A lot of us are sad about books, worried about the printed word. At least one reason we care so much is that the work books do is so intimate, so important to human connection: they hold the words of another, and they provide a mode of transit for those words from writer to reader. For a task of this order, the conveyance matters. The vessel had better be both functional and pleasing.
There’s evidence that books, those stalwart frigates, have stayed with us for good reason. Maryanne Wolf, in her history of the reading brain, Proust and the Squid, lays out an impressive list of cognitive skills that the emergence of writing brought within our reach: “documentation, codification, classification, organization, interiorization of language, consciousness of self and others, and consciousness of consciousness itself.” It’s not that reading on the page is the direct source of all these skills, she writes, but that acquiring them is spurred by “the secret gift of time to think”—a gift “that lies at the core of the reading brain’s design.”
Contemplating the array of new, digital technologies for the transfer of words, readers may reasonably fear that this gift is in danger of being snatched away. We worry that children are not learning the skills of deep, careful reading. We fret about how we’ll ensure continued access to the printed word. We worry that some, thanks to historically inequitable distribution of resources or cuts in library budgets, already lack access to books and other media—between 2003 and 2012, spending on public libraries by the U.S. federal government decreased by 35 percent, with a similar drop in state funding, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We worry too about publishers pressured to maximize small profit margins, about whether editing for all but a select few works will be minimized. And at least a few of us, working faster than ever thanks to some of those new technologies, would trade all the Kindles in Kentucky for a good novel—a printed and bound one—and a quiet place and a free day to read it in.
Finding that spare day may prove a challenge, but this issue of Ecotone offers plenty of summer reading, much of which has been infiltrated by books. Volumes both real and imagined have rallied in the minds of the authors, carrying power, aspects of culture, certain kinds of memory. In Chantel Acevedo’s story “Strange and Lovely,” books from Ernest Hemingway’s library hold both financial and moral weight. For Ricardo, one of the caretakers of Hemingway’s home in Cuba, identity hinges on the safekeeping of books—and, ultimately, on their dispersal. Ander Monson considers technologies of the word in two essays, evoking the memory and regret bound up not just in books but in the ephemera of systems for keeping track of them. David Barber’s poem “Xylotheque” recalls a particular variety of library, one in which each book details, and is made from, a single tree species. But his lines aptly describe the essential need all good books fulfill: “. . . each bookcaseâ¤…/â¤…Chockablock with codexesâ¤…/â¤…Of every type, lest we forgetâ¤…/To know of what we speak.”
This issue we debut a new department, Poem in a Landscape, dedicated to exploring the ways in which poems, along with their writers and readers, inhabit particular places. The landscape in which a poet lives, or to which she travels, may well affect the poet and in turn the poem—its imagery and its cadences. But it works both ways: the poem, sent off into the world and found by a reader, takes form in the mind and body of that reader, who responds to the poem within her own landscape, shaping and and affecting the place. Maybe the old children’s song tells it best (and maybe it’s best to take a deep breath here): “and the bird in the nest and the nest in the tree and the tree in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass grew all around, all around, and the green grass grew all around.” Poem in person in place, nestled together.
Erica Dawson begins our series with a consideration of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” written after a trip to Nova Scotia. As Dawson works toward fuller immersion in her adopted home of Florida, she thinks about what Bishop’s immersion in a very different landscape might offer. That she finds clues in this poem rather than in one of Bishop’s many Florida poems says something about Bishop’s effectiveness as a writer, of course, but also about the power of the poem itself to emerge from and evoke a new landscape, to venture out to readers in vastly different places and live within them, too. We recreate literature when we read it, and it creates in us new rhythms, new notions. A poem may change our relationship to a place—and change is what’s needed if we are to keep intact the places we treasure.
If it’s hard to find a day for a novel, it’s also hard to find an hour for poetry. But one way to help ensure books stay with us is to give their contents a home in our bodies and in the air—to read them aloud, even to commit them to memory. It is summer here where Ecotone is made, and in the heat time slows and expands, and the luxury of reading another’s carefully crafted words feels more attainable. A half hour spared, a book opened, the green grass growing all around, or, in my case, the sparse grass and interesting weeds, valiant in sandy soil; the screen porch and ceiling fan. It’s a pleasure and a satisfaction we’d be hard-pressed to find without the aid of books and deep reading—to be cradled in a loved landscape and, so held, to hold in the body a loved poem or story.