Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.
During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.
As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.
After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3
Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.
For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. ↩
Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. ↩
Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. ↩
As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. ↩
For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.
We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. ↩
Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.
While writing my last post on books that linger on the to-read pile, I briefly mentioned the narrative hook, as it helped explain what I meant by being hooked into a story. At the time, I recalled several great openings to stories, ones that I subsequently read and enjoyed. But looking at these lines from a writer’s perspective now, I wondered what specifically makes such lines so intriguing that a reader simply must read the rest of the story. Any quick survey of novels and stories shows that authors use various approaches to create a hook: compelling/quirky characters, dramatic situations, unusual settings, weather, memories, recounting advice, humor, and so forth. But regardless of the tactic used, these storytelling hooks pique the readers’ interest by presenting them with a scenario that raises questions, the kind that can only be answered by reading further. In the following, I’ve provided three examples of stories that illustrate how writers use their opening lines to land their reader’s attention.
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”—Beloved, Toni Morrison
Morrison elects to drop us straight into the middle of Beloved’s events to ensure that readers, much like Paul D, don’t know why 124 happens to be such an unhappy place when they first encounter it. The sequence of story events has a role in constructing the hook, because the story’s impact hinges on how the reader gains information. In a novel like this one, beginning in media res allows readers to experience Paul D’s shock of discovery as well as introduces uncertainty about how events will unfold once this truth is divulged. Therefore, this hook needs to hint at the terrible disclosure to come without revealing much about it or its consequences, a tactic that also generates a mystery. Morrison’s uses a surprising metaphor (ie, surprising insofar as we normally don’t think of homes as spiteful or babies as being venomous) to signal the lingering malevolence of the as-yet undisclosed past, which suggests the house is haunted—perhaps literally—by the deceased child, Beloved.1 These lines, therefore, raise questions about what created this discord (Why is 124 spiteful? What happened there?) as well as build anticipation for that discovery.
The Lovely Bones
“Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf….The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, “Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones is a curious case when it comes to the narrative hook, because the first lines of the novel aren’t in the first chapter: they occur in the prefatory paragraph preceding this chapter. While the goal of the preface is to provide readers with readers background material that somehow informs the story and is technically not part of the story’s action, it’s the text that the reader sees first, meaning that preface also needs to capture the reader’s attention. However, I’d argue that the first chapter also needs a hook, because that’s where the story begins—a critical consideration since readers may overlook or skip the preface.2 For this reason, I’ll discuss how both The Lovely Bones’ preface and first lines from chapter one work as hooks.
Sebold’s preface, which recounts a memory, represents an instance in which the entire paragraph serves as the hook. While this memory initially appears to focus on an ordinary father—daughter bonding moment, its true significance emerges when Susie interrupts their play to express her concern for the penguin in the globe. Her father comforts her, but in doing so he describes the penguin’s “nice life” as a trap. It’s subtle, but the association of perfection with a trap is unexpected and unpleasant (traps aren’t reassuring), one that makes readers wonder how this idea will affect these characters going forward.3 Here, the reader asks: How can a perfect world act as a trap? How does this apply to these characters?
In contrast to Beloved’s opening lines that intrigue readers by hinting at a tragedy, The Lovely Bones’s first chapter begins by revealing its traumatic inciting event.4 An older Susie introduces herself directly to the reader and then stuns them with her dramatic announcement. The name-based joke juxtaposed with her murder defies conversational norms and unsettles the reader. Naturally, the reader asks has questions: Why was she murdered? Who killed her? It’s the question of what will happen next that matters most to The Lovely Bones, as it focuses on the aftermath of Susie’s murder for her family and herself in “her heaven”.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
What makes the opening line of Rebecca so interesting is how much it accomplishes in a brief sentence. In a few words, the reader knows this place holds powerful associations for the unidentified narrator and suggests a possible loss—the narrator only dreams of going there. And we already have questions: what kind of place is Manderley? Why is it so important to the narrator? Why does this person recurrently dream about it? du Maurier’s first chapter, utilizing the combination of a mysterious setting and dream sequence, builds on this first line to suggest a tragedy. Since Rebecca begins in the aftermath of some unknown, ominous event, it’s important that the hook (as was the case with Beloved) suggest more than it reveals—particularly since the remainder of the novel (starting midway through chapter two) reveals, via extended flashback, the events that led to this calamity.
