read Mr. Nabokov. The feeling is jealousy.

Mr. Nabokov grew up speaking English, French, and Russian. His love was butterflies. According to his memoir, he was a synesthetic to whom “b” appeared red, “c” light blue. What an advantage! While reading “Sounds,” I wondered what colors shone through the clatter.

Here’s a snippet:

“The drainpipe rattled and choked. You were playing Bach. The piano had raised its lacquered wing, under the wing lay a lyre, and little hammers were rippling across the strings. The brocade rug, crumpling into coarse folds, had slid partway off the piano’s tail, dropping an opened opus onto the floor. Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as, incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes.”

Orange? Blue? I can see only the gray day, the black piano, the ivory keys. The sounds, though, are rich. We hear sounds given to us directly by Nabokov (the choking drainpipe, the slashing rain). We can hear the piano’s sound even though Nabokov uses no sonic language to describe its music (no choking, no slashing). And along with the sounds playing in the picture created by Nabokov’s words, we can hear the song of his language: his famous sound repetitions (“opened opus” and “frenzy of the fugue”), the varied rhythm of his line, and the harsh “k” sounds to go with the patter of rain on glass.

How does the story sound and feel when overlaid with colors?