Book Review - The Orchardist

The Orchardist is set in small-town America, on a fruit orchard that was built long before industry claimed the raising of apricots. The book spans several decades but focuses on the first few years at the turn of the twentieth century, between 1897 and 1911. It is threaded with beautiful scenes of the American West: wild horses being corralled, flicking their sweat and majestic manes, thundering their hooves; cowboys watching the twilight from a front porch while they roll their smokes; autumn hills, caught in the frame of the window on a newborn steam engine; Talmadge’s orchard itself, blushing with blossoms. Yet this book isn’t really about being an orchardist in Washington State at the turn of the century. It’s about longing, and the beginning of life and the end of life, and the simplistic living that goes on in the midst of what happens to us. "The trees bordered the pasture, which was filled with long grass, uncut and uneaten by any horses. The sound of water and the sound of wind in the trees, which were fed by the creek and so were partial to the creek, occupied Talmadge as he slept and woke. It was a sound highly expressive, highly communicable. He listened and thought, Yes, Yes". Someone asked me on Twitter a couple days ago if I was "enjoying" this story while I read it. I told her that, given its subject matter, “enjoying” didn’t feel like the right word. The novel touches upon topics that disturb me, that make me angry and disgusted because I know they exist in the world. 

I don’t know that it’s the goal of every book to be enjoyed. Some books are written to speak, to move. To disturb, to challenge. More appropriate than "enjoying", I think, would be to say that this novel got into me. In places, it reminded me of the way my mother tried so hard, for years and years to help my father before she finally understood that his soul had been broken beyond repair. And yet hope, hope is so precious. This novel made me feel. Hours after finishing it, I’m still remembering its scenes, wondering about the characters. Replaying the final few chapters. I especially loved a Christmas scene near the beginning that was so fleeting and yet so lovely, rustic and believably "family at the turn of the century", pressed into the book’s pages like a smile before a day drained of light. And that’s what this book is about family. Fathers, whether bonded by blood or hope. Daughters made, not by nature, but by the bonds that are created when nature pushes mankind into a hollow sinkhole and swallows. People who vanish and yet never really go away, and the feverish yearning to find them inside their anger. I think Coplin’s point in this work is that children carry us. Whether we live in joy or not, we birth a civilization that will go on without us. A future that will both remember and forget us. And maybe there is a certain beauty in the very idea that whatever we do, it can be the past someday. 

It can be a hundred years ago. Yet somehow, because we lived, because we dented people, because we tried valiantly to make it and maybe scratch out a square of humanity somewhere in the world, we are beautiful. And that beauty in us can never die, because it is buried in the earth, like the roots of trees. Our children, civilization cannot exist without the fruit we leave on the wind. We are all orchardists. It doesn’t matter when we go; we all lived, we planted lives. This point is made clear in the mirroring of Talmadge’s tale with his growing realization that his life as an orchardist is dying in a twentieth century America that is beginning to rely less on independent farmers and more on raging industry. Life goes forward. What once was makes the future, and the mistakes are the soul of today. I don’t know that there is a conclusion beyond this truth itself: and that is that we go on. Life renews itself, through its children. That the author manages to create hope, life, warmth, peace, even the sense of "coziness" I so prize in books like those by Laura Ingalls Wilder, while peppering the tale with tragedy, is testament to her talent. She manipulates the reader in the very best way, I think: causing a symphony of emotions that mirror real life by stealing the euphoria of joy by violence, hopelessness, and the human tendency to rebel against hindsight’s preferences. It’s exciting to be standing on the cusp of Amanda Coplin’s career. Some people are comparing her to John Steinbeck. I see that.

Book Review - Stop What You’re Doing and Read This

Haddon argues that the novel will endure because it’s the human experience, captured expertly by writers in just the right words placed in just the right order. No other art medium can match it. When we read, we are so immersed in the novel our brains believe we are experiencing the plot itself. We develop empathy and the ability to see life outside our own sheltered sphere because we climb into books and live a character’s experience. The very best writers make it so real to us we enter a mental place where we are living beyond ourselves. I also loved Tim Parks’ “Mindful Reading”, which I’ll sum up simply by quoting the final words in his essay: “The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now, intensely mentally silently alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now.” I underlined that paragraph, wrote “Yes yes yes” in my copy, and then circled it. On the emotional front, Jane Davis’s essay “A Reading Revolution” contains an incredibly moving passage about a group reading a poem in an unlikely setting, and their reaction to it. I won’t reveal that passage (and freely confess that I cry when I am inspired!), but I’ll sum up her essay with her own quote, too: “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths, when the depths seem neither unplumbed and terrifying or, on the other hand, intimidatingly aesthetic, to do with a specialist, professionalized and narrow form of education”. Yes. That. Davis goes on to suggest that our society is afraid to face the inner life, we see it as a secret, a shame, something to keep quiet about.
Literature (poetry!) speaks our universal, silent fears and speaks them beautifully. It unites and inspires us and says: “Why is the soul such a quaking secret? We will be richer if we acknowledge our inner life together, Mrs. Dalloway style.” You see how the above essays seem to encourage reading deeply? For both intellectual depth and emotional acknowledgment? That’s what this collection is about. Reading for life, reading for depth, reading to transform our society. I think where the collection is a bit weak is that the audience for the collection is unclear until the final essay. Some essays seem to be directed at the British government, some at avid readers, some at non-readers, some at writers. It’s difficult to know who is supposed to be reading the book. One could say that the audience is whoever stops to pick up the book, and I’m actually comfortable with that, because I’d love to see everyone read it. But the collection could have been stronger with a bit more cohesion. (Though, in aftermath, I can see now how it all leads to the final essay).

I also wish that people outside Britain had contributed essays, though I appreciate that this is a manifesto written in reaction to the symptoms of a fading literary life in Britain in particular. I think the collection could have been even more universally impactful though, with voices representing the life of literature as it stands around the world  today. All of this said, as a reader, I very much appreciate this collection of essays, and I have a feeling avid readers would agree with me that it’s worth the read. The bits about “mindful reading” and the transformation of the brain and mind (and soul) through literature, were the most impactful, for this reader. The personal anecdotes put humanity itself into the collection. The final essay, which addresses the very real concern that innovations in technology will weaken the autonomy of the brain in the 21st century, offers far more questions than it does answers. But what it accomplishes is that it offers society a literary shake. It challenges whoever reads the book not to become a shallow thinker because of technology, but to use technology to think more deeply, to acquire more knowledge which will inspire still deeper critical thinking.

The answer seems to be, not that we are doomed to become an unintellectual species, but that we need to adapt our brains to technological innovations, and make sure we are continuing to challenge ourselves to both read and  think in the 21st century. The introduction of printed literature did not doom humanity as Socrates predicted, nor need the changes in the transportation of literature put an end to deep thinking in our generation. But we must face the fact that society will intake knowledge differently in the years to come, and develop new ways to enrich the minds of today’s future through literature in its current form. That’s a message I hope every lover of literature stands behind. As for me, having read this collection, I feel better able to answer non-readers who ask me, “Why should I  read a book?” I also feel challenged as a student heading into my first semester of literature next year: I feel warned not  to rely on Google for my papers at school and I feel encouraged by the thousands of years of critical thinking that precedes my life in literature.