The idea of the north was taking him. He needed something to brace against.
– Annie Proulx
I just finished my annual reading of The Shipping News. I think I’ve read it every winter since 1999, the year my Uncle Syd gave it to us. That first year, I bet I devoured it. Probably read it in three days. But as the years go on, I take my time with it, reading a chapter a night instead of ten. Savoring sentences like fine chocolate that can be eaten by the square instead of by the bar.
I am a re-reader. I read The Shipping News every year, Lonesome Dove every couple of years, Life of Pi every three or four, Gone with the Wind every six or seven. Hemingway over and over again, sometimes going two years, sometimes two months. Always in summer, or when I want to chill wine in an Alpine stream, or see the sun glinting off the Gulf of Mexico, or simply feel warm.
I’ve talked with other readers about whether they re-read, and the non re-reader’s reason for sticking with new material is that there is so much to read in the world, so many brilliant works of literature, why waste precious time reading what you’ve already read?
I get that, and I wish I were adventurous enough to always try something new, to discover another favorite. But to me, known works are like your favorite menu item at a restaurant. You’ve got a taste for a specific dish – the entree whose flavor seeped into your saliva the moment someone suggested this restaurant. And if you order something else, you’re almost always disappointed. It wasn’t what you were craving.
That’s how it is for me with the Newfoundland of The Shipping News. It is winter now, and when the bitter wind slices through my down coat, and brittle air pricks my skin with icy needles, this is the novel that I crave. From year to year, I don’t remember a lot of details, only the way the novel makes me feel the rawness of winter, and the subtle strength of winter’s people. The simple posture of Wavey Prouse, the tall and quiet woman who “has a good stride,” has resonated with me since my very first reading. It seems bizarre to me that while other details fade from memory, Wavey’s posture is a thing that always sticks with me about this book.
Every year, this book has offered a feast of some sort, depending on where we are in our lives. In Maryland, when I first read The Shipping News, my mind had never once lit on Newfoundland. I probably didn’t even know what or where Newfoundland was. And I devoured its newness, consuming descriptions as if, with watering eyes and icy skin, I were witnessing a great wonder of the world.
In Florida, The Shipping News served icebergs and arctic air, polar blizzards and snow like “the devil’s feathers,” while the sun shone warm on palm trees outside our window. When we spent a winter in Maine, Proulx seated me with characters like the ones all around us, including lobstermen, Newfies, and the frozen sea itself. Folks who seem quirky to those of us who don’t live with the rawness of subarctic seaside winters, who don’t fish in the frigid waters, and who don’t recognize an ocean with “pack ice like broken restaurant dishes,” and waves that sough under an eight inch crust of icy slush.
In Minnesota, where we weathered three winters, where temperatures could linger below 0°F for a week, and snow was such a normal part of life that there was no such thing as a snow day from school, The Shipping News was comfort food. It assured me that people do live in cold places – millions of humans, members of my same species. And they endure. They are strong, and they are humble, they are neighborly and kind. And they become characters because they are winter’s people.
With this year’s reading of The Shipping News, I did not devour the newness of Newfoundland, or winter there vicariously. I did not dine with the characters or take comfort from their survival. This year, I feasted on Proulx’s words. I don’t know that I ever paid attention to the brilliance of her writing before, probably because when writing is flawless, you don’t notice its perfection. You’re too busy befriending the characters, shivering in the chill fog and tasting the salty air, listening to the green house scrape across the ice, turning pages to see what will happen next in the story.
This year, though, I read as a writer, and every night I was blown away. Each line of dialog was a delicacy, every sentence a morsel. If I quoted my favorite passages here, I’d rewrite the whole book. I hear over and over again that if you want to be a good writer, you should read, and read, and read. That advice ran through my head as I read The Shipping News this year, and all I could think was, “I will never be this good.” At first it made me feel bad, like I may as well just resign myself to mediocrity.
But then I kept reading, kept eating Proulx’s sentences, relishing her metaphors, savoring her arrangement and choice of words, and I just didn’t care. As long as someone can write that well, and I can have the pleasure of reading and re-reading them, there will always be excellence in my life. And I might be just as satisfied to feast on it as be the one who serves it up.
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx: “At thirty-six, Quoyle, a third-rate newspaperman, is wrenched violently out of his workaday life when his two-timing wife meets her just deserts. He retreats with his two daughters to his ancestral home on the starkly beautiful Newfoundland coast, where a rich cast of local characters all play a part in Quoyle’s struggle to reclaim his life. A vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary American family.”