Building a good hook often involves introducing the element of surprise. Writers need to catch the reader off guard by presenting a situation that somehow doesn’t behave normally, whether it’s a spiteful house or the penguin “trapped in the world”, there should be something (or someone) that sidesteps ordinary expectations. Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.
Beloved, we discover late in the novel once had a proper name, but it’s neither used nor revealed in the novel. ↩
Using a preface, therefore, provides a writer with two opportunities to hook or lose the reader’s attention. ↩
Initially, I wondered if Jack, Susie’s father, felt trapped him by his own lovely life but that specific desperation proved to be another character’s problem, which means the preface also introduces some narrative misdirection to keep the reader guessing. ↩
Inciting events represent actions or decision that sets the story in motion (here, Susie’s murder). The sequence of events may be linear or flashback to how events led to inciting incident, as is the case here. Susie’s murder also represents the uses of an external force as the initial driver of the plot. ↩
23. The book that has been on your TBR list the longest
Immediately, I felt guilty when I thought of the dusty shelf or two that holds the books I plan to get to…eventually. While my to-read list might include books I need to buy or borrow, most that linger on my list are ones I already own. And my longest unread book has been on said shelf for quite some time. Clearly, I’m not the only bookworm with a stack(s) of books-not-yet-read. But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?
The Reading Runaround
Most of us, I’m sure, will point to an abundance of optimism when it comes to our reading time (so many books, so little time). On occasion, we forget some of the books on our reading queues merely because our lists are long. Naturally, we’re more likely to read books we own versus ones we don’t have.2 But time management, access, and poor memory aren’t the only contributing factors. For every book we truly wanted to read but couldn’t squeeze into our schedule, we also skipped several books in favor of reading something else. Whether it’s flagging attention or lacking commitment to the read, I took an honest look at the other reasons that keeps books on the to–be read list.
Difficult Times: Challenging Books and Environmental Hazards
Among the reasons why a book might become stranded on the to-read shelf is the quality of the time we have to read. Not every reading session occurs in a quiet space: many of us read at moments we snatch while we’re exercising at the gym, sitting in waiting rooms, or commuting, often with televisions blaring in the background. We might, therefore, forgo the books that we perceive as being difficult reads, ones with harrowing accounts, difficult syntax, or complex arguments. While my reading environment affects new book selection, I’m unlikely to abandon a book in progress. It’s not to say environment doesn’t matter: I might occasionally postpone my reading until I’m somewhere quieter. The critical factor here is that I know I won’t choose to begin reading a book that requires deep concentration when that’s not an option. In a busy life, however, that type of book might be placed on hold indefinitely.
Why It’s Difficult to Stay Committed: Waning Attention and Weak Interest
Picking up a book and reading well past bedtime is a common event for bookworms, but we’re also familiar with the reverse problem: when the book either fails to engage or hold our attention. When I’m not “hooked” into the book,3 I find myself skimming ahead to determine whether it improves. If I’m still plodding through it, I put it aside—the same applies for books that I feel don’t maintain my interest despite an intriguing opening.4 In other cases, some books don’t match our expectations for it. When this is problematic, I find my interest in the book declines and it gets shelved. And to be perfectly truthful, sometimes the more complex books out there require more effort to read than we want to make at that moment. Reading through extended passages of dialect, for example, can become tiresome. Even sufficient time and a quiet space for reading combined can’t make tedious reading fun. And if it’s not fun, both attention and commitment to reading have a way of waning.
What I’ve also observed about books that don’t initially capture my attention is that many belong to the “you ought to read this” category. These recommendations come from various lists (“Best Books”, reading assignments, literary classics, etc.) and suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from fellow readers. The difficulty here is that we seem to add “ought-to” books to our reading lists out of obligation more than excitement. There’s an almost medicinal quality to this approach: it’s good for us to expand our reading interests, but will it be to our taste? While people discover new favorites from stretching outside their preferred genres regularly, they also stumble over books that don’t intrigue them. I personally think we should expand our reading horizons, read diversely, and embrace challenging books. But vetting “ought-to” books—skimming a few pages or reading reviews—could be helpful for making more suitable selections.
Reading and Revising
Having promised myself to mostly read books that I owned this year, the Reading Women’s 2018 challenge is a helpful push toward meeting this goal. And taking an honest look at why some books remain on my own to-read list has inspired me to make time for those books I genuinely want to read, however much of a challenge they present. More importantly, it’s made me reconsider whether every book should remain on my list. If I’ve tried reading something on multiple occasions, it may well be time to pass it along to someone else who will enjoy it. After all, there’s so many books and so little time.
