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What I Read Under the Sun, Or, a Meditation On Place

Ultimately, I decided that vacation reading benefits most from variety. So I packed four books–paperbacks all–that spanned four genres. Mystery, literary fiction, poetry, and religious nonfiction.

The uncanny thing about my selections–which I only realized in the middle of my vacation–is that three out of four are set in places where I’ve lived. So much for getting away from it all. A friend recently published a murder mystery painstakingly set in Boston, where I lived in and around for four years. Author and former basketball-watching-buddy Joe Nowlan described to me his debut novel Media Blitz as a story in which “some whack job goes around Boston bumping off media figures.” What a treat, particularly for someone who once worked in a couple (very small) corners of the Boston media scene. Not that I ever had any media figures in my sights, of course. But the joy of reading a friend’s published work–I should clarify, a friend’s well-written published work–is nearly unbounded.

Call it clich?? if you wish–I certainly do–but I also had some intention of using my vacation to tap into some spiritual renewal, so I took along Shunry?? Suzuki’s classic meditation book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Which, as it turns out, comprises lectures the teacher originally gave in Los Altos, Calif., a town that is literally across the street from my Mountain View apartment. Ironic, I thought, that my intended tome of spiritual transcendence also succeeded in mentally transporting me right back to my current physical home.

A collection of Wallace Stevens’s poetry didn’t exactly fit, at least not with regard to matching my own residential history. But I enjoyed the thought that it still fit, thematically, with my vacation surroundings, as any poet whose work includes the line “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” almost demands to be read while sojourning on an island surrounded by pure blue water.

It was the fourth selection, however, that got me thinking the most about “place” in books. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, set in the somewhat fictional town of Wellington, Mass. Wellington, as best as I can figure it, is a loose stand-in for Cambridge–where I twice rented apartments just one subway stop away, in different directions, from Harvard Square. Wellington University, where much of the story transpires, is not, pointedly, Harvard. (Harvard is mentioned by name in the book as a nearby school.) But Wellington must be Cambridge and not, as the introductory “W” may tempt the reader to suppose, Wellesley, the seat of another vaunted college. Too much of the novel just wouldn’t be logistically possible if Wellington were in fact Wellesley and located a few stops away on the Massachusetts Turnpike and not across the river from Boston.

All of that being said, reading my friend’s book and Smith’s book together proved an instructive contrast for thinking about place in fiction. Whereas my friend’s book relies on Boston’s real nooks and crannies to make the plot hum, Smith luxuriates in the imaginative spaces of her conjured sub/urban milieu. I’m not certain that it has to be that way. Plenty of mysteries are set in equally conjured places, no matter how founded they may be in that knotty realm of physical, factual constraints. And plenty of literary fiction revels in those very constraints. Anthony Powell’s London is London, no dispute. Thank goodness. But in hewing as closely as possible to the real London, Powell makes the city his own just as much as Faulkner makes Yoknapatawpha his own.

What a fascinating phenomenon–that fiction can elevate the real and the imagined to the exact same place of truth.