Friday, February 14, 2014

One Summer

One Summer by Bill Bryson was my blizzard book for 2014. It kept me amused, entertained and informed through a winter like we haven't had in a long time. I don't often look to nonfiction and especially a historical treatment of 528 pages for my reading material. I've enjoyed parts of his previous books so I thought I would try this one as it was available to download from the public library. I wasn't bored, but it was a bit slow in places. I enjoyed his sense of humor about the historical characters and how they influenced history. I will never again think about his cast of people in the same way.

After reading the book, I read a number of reviews of the work from Amazon, New York Times, Boston Herald, Barnes and Noble and others. I was interested to see how professional book reviewers reacted to the book. I wanted to get a reading on how One Summer would stack up as a "classic." To refresh my memory from my literature classes of fifty years ago, the web makes research extremely easy. I found some interesting discussions of the requirements of a "classic".

What is a Classic?

"A classic usually expresses some artistic quality--an expression of life, truth, and beauty.

--A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic.

--A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings--partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses.

--A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature--whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text."

It is my personal opinion that a "classic" provides inspiration or is a springboard to further interest in a topic. It inspires and is thought provoking. It allows us to learn something new about ourselves. One Summer certainly influenced my previously held impressions and assumptions on a variety of subjects. My notions about certain people in the America of the 1920 years were permanently altered. I suspect if high school students took the opportunity to view history through reading One Summer, they would find American History far more interesting.

As a retired research librarian, I can appreciate his bibliography spanning 119 pages. A lot of work went into One Summer. The importance of quality of sources is a major requirement of any respectable book of this genre. The resulting flow of information in his discussion seemed more than adequately objective to me. Even so, some reviewers disputed some of his statements. I haven't vetted every one of his sources, but it occurs to me that he consulted numerous primary source materials printed with copyright dates like 1917, 1920, 1925, 1931. I read through his list and the primary sources would have been the older materials rather than works with recent copyright dates. I was impressed with the number of respectable reference books he mentioned throughout the book. I have visions of him rolling through decades of the New York Times archives of microfiche. I hope he used the National Digital Newspaper Program archival materials from the Library of Congress for first hand accounts of events and interviews of witnesses to history as they occurred in the news. He has a discussion at the end of the book about visiting the Smithsonian Museum--National Air and Space Museum to look at The Spirit of St. Louis and his interview with the curator. His list of sources are available on his web site.

Even though One Summer (October 1, 2013) has not stood the test of time, I think it more than meets the other requirements of a "classic."

One Summer was a very exciting account of that historical summer of 1927 along with the historical background and followed by a "what happened to..." section. I enjoyed it so much, I am considering buying a copy and reviewing parts of it again. When reading the digital version, I missed all the pictures which are also documented and footnoted. Reading One Summer was more restful than shoveling snow.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Conversation

Since the late 1990's, I have maintained an ongoing "conversation" through e-mail with a friend. We call it a "conversation" because it is conducted like a conversation. We "talk" back and forth several times a week and sometimes several times a day. It is a fun experience with many benefits. It is very cathartic in many ways, newsy in other ways, and it keeps an ongoing friendship without having to live near each other. We live on opposite sides of the U.S. and over the years, we have kept in touch through many geographic regions.

We first met in 1968 when the husbands were in graduate school together. Our children were born around the same time and we kept in touch over the years through several moves but they have moved around the country more than we. As the children grew older, and we were busy with careers, we lost contact for years except through Christmas cards. Due to a family illness in the late 1990's, the "conversation" began as a way to keep updated on the circumstances. In order to respect the privacy of both parties, the details are being glossed over with superficial information.

When stressful situations enter the lives of people, it is hard to know what to do, how to help, and saying a few words are helpful, but we always want to do more. Years ago, I read an article in the old Reader's Digest about a situation where one person wanted to help another but the traditional cards and flowers just didn't seem to be quite enough. The main idea of the article was that people can be there for each other, not just for a crisis, but over "the long haul", through thick and thin, to also share the good times with people. I have read that widows have a continuing problem through their circumstances whereby people are there during the crisis and slowly fade away. The ensuing loneliness of being a widow can become problematic. No longer part of a couple, the widow experiences the loss of friendships as well as the loss of the spouse. My take away from the article was that if people really want to do something for others, just being there for the long haul is the most meaningful thing one can do for others. The author of the article talked about sending cards to the other person and keeping in touch over many, many years.

The circumstances of my pen pal and myself find us beyond the initial illness that was treated successfully with families intact and the addition of several grandchildren. The conversation has continued over the years and could have produced quite a few books, but we have not attempted to produce hard copies. It is like a conversation because it covers many topics and through thick and thin, we are there as a sounding board for each other. It is certainly cheaper than therapy but it is very effective in that respect.

The conversation always respects boundaries because with a long friendship, we know the areas where we agree and the topics about which we disagree. So we just avoid the hot button topics and "agree to disagree". We tend to agree about politics and religion but seldom discuss either. Mostly, we discuss families, hobbies, the day's events, weather, day-to-day life such as clothes we like, shopping we have done, recipes we like and so it goes on and on--like any other conversation. When we discuss decisions we need to make, it is helpful to type about ambivalence on a subject to clarify how we feel about it. However, when we offer how we might handle the other person's situation, we make sure it is just a comment that respects the fact that the other person's decision will be their own. We are very careful to respect the boundaries of the other and just say, "Let me know how you work out that one." Even if we might feel strongly about certain issues, it is necessary to let it go in respect for the friendship and recognize that the other person may need to handle something differently. The give and take of a long friendship can be very rewarding, but respecting those boundaries will allow it to thrive. We don't feel the need to be "right" at the expense of the friendship. People have the right to independence in their choices.

I have a family member who is 94 and maintains a friendship with another lady she met around 1940. I have read that siblings are the longest relationship a person can have. When a person is an only child, that relationship isn't possible  and it takes special effort to maintain long-time friendships. Years ago, there was a song sung by Dionne Warwick called "That's What Friends are For".

"Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That's what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
That's what friends are for"

It has been many years of fun to keep our friendship and conversation going. No matter what we are doing on any given day, we keep in touch and share our experiences. Even when we travel, we support each other through the most mundane things--the dryer broke; the grandchild won't eat; the MRI was perfect; the furniture needs new covers... It has become an experience that we would greatly miss, and so we continue the conversation. I could continue that conversation as long as I am able to type and the computer works.