Don Lee’s The Collective is one of those books that I saw and then arbitrarily pulled down from the library shelves. Unlike the vast majority of such books that immediately end up back on the shelf, The Collective left with me in a streak of serendipity. We have been taught to never judge a book by its cover, but by the spine is obviously a-okay.
NPR cites The Collective as a member of the collegiate canon, alongside Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (two thumbs up) and Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (on the list). You know it is a collegiate story when the characters waste no time referencing Franny & Zooey (Chapter 4). The book opens with a suicide, and then goes back in time to introduce us to three friends in their freshman year at Macalester College. They are Joshua Yoon, Eric Cho, and Jessica Tsai, three Asian-American artists. Joshua is by far the most fascinating character, and he is also the one who kills himself in the first few pages of the book. He is fast-talking, confident, and brilliant, and it is powerful to follow his life knowing he will choose to end it. The author raises questions about art, talent, race, and our closest relationships.
Bonus: This book is giving my vocabulary a refresher. Great words like sobriquet, apotheosis, and prevaricate sprinkle the pages, along with California slang that is not entirely appropriate to transcribe here.
Robert Dawson is an American photographer. A recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, his photographs are found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Earlier this year he published The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. Mr. Dawson spent 18 years traversing the United States, capturing libraries of both fame and obscurity. The book, which includes reflections from many famous authors, indeed celebrates public libraries. However, it also warns us of what is at stake as we work to ensure their preservation. Mr. Dawson was kind enough to answer a few questions about his project and his love of reading. You can check out his portfolio here, which includes many photos from The Public Library. Enjoy!
In terms of public gathering spaces, how is the public library unique?
“Public libraries are some of the few non-commercial, non-religious public gathering places that we have left. Other than public parks most of our country has been privatized. Public libraries are a symbol of the loss of the commons. This why I did this project and why I feel it is important to fight like hell to preserve the public space that remains.”
Why is the public library a good subject to photograph?
“Because public libraries are local they usually reflect the local values of the communities in which they reside. I tried to show that in the photographs. By creating this survey of public libraries throughout the nation, I also created a portrait of our country at this time through the lens of the local public library. Also, libraries are under threat. Because of the loss of funding for many libraries, I wanted to use the project to bring attention to the critical role of libraries throughout the country.”
Somebody has one full day to travel anywhere in the United States to visit a public library. Where do you advise they go?
“That is a difficult question to answer. Our country is vast with each region containing its own fascinating and unique history. I find libraries interesting throughout the country. However, if I was to advise someone to go to one area, it would be New England. The first tax supported public library started in Peterborough, NH in 1833. Like many good ideas in America, this one began in New England and spread around the world. Because they have a head start from the rest of the country, the history of libraries in this region is long and fascinating. From the beautiful Millicent Library in Fairhaven, MA, to the unique library/opera house built right on the US/Canadian border in Derby Line, VT, to the abandoned Hartland Four Corners Library in Hartland Four Corners, VT. New England libraries are special.”
Of all the books you were required to read for high school English, which is still a favorite?
“I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in high school. I didn’t really appreciate this masterpiece until later, when I produced a book on my home region of California’s Central Valley where The Grapes of Wrath is located. I left the Central Valley at 18 vowing that I would never go back. Later, as an adult I found the area endlessly fascinating. It is sometimes referred to as California’s Third World. I am using my recent Guggenheim Fellowship to go back again to the Valley to examine libraries and literacy efforts in a very difficult environment. Steinbeck’s classic book is more relevant to me now than ever.”
Where are your favorite places to read?
“Usually, my favorite place to read is the hour before I go to sleep in bed. It is a way of calming down from the day and have my mind drift off into other worlds. My favorite book about people reading is a photographic book called On Reading by Andre Kertez. Pick up a copy if you haven’t seen it. It has just been reissued and I think you will be delighted.”
What was the last book you read? What are you reading now?
“I recently read the book The War that Ended Peace about the 20 year period before World War I. I became interested because of the 100th anniversary of WWI. It is scary to see the similarities to today, especially what is happening in Ukraine. To follow up on that I am reading Barbara Tuckman’s The Guns of August, which looks at the developments during the first month of WWI. She is one of my favorite historians and I have read many of her books.”
“There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice that sounded broken and full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War. And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling.”
2) The book was $5 on Amazon. What? Ink on paper, printed, bound, and enclosed by a glossy cover; a story of original characters, places, events, and ideas, born from the human mind; packaged, shipped, and delivered by Amazon robots and the postal service…all for $5. On Sunday, I went to Blue Bottle Coffee in SF and spent $4 on an iced coffee à la New Orleans. It was admittedly delicious, but it ceased to exist after 10 minutes, and well, it was a cup of coffee. Sometimes, market prices do not reflect true value…unless of course you’re getting an iced latte with almond-macadamia milk in a chilled Mason jar.
3) A lot of Young Adult books seem far more complex and challenging than a lot of books aimed at adults. After Me Before You, I decided to give this theory another test run.
4) How I Live Now tells the story of Daisy, a 15-year-old New Yorker who travels to England to visit cousins. She is quickly enamored by them and the beautiful countryside where they live. However, soon after Daisy’s arrival, an unnamed enemy occupies the country and a sort of WWIII ensues. This is a story of a world war as it might unfold in the 21st century.
In Me Before You, Will’s parting message to Louisa is “Just live well. Just live.” This somehow translates to Louis reading a postmortem letter from Will at a café on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois in Paris, eating a croissant and drinking coffee. On one hand, I know that what it means to “just live” is different for all of us. I’m constantly trying to figure out what it means, and of course I have no idea. On the other hand, this books tells the story of a young man who commits suicide after enduring a horrible accident and its aftermath. The book ends with a girl tearing up over a letter at a café before going on a Parisian adventure. I don’t know about other readers, but girl-in-Paris-café did not give me the closure I needed for this very heavy, emotional book.
That being said, I think Jojo Moyes makes it easier for the reader to accept Will’s decision to end his life by making him such an intelligent and consistent character. Despite flashes of happy moments with Louisa, he never wavers from his decision. Will convinced me that he knew what he wanted and that he deserved to receive it. But did he convince all readers? I doubt it. That’s what makes Me Before You such a worthwhile read, because you have the opportunity to gauge your reaction to an incredibly serious issue within the safe space of a book. Do we have the right to choose death for ourselves? If so, at what point does it become appropriate? I know, heavy stuff. So to be able to explore the idea, even within the confines of a book, is quite an experience.