Saturday, March 29, 2008

Karen Armstrong & Religious Tolerance

A few weeks ago, my bookstore hosted author and internationally renowned religious historian Karen Armstrong. I've meant to read her books for years, and now I have no excuse not to start reading immediately.

Her latest book is a biography of the Bible, written for the Books That Changed the World series. Armstrong's other books include investigations into fundamentalism, a history of the three major monotheistic religions, biographies of Muhammed and Buddha, and memoirs detailing her spiritual journey as a former nun.

Armstrong is a small woman with flashing, intelligent eyes, a melodic British accent, and hands that cracked when I shook them. Before the event began, I sat with her in our office while she signed stock. She was funny and open, and a conversation about author's signatures led her to start signing her own book as Barbara Taylor Bradford, a quite different author and person entirely. Because of the possibly contentious nature of her topics, I asked her if she wrote for an audience resembling herself or another ideal person. She replied that she writes for non-specialists, often imagining a conversation with friends. That same conversational quality came across during her brief lecture.

I walked her to the event space where 350 people were waiting. I was supposed to read a short introduction, but she literally leapt in front of me and stood at the microphone. I wisely cut the introduction short and let her proceed with an incredibly interesting - and seemingly off the cuff - speech about the history and interpretation of the Bible over the last two thousand years. I jotted down notes for half an hour.

Armstrong is a delightful public speaker. Her accent and earnest delivery remind me of the best University professors: possessed of a complete grasp of her topic, able to inform a general audience about a complex subject, and with the ability to engage her audience with intelligence and humor without condescending. Though I consider myself spiritual, I am not religious. Much of Ms. Armstrong's talk struck a chord in me; her approach to spirituality is more universal, liberal, tolerant, and healthy than fundamentalism, which she has no time for. It's in the spirit and history of open interpretation that she wrote this book.

Words are used in speech to express the personal interior that is ultimately unknowable and untranslatable to others. To say that Jesus is God is heresy (according to Armstrong), but the Bible does say that the word was made flesh; we create our own interior Gods and make them flesh through words. She spoke of words being combined and studied by ancient rabbis, and the words flashed, danced, sparkled and flamed in visionary rejoicing. Likewise, she discussed the development and codification of the Bible, and the history of fundamentalism. According to Armstrong, fundamentalism didn't become a force in Christianity until the 19th century, when literacy rates and scientific advances (including theories of evolution) seriously challenged the Church's position in western societies.

Later, an audience member asked her for a response to Pope Benedict XVI's recent book, which supposedly argues for a literal interpretation of scripture. Armstrong hadn't read the book, but argued that strict literal interpretation is contrary to the unity and the unifying properties of scripture. Scripture, she said, was for most of history wide open to interpretation, and legends describe how scripture and its interpretation were considered part of the earthly realm, rather than the heavenly. One legend recounts Moses coming down to earth to listen to a preacher; the sermon he hears is so much more complicated than the ten commandments that Moses exclaims, "My children have surpassed me!"

This tolerant view of spirituality is no doubt informed by Armstrong's research and investigations into other religions. Her capacity to critically accept and understand belief systems and open them to general readers has certainly granted her an important voice in religious studies. For example, she recently visited Pakistan ("What's an old wine-loving woman like me doing there?" she joked) where she spoke to assemblies of thousands and met with President Mushareff. The people who attended her lectures are "desperate for a friendly western voice; there's a real hunger in the Muslim world for a friendly western voice." What pains Muslims the most, she said, is the west's denigration of Islam. President Mushareff made this clear to her when he stressed above all else that the west must stop trampling on other people's traditions.

I'd like to share a few short quotes that deserve mention, and that embody some of the best aspects of Armstrong’s lecture:

"You'd better start somewhere on your journey to the divine."

"We can all converge on the mountain of God with our own unique Gods."

"Theology is poetry, an attempt to express the inexpressible."

"Each of us is an incarnation of one of God's hidden names." (Ibn Arabi, 12th century Sufi philosopher)

