Thursday, September 17, 2015

Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef's new book is Noah Webster: Man of Many Words.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Recently I spent a season—more than a season, really—with David Foster Wallace’s astonishing masterpiece, Infinite Jest. In the final paragraphs, the character Don Gately, hospitalized for a gunshot wound and with a fever that has spiked dangerously, emerges from a hallucinatory nightmare to perceive that he is lying on a cold beach at low tide in the rain. The medical staff has plunged Gately’s massive body into an icy bath; this much is clear. But Wallace left me to decide whether Gately lives or dies. I’m still unsure, although I’m leaning toward life, in part because another great book had been tugging at my memory while I read Infinite Jest. I had to be optimistic after recalling its rapturous closing: “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!”

I’m not the first person to notice that Infinite Jest and The Brothers Karamazov have a great deal in common. Three brothers whose alcoholic father dies in an ugly way; a father and son vying for the same woman; a safe place that represents a retreat from the surrounding culture, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House in Wallace and the monastery in Dostoyevsky; a scene toward the end of Infinite Jest that pays homage to the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in the earlier novel—a thoughtful reader of both books will spot these parallels, and more.

Upon finishing Infinite Jest I felt like turning back to the beginning and reading the whole thing again. But a stronger urge was pulling me toward The Brothers Karamazov. I’d been away from this old friend for at least fifteen years—far too long! So I am rereading Dostoyevsky, not to look for curious similarities between the two books, although I am finding some. Each has a character who presses his forehead against a freezing pane of glass, for example, and each has a character who murders cats. No, I am reading The Brothers Karamazov for what it is: a classic novel dealing with belief and doubt, and with the challenge of living a moral life whether we are governed by faith, like Alexey; by intellect, like Ivan; or by our passions, like Dmitri.

I have also been thinking about the meandering paths my reading takes, how one book leads me to another, or how an intriguing volume discovered on the one-dollar stand at a used-book store will introduce me to an author I’ve never encountered and take me in a new direction. Sometimes a recommendation or review will open a new trail.

In 2008, a review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post led me to The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s distinguished biography of V. S. Naipaul. The review was the kind biographers hate, with many paragraphs devoted to the subject of the biography and maybe a sentence or two about the book. Yet it made me curious enough about Naipaul to buy the book, which remains one of my favorite biographies. I found French’s portrait of the Nobel laureate to be the opposite of flattering, yet it is so insightful and carefully researched that I never doubted its fairness. Remarkably, this is an authorized biography, written with the subject’s full cooperation. I came away with appreciation for both writers, admiring French for his skill as a biographer and Naipaul for his commitment to honesty in literature.

Now I am reading French’s first book, published in 1994, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. I knew nothing about the subject, Francis Younghusband (1863-1942), but I quickly learned that he was a British army officer who made exploratory trips across Asia and in 1903 led a military invasion of Tibet. He also wrote several books on his travels and on mystical subjects.

I’m only sixty pages in, and I am enjoying French’s approach. At least so far, the book is as much a travelogue as a biography, because French journeyed in Younghusband’s footsteps and contrasts his own and his subject’s adventures. In 1887, for example, Younghusband rode into the Gobi Desert with a couple of men and some pack animals, not knowing what he would encounter in this unmapped region or whether he would even come back. Under the stars, miles and miles from any human settlement, he felt his spiritual nature awaken; he had a sense of “the wholeness of the universe and of being intimately connected with the whole,” as he phrased it.

There was nothing transcendental about French’s journey into the same desert a century later. A train took him to the industrial city of Baotou, a place of concrete-block housing and pollution, which had yet to be constructed in Younghusband’s day. Treated as a curiosity, followed and gawked at, French found no connection whatsoever. “I felt like an African in Elizabethan England,” he wrote. Both journeys make for fascinating reading, and French’s observations underscore how different Younghusband’s world was from the one we inhabit.

What’s on my reading horizon? While researching two recent books, The Brontë Sisters and my forthcoming young adult biography of Florence Nightingale, I encountered George Eliot. Both times I felt a pang of regret that I have never read her masterwork. So the next big book I will tackle, after The Brothers Karamazov, is Middlemarch. I will also read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra and poet Rabindranath Tagore’s My Reminiscences. I can’t tell you how that last book ended up on my shelf. It seems to have presented itself, like an idea.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

The Page 69 Test: Frida & Diego.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

My Book, The Movie: Noah Webster.

--Marshal Zeringue