Sunday, August 23, 2009


I love reading, maybe even more than gardening.
I don’t do enough of it. I rue my youth, when I was “lazy” and “ literary” and only had the compulsion to pick up another book after finishing one.
Now, I seem to buy more books than I read, thanks to Alibris making it so easy to access numerous independent booksellers across the country. I almost always find what I’m looking for at a decent price. How can I resist? Is it passion or compulsion? I think the latter as I order yet another book, that I am not sure I will find the time to read. They pile up in my office, like the numerous trees still in pots in the nursery.
I rarely get caught up in the shimmer of the little screens, TV or internet. I love the sensual pagey-ness of a book, which was programmed into me so many years ago. I am a slow reader, that mythical reader who reads every word. I wish I weren’t, maybe then I could get through all those books I buy. I almost crave a prolonged illness confining me to bed and books. Fortunately my strong constitution does not allow this. But despite all the constraints of time, mostly manufactured by me, I read and read and read.
I would like to share with you, dear readers, what I’ve been reading. A sort of book report, not reviews. I’ve included pictures of the covers, because although I believe a book cannot be judged by it, as the axiom goes, I love book covers and they say a lot, though sometimes deceivingly so. When I went to my shelves to pull the seven books I’ve read since February, I realized though there was a very horticultural theme that runs through them all they are very different books. From the wisely sentimental The Florist Daughter to the imaginatively philosophical Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. From the playfully historic romp of Beans to the personal history of Wildwood. These writers’ responses to the green world though sometimes overlapping were actually quite different.
This list does not include all the reference books I use throughout the first half of the year for pruning and planting information, nor while researching for my column in “Garden Notes”, nor bird and wild flower guidebooks I use. Literally thousands of books go through my hands each year in my constant search and research.
Here are my seven favorites from the first half of this year:

The Florist Daughter, Patricia Hampl
I love Patricia Hampl’s voice, intimate and expansive, loose yet concise. This memoir is the story of her parents, St. Paul, immigrants, class and the floral industry, and of course Patricia herself. This amazingly “ordinary” story, as Ms. Hampl calls it, is at once eloquent and thoughtful, funny and fumbling. Everything you could want in a friend. Her book actually reads like a long letter from a friend , who has paused half-way to access her life. I dare you to read this and not step back and start accessing your own life. And that of your family, city , ancestry and culture. If you can only read one chapter read about her adventure in cake baking, and the sugaring of lilac flowers.

BEANS: A History, Ken Albala
BEANS is a lovely work of history with recipes. This maligned fruit that “ toots” is given such a loving and thorough treatment by Mr. Albala it will make you want to make a pot of chili or at least plant green beans. I was amazed to discover how important the humble legume was to every culture on earth, and how often frowned upon and used to separate classes. As Charlie Palmer says it’s “ an instructional book that reads like a novel.” A real pot boiler I might add. The chapter on lentils alone will tell you more about the history of humanity than you learned in any high school history class.

The Passionate Gardener, Rudolf Borchardt
Borchardt was a philosopher, poet, novelist and gardener. This book published in 1938 is not only a treatise but also a homage to gardens, gardeners and the green world. His writing has a wonderful 19th century quality to it, presenting his thoughts with rich imagery, and gracefully long sentences. A perfectly slow read for a slow reader, filled with gold. I will definitely reread this one. I know I didn’t catch it all the first time. Every gardener should read the chapter “The Wild Flower and the Cultivated Plant”. Elucidating.

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison
This is a truly philosophical exploration of real and imaginary gardens throughout human history. From Eden to Harrison’s garden on the campus of Stanford University, this book covers a lot of ground, no pun intended and opens territory I’ve never considered. Bright new thinking appears on every page. The chapter “ Eve” is absolutely revolutionary in it’s thoughts on why we left Eden. Though this book is not necessarily an easy read, I highly recommend the chapter “The Vocation of Care” to all literate gardeners. Finally some perspective, from this book which had the most profound effect on me this year.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin
Deakin is England’s equivalent to Annie Dillard. Though I have just begun this book I find it hard not to include it on my list. His slow walk through the wooded world is hypnotically personal. He takes you into himself and then out into the world with him. A perceptive man to whom a pencil is as much a wonder as an expansive starry sky.

As a reader I am not only prone to education, research or philosophical enquiry. I also read for fun. One of my guiltiest pleasures is the English gothic romance writer Daphne du Maurier I recently found a copy of Kiss Me Again, Stranger at a thrift store. It includes “The Birds”, the story the inspired the Hitchcock film yet much scarier and a wonderful story about a haunted apple tree called “The Apple Tree”. What I like about du Maurier besides her incredible control of the English language is her ability to invoke the beauty and horror of the natural world. I have no problem calling her a dime store sublime, and though I read her with fervor at times, I would never carry her on a plane, or into a cafe. She is reserved for bed time reading on rainy or gusty nights and rightly so. Another great thrift store find was a Modern Library collection of the tales of Grimm and Andersen. The inclusion of such obscure tales as “The Singing Bone” and “The Salad” are proof that these are not just for children and far from the Disney versions we were brought up on. Creepy, unhappy and downright weird. I get a kick out of these teaching stories of yore.
Then there is the New York Times, which Michael thought he might save from extinction by buying a subscription (only the Sunday Edition). What a monstrous delight and luxury to spend Sunday morning fishing out the most interesting articles to read. I could never read the whole thing. I remember a prison architect I dated way too many years ago who broke up with me because I didn’t read the newspaper. I guessed I wasn‘t educated enough, or informed enough. I was much busier then, as now, with aesthetics than politics. I actually believe politics could use some aesthetics, and I’m not talking graphics. Finally after 30 years I am reading the Sunday paper on a weekly basis. I realized maybe why he broke up with me wasn’t for “political vs aesthetic” reasons, or that I was uninformed, but because I couldn’t sit still and enjoy a languorous Sunday morning pouring over the New York Times, to which this prison architect subscribed, and a cup of coffee, I didn’t drink coffee either. It was just a bad fit and the newspaper excuse was the only way he could describe it. I guess I would have liked him better if he was reading Virginia Woolf.
I also read blogs, less so now that summer is here and I’m outside for hours on end. I will be writing a post on my favorite blogs in the coming weeks.
Writing is sort of reading in reverse. Or is reading writing in reverse? At least I have to reread what I wrote before I rewrite it. What a tangled web we weave. And read.