I had a birthday last month and Dau.I the Reader got me a couple of books: one about Dick Feynman and creativity and the other a medical autobiography in essays by Lewis "Lives of the Cell" Thomas. If you follow up the links (I know nobody actually does this), you will see that I was delighted to have had the opportunity to read those books. Last week she was on the Skype and asked if I'd started Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie and I looked disconcertingly blank. As well as the two books that arrived in the post, she'd left that one on the window-sill wrapped in brown paper when she was last at home at the end of May. Sightlines had sunk almost without trace under a clutter of Lidl catalogs and unsolicited circulars for car-insurance.
Eee, but I do love a good book of essays - it's like a chunkier, slightly less ephemeral blog. Many people give tribs, as original and best, to Montaigne's Essaies and I do like parts of that book but I also like very much Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, which is a series of reflections about the immediate neighborhood of Dillard's Virginia back-yard. If you tell it right, then there is something profound in the inconsequential. If you want something less natural history and more embedded in the Arts Block, you may try Ex Libris by Ann Fadiman which is famous for its list of words to prove that you've read a lot: monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic, opapanax. If you know the meaning of more than five of these then you've had a yet more expensive education than me. Or a very cheap autodidact education; because Dau.I knew a whole bunch of words in that list which I didn't and her education cost precisely nothing. Why, I just used the word sepoy last week. Both Sightlines and Ex Libris are in the 0.01c remainder bin at Amazon. As is Findings, an earlier book of Jamie's essays [reviewed]. Buy any of these for your beloved's bday . . . and you get to read them yourself - win-win!
Sightlines is written by an established writer who is also Professor of Creative Writing at Stirling U in Scotland. Being a writer, especially a poet, is possible if you have tuberculosis and are starving in a garret (worked for Keats) but you get to travel a bit if you're a Professor - either on your own nickel or at someone else's expense. Kathleen Jamie has made copy out of St. Kilda [bloboprev], Greenland, North Rona, paleolithic caves in Spain, the moon and the whale museum in Bergen. No, she hasn't been to the moon, no woman has, but she's made the logistically difficult trek to those other places and found something poetic and interesting to say about them. You know she's a poet because, on page 2 she writes "Goose feathers, caught on the dry leaves and twigs, frittering in the terse breeze". Terse breeze? that's arresting because it's not quite right. But maybe she worked long and hard to craft that sentence so that it was both arresting and true to the poet's experience. The next page the breeze has changed: "It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but, like everything here, it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld." Inscousant? I don't think that's a word - it's used nowhere else in the googleverse. Typo for insouciant? but it can hardly be both stern and insouciant?? Later, in the chapter on an eclipse of the moon, two more challenging words appear: "A shadow crept onwards, upwards, smooring the moon's light as it went . . ." and later "A smirr of cloud drifted across." Now smirr is a good Scots word, which she uses in another essay about the moon: "It shone through a smirr of cloud, spreading its diffused light across the water."
It's just wonderful to be pushed in this way, having to work at the text puts you back in school maybe; but it also compels you to think about what you're reading rather than skimming through to get its general sense. Sometimes there's more to an essay or a poem (or both as with some of these pieces) than the meaning: the metre, the resonance, the precise language is itself a joy.