The other half is because I like reading. But you knew that. ↩
The term narrative hook describes the the technique by which the opening (typically, the first line but can be paragraphs or pages) of a story is designed to grab the reader’s attention. A good hook goes a long way towards securing the reader’s interest. ↩
For the record, this doesn’t mean the book is boring by any means. I’ve returned to books, read them through, and rather enjoyed them, which is why some books linger long so long on my reading list. For the other books, they’re usually just not my cup of tea. ↩
Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.
This excerpt of Jorie Graham’s poem, “The Errancy”, demonstrates how unconventional line breaks create a halting rhythm when reading the poem.
So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†] violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.
Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation
Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.
However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.
Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.
Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††]Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.
Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.
[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.
[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.
[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.
[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era. Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.
[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.
Before I visited Alaska last year, I decided to read a few books beforehand to complement my travels. Although my trip occurred during summer,[*] reminders of the severe winters were everywhere, suggesting the snow and ice could return at any moment. Alaskan literature, as befitting a place that both borders and resides within the Arctic Circle, reflects the dominance of winter with its tales of frozen landscapes and survival.[†]
The Gwich’in and Life in the Boreal Forest
Both winter’s harshness and the human struggle to survive feature heavily in Velma Wallis’s retelling of a Gwich’in Athabaskan Native American legend about two unlikely heroes: the eponymous elderly women. Long before Western people came to Alaska, the People (as the Gwich’in called themselves) lived in the boreal forest. Much like other First Peoples whose survival depended on hunting and gathering berries and edible plants, they moved camp frequently to follow game. Working together harmoniously was important to their existence. Everyone who could contribute needed to do so to ensure their survival. Even so, the land did not always provide sufficient resources.
An Alaskan Legend
In Two Old Women, this very disaster occurs. By late fall, the People cannot find game and face starvation. Their leader makes a shocking decision: when they leave camp, they will go without the two old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak. Despite their fondness for these women, the brutal logic of survival dictates that they should not waste resources on those who will soon die. The stunned women silently accept their fate, and no one protests their abandonment—not even Chi’dzigyaak’s daughter and grandson. Questioning the ways of the People was not condoned and could lead to ostracism and exile.[‡] Boldly though, both leave useful gifts behind for the women: an ax and babiche (rawhide strips).[§]
The two women decide to “Let us die trying”, to attempt surviving despite the odds. Most of the novel is marked by this weary but increasingly determined spirit to endure despite their age-related infirmities, isolation, and desperate circumstances. Renowned more for their complaining natures than their contributions to the band,[**] the women’s transformation to independent, strong survivors is difficult yet amazing. They realize, as they brush off rusty skills, that they let themselves rely too much on younger people when they could still care for themselves. No less remarkable is their eventual reconciliation with their band and Chi’dziyaak with her family. From weakness to strength, this tale inspires.
Sharing an Oral Tradition
In the preface, Wallis explains that Gwich’in legends are shared as gifts. Her mother shared this tale because she (Wallis’s mother) felt proud that she could still perform the heavy chores necessary for caring for herself despite advancing age. And part of this story’s charms lies in the sense that, true to the oral tradition from which it came, it reads as though it were spoken aloud. Wallis’s telling also captures this sense of pride in one’s capability as well as the terrible beauty of the land: snow-laden spruce, the Northern lights, and ice rivers that may or may not be solid underfoot. Her sensitive yet honest approach show the harsh decisions her people sometimes made from desperation but still allows us to see how kindness and genuine affection prevail. Wallis’s gift to us is a window to her culture and an uplifting tale to warm our hearts on a cold winter’s eve.
[*] During my visit to the southeastern coast in July, temperatures ranged from 55°F to 70°F (12.7°C –21.1°C), depending on time of day, elevation, and weather. July weather near my home ranged from 83°F to 94°F (28.3°C – 34.4°C).
[†] This facet remained true even in novels set in more recent times (Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child [1920s], and Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves [1960s–1970s]). Despite access to technology the Gwi’chin did not have, small mistakes, accidents, and illness led to deaths in the frozen climes.
[‡] These themes are explored more in depth in Wallis’s follow-up novel, Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun.
[§] Mistreating or losing an ax could have severe consequences for Ch’idzigyaak’s grandson, just as leaving a valuable resource such as babiche could do the same for her daughter.
