Why I Write series is top shelf

The Yale University Press’ Why I Write series captures writers’ thoughts on the craft. Born from the Windham-Campbell Lectures, editions have, to date, published short works from Karl Ove Knausgaard and Patti Smith.

Just 17 pages in, I’ve already recorded within a Field Notes note book multiple passages from Patti Smith’s edition. Her observations are universal and meaningful.

For example, I try always to carefully match a book to a trip or flight. But I’d never really thought of others practicing the same behavior. Yet, it’s important a book match a trip’s mood and levity, so much so that I associate numerous travels with the book I read at the time, including my honeymoon (Frederick Barthelme’s Chroma), first-ever business trip (Caleb Carr’s The Alienist) and first vacation following the loss of my last surviving parent (Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation).

Here’s how Smith succinctly captures the phenomena:

The right book can serve as a docent of sorts, setting a tone or even altering the course of a journey.

She also celebrates the extraordinary in the mundane. How easily we forget the seemingly low magnitude events that inject so much richness within our lives, such as the sublime biscuit and gravy meal, served in a black iron skillet, I discovered on that initial Oklahoma business trip. The daily Tulsa World and a strong coffee helped make that one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed.

Having arrived in Paris following a flight from the states, and fighting off jetlag, Smith found herself struggling to stay awake but mesmerized by a young Russian skater preparing to take the ice in a figure-skating competition broadcast on French television. Here’s her description of the following morning:

I wake early, walk over to Cafe de Flore and have a plate of ham and eggs and black coffee. The eggs are perfectly round, set upon a perfectly round slab of ham. I marvel how genius manifests in a plate of eggs or the center of a rink.

Such passages make, for me, a book worthy of its costs. What better way to spend a holiday weekend.

And, special thanks to the Carmichael’s Bookstore staff for introducing me to this series.

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