Books, "Book Talk," Grand Rapids...and Wendell Berry

Reading The New Yorker is both pleasure and pain for me. The pleasure comes from the stimulating content, including excellent commentary, criticism, fiction and poetry. The pain comes from the fact that I actually work through "Goings On About Town" each week--the pages and pages of fine print summaries and highlights of all the concerts, plays, exhibits, and films on offer in New York City. Reading about the cultural riches of NYC from afar usually deepens a sense of cultural exile here in the so-called heartland, in podunk Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But on other days, I'm reminded that we have our own little intellectual province here in Grand Rapids. This past Saturday, for instance, I took a stroll to one of our local used book shops, Redux Books. There I bumped into one of the sales executives of one of our local publishing houses, and along with the proprietor, we enjoyed a lovely conversation about publishing, books, and theology. I then made my way down into some of the far recesses of the basement holdings and emerged with a book of poems by Marianne Moore, the third edition of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry, and a first edition of Donald Hall's Remembering Poets. That's a pretty delightful Saturday morning in any city.

Then this past Wednesday night was another wonderful "literary" experience. My friends Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens, both professors at another local Christian university, have just published a wonderful new book, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide (Brazos--another one of our local publishers). The book launch was Wednesday night, at one of my favorite spaces in Grand Rapids: the Ryerson Auditorium in the Grand Rapids Public Library downtown. The reception was hosted by the Vanderveen Center for the Book and was an evening of interesting, provocative conversation--on top of the fact that Bonzo and Stevens have also written a great book (which I'm now reading).

When I daydream (and night dream) about being a "writer," New York looms in my imagination like Nashville does for the young country musician, or the way Los Angeles tempts the aspiring actress. And the desire to make the pilgrimmage can make "small town" Grand Rapids feel cramped and provincial. But on other days, like these, I'm grateful for this little corner of the midwest in which are buried our own little cultural treasures.

NYC, of course, would also come with its price (as do Nashville and Los Angeles!). Not a few writers (especially southern writers like Faulkner and Walker Percy) found distance from the Eastern seaboard to be a necessary space for their work. Perhaps instead of pining for Manhattan or, in turn, resenting it, we should be working on fostering a literary and cultural regionalism. The Podunks of middle America can be home to "small, good things," too.