No frigate like a book

  • Jodi Peterson, associate editor

 

This issue of High Country News departs from our usual fare - it's still devoted to news and to truth, but of a different variety. News, not of mining and drilling and public policy, but of thought-provoking books and of authors well worth getting to know. Truth, not as found in facts and statistics, but the more layered reality revealed by personal experience and reflection. 

The essays and articles in this issue are signposts of a sort, markers to help us triangulate on the complex, chaotic place we call the West. Through these stories, we may learn a little more about ourselves as Westerners, about the places we build today and the sometimes harrowing past of this land - and perhaps we'll glimpse a future worth creating. 

Portland author David Oates takes us from a Sierra Nevada campsite to a plaza in France and a square in Venice, examining the essential qualities we look for in spaces public and private - the particular things that make a place feel like home. Further insights on being at home in the West come from historian Rebecca Solnit, interviewed by Laura Paskus. Peter Chilson, who teaches literature at Washington State, finds similarities in the histories of West Africa and the American West, both "large and sunlit lands" ravaged by conquest. 

Tales of hitchhiking across the region's empty spaces, relayed by contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis, expose our secret loneliness and offer a chance to redeem ourselves through human connection. They also show us the essential quirkiness of Westerners: Hitchhiker Dev Carey is picked up by a driver who says that as a child he was diagnosed as having only half a brain. The doctor told him it was a very dangerous condition and the thing to do was not to think. 

Oddly enough, I can relate to that. Last fall, I started having constant headaches. They worsened to the point that I could hardly eat, let alone think. A doctor finally figured out what was wrong: While I did still have a whole brain, it was a quart low; the fluid that normally cushions the brain was mysteriously leaking out. While I lay immobile in the hospital for a week, depressed and bored, a dear friend came to read to me. She brought her son's latest favorite, the fantasy Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. In the book, reading aloud literally brings characters to life - the villain escapes the pages of his own story and wreaks havoc in the heroine's world. In much the same way, my friend's voice wove a refuge for me, a distant land I could escape into. Perhaps the voices in this issue of HCN will do something similar for you, giving you a window into other parts of the world and the West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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