We should use our religious traditions to build community, said Armstrong, and I agree. Most of us do, I think. 350 people showed up to a suburban bookstore to hear someone talk about religious tolerance; clearly there is a need, in a time of declining faith, war, and election-year rhetoric, to find some common ground. When common ground is suffering, as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan, then fundamentalism can take root, and intolerance can follow. When a democracy fails itself and asserts the ancient code of “might makes right,” what follows is a divided and suspicious citizenry, an angry and oppressed population, a reversion to the principle of lex talionis, and the rising of religious and political voices calling for either-or choices framed in agitprop: “You’re with us or you’re against us;” the “Axis of Evil;” “God Bless Our Troops.” And that’s just in the aggressor country, not in those destroyed by bombs, or forced into poverty by propped-up governments, or bullied into submission by economic sanction and saber-rattling. Armstrong didn’t go so far as to say this, but she did offer hope – an ancient message, found at the heart of all the world’s religions, and the one thing we can all agree we need more than ever.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Life and Times of Michael K. by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee's beautiful tale of Michael K.'s search for meaning and dignity is inspiring and powerful - and unfortunately relevant. The war, racism, and human rights abuses framing "The Life and Times of Michael K." are as close as tomorrow's headlines. By focusing on one man's attempt to live a life of freedom, Coetzee universalizes our evils, and Michael K.'s heart-wrenching story becomes revealingly human. The savagery will haunt you, but Michael K.'s innocence and resolve will have you cheering. "The Life and Times of Michael K." changed for the better what I thought literature was capable of, and what it should aspire to: it cuts like barbed wire, but heals like a lover's touch. I owe my friend a lifetime of thanks for recommending this to me; it's simply a brilliant book.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Two Great Oregon Hiking Guides

One day I recommended Russ Schneider’s “Hiking the Columbia River Gorge” to a customer at the bookstore. I told her my own copy was dog-eared and worn, filled with post-it notes and day-passes used as bookmarks. She asked if she could buy my copy.

Any Portlander, or Oregonian, for that matter, owes it to themselves to hike the Columbia River Gorge, and this is one of the best guides I've seen. It's almost the only one I use, detailing 50 hikes on both sides of the river from the close-in (Latourell Falls) to the distant (Catherine Creek Natural Arch). The selection covers easy strolls to accessible waterfalls to strenuous overnight backpacking trips. Schneider includes a good amount of introductory information, but the hike descriptions are what make this book shine. Each hike includes information on difficulty, distance, trail conditions, trails users, best season, elevation gains, maps and fees, and contacts. Driving directions are clear, maps and elevation charts are provided for every hike, and a mile by mile summary is always included. Lengthy descriptions of the hike itself round out the wealth of information. Depending on the hike, you’ll learn about the forest and the views, water sources and stream crossings, lakes and fishing, geology and natural history, and helpful tips for making your adventure complete. The only downsides to this book are the lack of color pictures (so take your own!) and the lack of a comprehensive map that shows how so many of these trails intersect. After a while, you’ll have enough experience in the Gorge to start planning combination hikes that aren’t included in any book. I recommend a Green Trails map or two in conjunction with Schneider's book.

Another great guide is Doug Lorain’s "100 Classic Hikes in Oregon.” This absolutely gorgeous book won a National Outdoor Book Award, is a torture to read in the rainy season, and is almost indispensable in the summer. It is one of the few books with good information on hiking the Wallowas, and the hike selections are often innovative and unavailable in other guide books. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful color photographs and superb full-color topographic maps by Moore Creative Designs, this book will make your mouth water and your feet itch for the trail. If it doesn't, check your pulse. Most likely, you’re asleep or dead. Rare is the book that makes you want to ignore the “best season” advice and head out immediately. Lorain has helpfully divided the state into regions and provides information on each area before describing each hike down to the yard. The elevation/relief graphs help plot distance and time when choosing campsites, and the trail descriptions provide everything else you need, including side-trips and environmental concerns such as the best time to cross certain creeks, fire regulations, and peak seasons for flower and mosquito blooming. If only all hiking guides were this good...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dead White Males

For some reason, a few nights ago I stared at my bookshelves and asked myself if the number of books I own from each author would reveal which authors I liked best. I chose to look at authors with more than three books on my shelves, and came up with this list:


  1. Italo Calvino
  2. Tom Clancy
  3. J.M. Coetzee
  4. Roald Dahl
  5. Charles Dickens
  6. William Faulkner
  7. David Guterson
  8. Ernest Hemingway
  9. Jack Kerouac
  10. Halldor Laxness
  11. Mark Twain


  1. Billy Collins
  2. Gary Snyder
  3. William Stafford

There are some surprising names here. Tom Clancy and Haldor Laxness? I grew up reading Clancy's Jack Ryan novels, but I wouldn’t call him a favorite. And I recently discovered Laxness, who is hit or miss with me; a great writer, but not someone who would spring to my mind immediately. I’ve only recently bought his books, and I’m not sure he has staying power at the top of the list. And Hemingway is a source of conflict with my friends – I prefer a richer narrative style (Faulkner and Dickens, for example) to Hemingway’s minimalism.

The range of authors is curious for other reasons. There’s a few classic writers (Faulkner and Dickens again) a few non-Americans (Calvino, Coetzee, Laxness), and a British children's book writer (Dahl), but overall, and especially with poetry, the list is comprised of contemporary American writers. Eight of these writers are dead. Every one is, or was, a white male. There’s not one woman represented.

