It’s that time again—The Common and Amherst College will be hosting the fourth annual LitFest at the end of the month. For three days, February 28th to March 2nd, award-winning authors, poets, and critics will descend on Amherst to read, discuss, teach, and celebrate great writing. This year the lineup includes two National Book Award finalists, two Pulitzer Prize winners, and a New York Times bestseller. View the full list of participating writers and a calendar of events here.
Our recommended books this month explore unfamiliar territory, in both form and subject. We’re reading formats that do something different with time, place, and space on the page, through writing that is fiercely modern and refreshingly curious.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Lui, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, That That by Ken Mikolowski, and Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi
Our flight to Boston had been delayed five hours for operational reasons, we were told. The Istanbul airport was hot and thick with people, a hectic crossroads from which we all hoped we’d escape, eventually. We’d been there three hours already—essentially nothing, judging by the quantity of sleeping bodies slumped against each other on the ground, splayed across chairs, face down on tables. We paced the warm corridors, sticky with traveler sweat, past the food court, mosque, flooded bathrooms, Victoria’s Secret. We slumped over a table eating savory pastries, watching others in similar states of surrender.
A familiar sound comes from the other room. A voice—from Kentucky; from a monitor speaker, ten feet away in Massachusetts. I hear it in the kitchen. A clip of speech, a cadence heard again and for not the last time. Open floor plan living: all sounds permeate. Racket of chickens, dogs, lilting voice, banjo.
A film, incomplete—still very much its audio-visual pieces. We cohabitate, this thing and I. I am not the maker, though he lives here too. I am adjacent to the making.
I was there when it happened. The beginnings of this thing that has now sprawled through our lives. That was three years ago, on a summer road trip from Boston to points south, stopping to see friends in Charlottesville, Nashville, Memphis, before making our way back north.
In the cabinet in the atrium outside my office is a glass display case that holds, among other things, a beautiful kidney shaped vessel, its patina smoothed by use. Label: “Brass Pus Basin.” It is an object to stand and stare down at for a while, intentionally or idly, to move on from and return to, to see in passing. Nearby, as part of an exhibit on bloodletting and cupping, are 18th- and 19th-century thumb lancets with their sharp little blades and tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl handles. In the next case over, a collection of 40 or so calculi (“bladder stones”) of varied size and shape, all disturbingly large. This is the Warren Anatomical Museum, at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, where “the dead teach the living.”
I’m not really sure why it’s all so illegible now. The ink fades to nothing midway through and is gasping for breath where it’s visible at all. I have a vague recollection of the page living on one side of the fridge for a time (reminding us of its existence)—so perhaps the sunlight hit it just so. Or perhaps the pen itself was too weak, not up to the task.
Lobster in the Rough is over. On a given summer day we can no longer pull off the highway on the Maine side of the border into the parking lot alongside dusty motorcycles, cars, and trucks, and take a seat at the bar or a table beside the bocce courts, inhale lobster rolls in the sun and have a drink among locals and interlopers. This was a place of tribute bands, ladies nights, and horseshoe pits. A place we visited any chance we had heading north or south, a place we returned to, the origin of memories and oft-repeated phrases overheard in the midst of one fantastic day or another. Its closing confirms or reaffirms that these sorts of things—the places we’ve come to depend on to be there as some small but increasingly significant facet of our lives—are going away.This link—to the past we have lived and a past that is hinted at by the place itself—is gone. It’s not a loss of food (certainly there are other shacks within a mile radius that could sufficiently do the job), but a loss of sustenance nonetheless—a shift in atmosphere. Sometime this past winter it transitioned from closed for the season to closed permanently. It’s for sale.
We’re taking this month to revisit books from our pasts, and find new ones that will stay with us. Some of these titles are old favorites, which have found their way back to their recommenders after years apart. Others are books long unread but known by reputation, “by proxy,” finally experienced. We are reading both echoes built on classics and violent shifts from the familiar. These are books both for everyone and specifically for you. They will linger with their recommenders—with all of us—long after reading, into “every possible future.”
Junior College by Gary Soto, Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, Aeons by Max Rivto.
We were on the small roads that sometimes turn gravel, sometimes dead end, when we found it. This was Vermont, about ten years ago, our first road trip together: a circuit of swimming holes, picnics, and stops for general store ice cream. We passed a series of “Take Back Vermont” signs. Somewhere along the way we came upon the man, who by all appearances seemed to be a Hare Krishna devotee, having a yard sale. It was here in the sunny warm greenness that we found THE PEOPLE’S CYCLOPEDIA OF UNIVERSAL KNOWLEDGE, WITH NUMEROUS APPENDIXES INVALUABLE FOR REFERENCE IN ALL DEPARTMENTS OF INDUSTRIAL LIFE. BROUGHT DOWN TO THE YEAR 1885.
Chart Showing the Ratio of Church Accommodation to the Population Over 10 Years of Age