Dog Eared, Part III, Chapter 11

Street Views… Our trip to Penland is the first of three excursions this summer. Next we head to Aspen, Colorado, where my wife has an artist wilderness residency, which means that while she’s hiking with a guide I’ll be in downtown Aspen hunched over my computer working on something until it’s time to pick her up. After that, it’s on to Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, where my wife has a three-week residency—sorry, no spouses (I’ll join her at the end of the three-week sojourn for a quick trip to Vancouver Island).

Now it might seem that we jet around the world—or at least North America—on a regular basis, but the truth of it is we’re home a lot, each sequestered in his or her workspace. Most of the books I write I do so within a five-mile radius of our house. But how I admire writers who travel to the location they’re writing about, even if they could conduct all of their research from home. The power of the Internet allows us to do the latter now: it’s the world at our fingertips, so why go out? But ask Erik Larson if he could write the books he does without visiting each locale in person. How could he possibly write about the hurricane that devastated Galveston in the early 1900s, or Marconi’s explorations of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, or Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition, or the sinking of the Lusitania’s off the British coast if he didn’t actually go to each site? Impossible.

I’m reminded of David Wolman. Earlier this year I read his insightful and exceedingly humorous book A Left-hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw. It’s a wonderfully rich account of left-handedness in a right-handed world. The first thing I like about the book is that Wolman is left-handed. No, correction, Wolman is passionately left-handed (the kind of left-hander who fist-pumps other left-handed people when he greets them). The other thing I like about Wolman is that he travels to different locales around the world—a la Erik Larson—to explore various aspects of his subject matter with the absolute sensibility of a journalist. And why not: he is a journalist, who’s taken a year off to write a book about a subject dear to his heart.

However, unlike Larson, Wolman readily injects the personal into his writing style. You really get a sense that Wolman loves to travel, to explore the world, and to engage with people—no matter the subject matter. In fact, I think you could safely say that for Wolman the places he visits and the people he meets are as important to him as the subject matter he has chosen to write about. But, above all else, it’s Wolman’s journalistic eye that stands out: he understands that in order to engage readers he has to bring them as close as possible to his subject matter. To do that, Wolman opens the floodgates of his senses in order to take in—and write about—the scene before him. Some samples.

From Chapter 3:

The clouds below look like the rippled, winding surface of a brain, and as the plane descends toward Paris I imagine I’m inside a tiny molecule, orbiting, then diving into the vast terrain of cerebral gray matter. The next morning at 5:00 a.m., jet-lagged beyond reason and sick of watching CNN, I venture out into the January drizzle, heading north on Hemmingway’s beloved Boulevard Saint-Michel toward the Sorbonne and the brains made famous by Paul Broca.

And from Chapter 11:

I’m wearing the one and only golf shirt I own. It’s a white polo embroidered with the red and black logo of the National Association of Left-Handed Golfers−Japan. After my visit with Nobutaka Hirokawa in Tokyo, I hopped the bullet train to Karuizawa, a small town in the foothills of the Japan Alps and home to some of the country’s premier golf courses. This weekend, Karuizaws is hosting the NALG−Japan Tenth Anniversary Championships.

Anyone can write (hence the maxim “writers are a dime a dozen”), but only the best writers can transport readers to a new reality; in the case of nonfiction to the place they are writing about. But it’s the ones who actually get up and go, who expend the time and energy to visit the physical site and people they’re writing about, who create the deepest impressions on readers through their vivid, even visceral descriptions. Wolman does this repeatedly by virtue of his on-the-ground, notebook-in-hand, newspaperman approach. I admire that. And I wish I were more like him and Erik Larson, and the hundreds of other authors who do the same, but I’m not. I relate more to Dava Sobel’s statement at the end of Longitude, the story of John Harrison’s struggle to solve the longitude problem, in which she freely admits that she could have written her treatise from the comfort of her home. Of course she didn’t, as her admission reveals:

For a few months at the outset, I maintained the insane idea that I could write this book without traveling to England and seeing the timekeepers firsthand. I owe a huge vote of thanks to my brother Stephen Sobel, D.D.S., for propelling me to London so I could stand on the prime meridian with my children, Zoë and Isaac, root around the Old Royal Observatory, and watch clocks at various museums.

Yes, I’m much more like Dava Sobel (though I’m sure she travels a lot as well). I’m an armchair historian, content to experience the world vicariously through a variety of sources: books, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet—all of them vicarious, many of them virtual. But isn’t this the nature of our increasingly digital world, where the line between actual and virtual—indeed, fact and fiction—continues to blur.

Several years ago, while I was researching a series of murders—known as the West End Murders—that occurred in Edinburgh during the early part of the 19th century, I wanted to walk from Wester Port to Surgeon’s Square in order to traverse the same route that the men implicated in the so-called “anatomical murders” did when they carted their victims to a dissection lab in Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Square. And I did, but without setting one foot in Scotland. I just used “street views” from Google Maps. It’s a handy tool that allows you to slip out of your local environ and into a completely different one. Although “street views” can’t take you back in time, it can transport you—albeit virtually—to any location on the globe.

I’m thinking about this today because I’d rather be anywhere on earth than where I am right now (not a very Buddhist point of view, mind you): back from our long road trip to the mountains of western North Carolina, I’m standing in the middle of my office looking up at nine six-and-half-foot long bookshelves that populate the west wall of my office. That’s what faces me now that I’m back home: more shelf cleaning, more book dusting, more rearranging: in short, more of the same old same old.

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