[**] Wallis makes it clear complaining wasn’t usually tolerated and was viewed as a weakness; the women were humored (presumably) due the People’s fondness for them. However, as Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak decide, their complaints may have convinced their band and their chief that they were no longer competent enough to endure a harsh winter.
In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce the English-speaking world to a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.
In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce to the English-speaking world a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.[*] Prior to Humboldt’s scientific exploration of South America, western society largely assumed nature behaved much like a complex machine that was, for the most part, stable and unchanging. Many believed that nature existed for humanity’s use, and some even argued, as French naturalist George Louis de LeClerc (Comte de Buffon) did, that wilderness was a wasteland that required civilizing. No one, as Wulf emphasizes, concerned themselves with the possibility that nature could be damaged or destroyed. However, Humboldt’s observations in South America (then a colony of the Spanish Crown) led him to a very different conclusion.[†]
The “Web of Life”
While in South America, Humboldt intended to collect plant and animal specimens and record empiric data (eg, air and water temperature) as most naturalists did. However, the Prussian-born polymath had an additional aspiration: he wanted to see how natural forces worked in concert. Seeking a “big picture” view of nature, Humboldt’s approach was interdisciplinary and incorporated aspects of art, philosophy, poetry, history and politics. Humboldt’s choice to be inclusive and to compare across disciplines was unique, given that most scientific studies tended towards specialization and excluded the arts. His study of nature was not merely intellectual but also embraced emotional responses to the natural world.
With this “global view”, Humboldt’s radically revised the way in which nature was perceived. Far from the faithful machine depicted by René Descartes and others, Humboldt realized that nature was a delicately balanced “web of life”, one that human could tear asunder. While at Lake Valencia, Humboldt discovered that clear cutting a forest for cash crops yielded barren fields, a dried up river, and soil erosion. The first to recognize forests’ ecological role (ie, cooling effect, retention of water and soil), Humboldt would warn against irresponsible farming and mining practices. Thus, he became a forerunner of the environmental movement.
In writing about Humboldt, Wulf seeks to illuminate the reach of his influence from his time to ours. She describes contemporary scientists whose careers were supported, launched, or even inspired by Humboldt, among them Charles Darwin. Humboldt’s prominence in the scientific community (she refers to him as its “nexus”) existed alongside his ardent support for the free exchange of ideas and democracy.[‡] In South America, he witnessed the horrors of slavery and the abuses visited on the indigenous people whose ancient cultures were destroyed. His writings condemn slavery and challenge the supposed savagery of indigenous peoples. Símon Bolívar met Humboldt in Paris and found in Humboldt someone who admired his homeland and shared his disgust with Spanish colonial rule; their conversations would lead Bolívar to consider the possibility of revolution. Humboldt’s vision of nature and popular publications resonated with writers such as English Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wadsworth; poets Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman; American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and nature writers such as John Muir. Wulf also devotes several chapters to disciples of Humboldt who carried on his legacy.
Wulf’s admiration for Humboldt is both deserved and contagious. Discovering the “hidden” history behind concepts I studied in my undergrad science courses was exciting:[§] I had no idea that adventurous undertakings such as mountain climbing led to vegetation and climate zones, let alone who was responsible for this new way of categorizing plants. And as someone with a degree in literature and one in with environmental studies, reading about Humboldt was fascinating as I saw names from two very disciplines intermingle, whether they influenced him (eg, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Immanuel Kant) or he inspired them (eg, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir). It truly is amazing to see how interdisciplinary knowledge unites to change the world. And it’s perhaps for this reason that Wulf hopes to restore Humboldt to his former prominence. As we now face human-precipitated climatic changes he once warned against, the interdisciplinary approaches he used will likely be needed. According to Wulf, Humboldt may well be the inspirational figure to guide us through these difficult times.
[*] Wulf posits that Humboldt’s ideas potentially were so self-evident that his contributions was forgotten but considers the anti-Germany sentiment following the outbreak of World War I as a more likely cause.
[†] An earthquake that occurred not long after Humboldt’s arrival left him shaken as it forever dispelled the notion that nature was static.
[‡] Some considered his acceptance of a pension from the Prussian monarchy hypocritical, while Humboldt looked at it more pragmatically: he could not pursue his academic studies without financial support. He did attempt to use his position to positively influence the monarchy and would successfully ensure that all slave who entered Prussia would be freed immediately. Humboldt’s commitment to democracy also meant he was bitterly disappointed when the unification of Germany led to another monarchy in place of the federation he favored.