Feb 11 2022

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

Western book stack

Book Review: “Coyote Songs” (2018) by Gabino Iglesias

I don’t read a lot of horror, but occasionally I find myself gandering afield. So I feel confident enough to claim Gabino Iglesias’s novel Coyote Songs: a barrio noir (El Paso: Broken Books, 2018) can, at times, be just as vicious as parts of other novels I’ve encountered such as McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a lot of the little I’ve read of Stephen King––particularly his It (1989)––and perhaps even Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996).

One very poignant passage for me in Iglesias’s book was:

The men made phone calls and used the equipment in their cars to report the finding. Then came the white vans. Men and women wearing masks and latex gloves packed the bodies into black bags, zipped them up, and loaded them into the backs of the vans. The process was quiet, ceremonial. Every time they pulled a kid out, everyone looked down, refusing to make eye contact with the others. They were temporarily ashamed of being human. (Coyote Songs 132)

This is a fictional world, yet it is one akin to the world of Ayotzinapa––a world where, instead of the bright cliché of how “the eyes are the windows to the soul”—readers instead find only sight shattered, vision lost, ocular organs gouged out like Gloucester on the moor when he laments:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport. (King Lear IV, i)

Iglesias’s line––“ashamed to being human”— reminds me also of the story of Pio Bigo (1924–2013), an Italian who refused to fight for Mussolini, then, endured time in Muthausen, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, only to return home after the war to find that no one wanted to hear his story. It seems they were too “ashamed of being human.” For to be ashamed to be human is to be human-all-too-human.

(See the thumbnail sketch of Bigo’s story in Volkhard Knigge, “To Each His Own [a Preface],” Buchenwald: Ostracism and Violence 1937 to 1945, trans., Judith Rosenthal, eds. Knigge, Michael Löffelsender, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau and Harry Stein, (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2017) p. 126.)

What I encountered in Coyote Songs was a visceral admixture of the real-unreal-ethereal—not unlike David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution: an Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893–1923 (El Paso: Cinco Punto, 2005), a factual text whose epilogue involves a literal encounter with un fantasma de Pancho Villa—and also not unlike how Cabeza de Vaca’s (1488–1560) La Relación (Narrative of the Navárez Expedition) (c. 1542) includes not only cannibalism and three kinds of mosquitos, but an encounter with a dark, devilish spirit.

(Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, La Relacíon, ed. Harold Augenbraum, (New York: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 2013), pp. 72, 93, 107–08. For other, recent devilish encounters in modern America, see Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, (New York: Sentinel, 2019), p. 111; Ray Wyle Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life … Well, Lived, (Wimberly, Texas: Bordello Records, 2015), p. 132.)

Finally, while I did happen to notice the line––

She wanted to show her white liberal friends how some of their discourses were thinly-cloaked attempts to make up for their racist families or white guilt or just crap they’d picked up from popular television personalities and later regurgitated with ludicrous levels of self-assuredness and conviction. (Coyote Songs 45)

––let me finish by reaffirming that (while I’m a straight, white (liberal?) male) I’m also but a reviewer, not an Ivy-League gatekeeper, not an editor (except to myself), not a Rogan listener or a Trump voter, or vaccine denier, nor a gangster of love; nor do I wield any influence, bear any wealth, possess any insight, claim any authority, nor manifest any charisma to “change the System,” (though a change might be nice, particularly in the world of publishing). But I nonetheless think all readers here at Bookbread should check out Iglesias’s book(s). I know that, for me, this first encounter is not enough; I want more.

Jun 30 2020

Short Story Review: “Animation” by Chris Dangle

pencil shavings

I once knew a writer in the mid-80s, one of nondenominational Christian songs, and about the only lyric I can now remember (for I was then but a child) is “my life’s a vapor.”

This writer was in his twenties then; he later died in his forties (some kind of cancer, I heard about it third- or fourth-handed years later). So, like some poets, his lyrics (or at least the one I remember) ended up being prophetic.

So, when part of your childhood mindset is “life’s a vapor,” carpe diem and all that, it is quite natural to be suspicious of something that calls itself “flash fiction.”

I used to think flash fiction was just a gimmick to lure Gen-Z readers and writers into the ever nonlucrative world of modern publishing.

And there is Hamlet’s remark that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but he may be mad when he says it, and besides, not all brief texts, whether fiction or otherwise, are witty.

All that being said, I’m willing to reconsider things after reading Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018), for here one finds intense, interesting brevity.

Here is a barest-of-bones narrative told seamlessly (or perhaps one should say “without fracture”)—like James Thurber’s (1894–1961) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (1939), the Ficciones of Jorge Borges (1899–1986), and some of Kafka’s (1883–1924) parables.

I shall now be more receptive to this genre (and may sometimes admit that even I make mistakes.)

Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty


[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]



[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.

Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.



[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.

Jul 12 2019

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.

Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).


Dec 26 2017

14 Different Ways to Think About Books

Western book stack

14 Different Ways to Think About Books:
Or, Do Good Questions Make Good Books?

I’ve been thinking about Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) where toward the end of his rather interesting book he lists some provoking questions. Their provocation led my thinking to take an initiative. So I went ahead and transposed the word “book” for the word “question” in this quotation from Kelly:

  1. A good [book] is not concerned with a correct answer.

  2. A good [book] cannot be answered immediately.

  3. A good [book] challenges existing answers.

  4. A good [book] is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

  5. A good [book] creates new territory of thinking.

  6. A good [book] reframes its own answers.

  7. A good [book] is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

  8. A good [book] is a probe, a what-if scenario.

  9. A good [book] skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.

  10. A good [book] cannot be predicted.

  11. A good [book] will be the sign of an educated mind.

  12. A good [book] is one that generates many other good questions.

  13. A good [book] may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

  14. A good [book] is what humans are for. [1]

I think the transposition works well for intriguing lines of thoughts and, ironically enough, questions, except perhaps for no. 14. If the statement is understood as a good book is made for humans, I see no problem. But if the statement means humans are made for good books, I feel I’m on shakier ground. Yet here I recall Owen Barfield (1898-1997) once recalling Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Oscar Wilde’s mot—that men are made by books rather than books by men—was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’. [2]



[1] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 288–89.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928. Third Edition. Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 136–37.

Feb 17 2017

Why do Artists Travel?

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Why do Artists Travel?

What foreign walls will open to a wanderer?


This is my home and my homeland. It tallies with secrets my father
Left me, that talked about fate.


Rosalind: “A traveler? By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.”

Jacques: “Yes, I have gained my experience.”

Rosalind: “And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad— and to travel for it, too.”

––Shakespeare [3]

The traveller that distrusts every person he meets, and turns back upon the appearance of every man that looks like a robber, seldom arrives in time at his journey’s end.

––Oliver Goldsmith[4]

It must be confessed in the main that travelers who withdraw from the limitation of their homes think they step into not only a strange but a perfectly free nature, and this delusion we could at that time cherish the more as we were not yet reminded every moment by police examinations of passports, by tolls, and other such like hindrances, that abroad things are still more limited and worse than at home.


All the arts commonly aspire toward the principle of music….. The aim of our culture should be to attain not only as intense but as complete a life as possible…. The demand of the intellect is to feel itself alive.

––Walter Pater[6]

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

––Oscar Wilde[7]

See more: Why Do Artists Travel? (Part 02)


[1] Statius, Thebaid. Translated by Ross. XI, 730

[2] Virgil, Aeneid. VII, 123.

[3] Shakespeare, As You Like It. IV, i.

[4] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “26. A reformation in the gaol. To make laws complete, they should reward as well as punish.”

[5] Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, XIX, 661.

[6] Pater, The Renaissance 135, 188, 220.

[7] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying.”

Nov 4 2016

Bookbread: International Voting Edition


Bookbread: International Voting Edition

With only four days left before this election ends, I’ve noticed some readers of this blog come all the way from places such as Yerevan, Armenia and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as Bad Kissingen, Bavaria and even Bengaluru, Karnataka.

I wonder, what would those readers and their friends and families ask of a voter in the United States? Would they be curious for whom I voted? Do they understand the typical American’s deep ambivalence toward both candidates?

  • I will say I’ve already voted.
  • I will say never have I joined a political party nor voted a “straight ticket” for a single faction.
  • I will say I come from a modest family involved in agriculture, healthcare, and education. I grew up on a farm outside of a town with a population of less than 7,000 but now live about 60 miles away from that farm in Austin, Texas with a metro populous of over a million.
  • I will say the city traffic proposition that I voted on will affect my day-to-day life much more than any President of the United States ever can on any issue.

I cannot deny being tempted to pen, as Ovid did to his enemies in the Ibis, an elaborate curse upon these hucksters who herd us like cattle. Or should I follow Paul’s advice and shake my sandals at these clownish candidates and their supporters and declare “your blood be on your own hands,”? [1]

On the other hand, perhaps all this anxiety and confusion will revive the aesthetic significance of literature. After all, in both good times and bad, one nearly always wants better books. Yet I would be willing to face a famine that made worthwhile works scarce should that famine render an abundance of readers seriously interested in self-education. This was Andrew Lang’s audience,[2] and it is the audience this Bookbread blog continues to seek, no matter which ape be the acting President.



[1] Matthew 10:14; Acts 18:6.

[2] As Elanor De Selms Langstaff put it: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14.)

Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories


Why We Retell Stories

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]


II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]



[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.