Aside form that, what else is missing? To begin with, I didn’t count authors whose collected work I own in one volume. That would add Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eudora Welty, many short story writers, and more. And I didn’t count non-fiction works by fiction writers and poets, which would add several more names. The random quantity I chose (three) precludes some of my favorite books and writers (John Banville, Borges, Leonard Cohen, Edward Abbey, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx) who don’t yet represent a large portion of my library. It also precludes those writers who haven’t written three books yet, or who have only written two that I own or like. Besides, I try to stick to a rule to only read an author once in a year or so, in order to avoid saturating myself on one writer at the expense of others; some authors I just haven’t been reading for that long.

In the end, the list is interesting and reveals directions I can go in my reading this year: more women writers, more books by favorite authors, more foreign writers, and more work in translation. I may have to be more adventurous – but then again, the sum total of the above author’s books in my library only totals about 55 books. That’s around 10% of the books I own, and the rest are more inclusive of the missing categories. After all, the last two books I read were written by Germans and translated into English, and my notebook’s reading list contains the names of a homosexual African-American poet, a dead French experimental novelist, a female religious historian, an Iranian novelist, and an Italian critic. Life’s too short to analyze much. Just read, and analyze that.

Ed Viesturs at Powell's Books

On Friday the 29th, my room-mate and I went to the downtown Powell's to hear mountain-climber Ed Viesturs speak and sign copies of his book, “No Shortcuts to the Top.” Viesturs was the first American to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks, and incredibly, he did it without using supplemental oxygen. I enjoyed the book and I was excited to see Viesturs in person.

“No Shortcuts” is a solid piece of mountaineering writing. Written with David Roberts, it details Viestur’s life and career as a climber and family man. In no-nonsense terms, Viesturs talks about his climbing philosophies and successes, offering insights into the world of high-altitude mountaineering and tragedies such as the 1996 Everest disaster. The writing is straight-forward and clear, gripping and suspenseful in many places and funny in others, though suffering slightly from a lack of narrative beauty that should, in my opinion, suffuse a book written about adventures in a region itself suffused with beauty.

In person, Viesturs is honest and funny, with a confident type-A personality. He portrays himself as a risk manager, rather than a risk-taker, and he repeatedly fell back on his mantra that “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” A gorgeous slide show accompanied the tale of his last 8,000 meter bid for the summit of Annapurna, a mountain that claims the lives of 1 of every 2 climbers who attempt its steep slopes. Viesturs and his partner waited for days at base camp for the weather to clear and for the perfect climbing conditions to prevail. “Listen to the mountain,” Viesturs said; the mountain chooses when the time to climb is right. It’s hard to argue with that, even when he speaks directly about the mistakes, often fatal, that his fellow climbers and friends have made over the years.

The book is focused and lean: the summit climbs, the lives and sometimes deaths of other climbers, and the behind-the-scenes planning are just what I want in outdoor literature - detailed and suspenseful, well-plotted and transporting. However, Viesturs didn’t speak or write about several pertinent issues I wanted to know more about, and his personality seemed at times to overcome any interest he had in speaking about them. For example, his summit bids come across as half-way arrogant when little attention is paid to the spiritual and personal growth offered by such a physical test of the mind and body. I’m interested in what Viesturs gained from his experiences, and I wasn’t satisfied with the answer that he set himself a goal and simply pursued it. Other writers, Jon Krakauer especially, personalized their climbing accounts and gave their stories a deeper, more nuanced, and ultimately more human perspective.

That perspective also seemed lacking in Viesturs’ responses to audience questions about the commercialization of Everest, and by extension, of Nepalese culture. He seemed dismissive of such concerns by answering “The mountain [Everest] is commercialized,” and that nothing will change that. Perhaps, but I’d like to hear more about his views on the erosion of traditional ways of life and the heavy environmental impact of commercial climbing.

Yet, these might be my own personal reactions to a man who is goal-driven and highly successful at getting what he wants. There’s nothing wrong in that, and I have to remind myself that Viesturs was on a promotional tour. He controlled the crowd well, allowed many questions, answered them efficiently, and signed quickly. As a bookstore employee who often assists with author events, I can say that I wish more authors were like that. As an avid hiker and backpacker who is very interested in the topic, I wish I could say that Viesturs had been more open and informative at his signing. That’s not to say he wasn’t inspirational or entertaining; my room-mate hadn’t read the book yet and was excited to do so, partly in order to compare the necessarily brief spoken anecdotes to the more developed written stories.

In his presentation, Viesturs said that it wasn’t necessary for every individual on Everest in 1996 to write their account; every eyewitness, of course, tells a different story, and revisiting the tragedy isn’t always necessary or healthy. But it’s that human yearning to know, to listen, and to learn that drives people to write and tell stories, to read books, and to show up to author signings. The goal, so to speak, is optional; getting something from the attempt is mandatory. Viesturs has accomplished an amazing mountaineering feat, and his book, despite some flaws, will become a classic of mountaineering literature.