Reviewed by Elisabeth Aiken
In Reading Life, Michael Pearson paraphrases a famous writer’s definition of an essayist as “a self-liberated man with the childish belief that everything he thinks about, every one of his experiences, will be fascinating to others.” While that definition is not wholly flattering, it is applicable to Pearson as the author of this collection of autobiographical essays whose foundation is a marriage of elements promised in the subtitle: books, memory, and travel. Place is the nexus of the collection; each chapter is born of either a specific memory of place or a rich travel experience of Pearson’s. The nine essays and three “interludes” that make up this collection each follow an essential formula: having established the geography of an essay, Pearson immerses the reader in the relationship between that particular place, his personal memories, and his reading of various authors and their seminal works.
While all the essays contain those shared elements and are structured similarly, the geographic and literary theme of each ranges around the globe. Several essays describe the author’s adventures traveling with students (who are, at times, rendered without sympathy), and the forays with students are perhaps meant to provide a light comic tone—and indeed, throughout the collection, Pearson strikes a variety of tones. But the more interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking chapters are born of either Pearson’s solo adventures or his private musings.
The collection opens with “Western Dreams (Willa Cather, Kit Carson, and New Mexico),” which chronicles Pearson’s experiences as a writer-in-residence at the Wurlitzer Artists Colony in Taos, New Mexico. The vast desert landscape fuels his romantic childhood preoccupation with Kit Carson, and enables his childhood dreams (inspired by Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop) to come to fruition. Pearson establishes himself as a romantic literary pilgrim, a theme more carefully developed in later essays.
As to be expected, this theme is more successful in some essays than others. The most engaging pieces in the collection focus not on travel but the narrator’s powerful connections to the largely wild places that figure large in his life, such as the powerful and subtle “A Place That’s Known (E. B. White and Maine),” which artfully mirrors E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” In this chapter Pearson deftly weaves a tapestry from materials gleaned from the life of E. B. White, Pearson’s own experiences at a similar Maine lake as a boy, a later trip with future wife Jo-Ann, and Pearson’s journey to White’s lake in his adulthood. Pearson’s writing is poignant and reflective when he claims that “Maine is memory and loss”—a sentiment succinctly captured in this chapter.
Reading Life is by turns bucolic and bawdy, and nowhere is this contrast more clear than in the juxtaposition from the idyllic, pensive tone of “A Place that’s Known” to the more grounded “Beyond Rockaway (F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Hamptons).” Here, Pearson carefully describes his trio of high school friends and their current-day romp through the locales of their high-school misadventures. The description of this tour is interrupted by a detailed discussion of Fitzgerald’s tumultuous life and most successful novel, The Great Gatsby, and Pearson’s own narrative of youthful exploits. Like Nick Carroway, Pearson adopts the position of both participant and observer as the four men drive from bar to bar, recalling prostitutes, drunken hazes, and STDs, all while pondering Jay Gatsby’s quest to recapture what he believed was the golden past.
Throughout this collection, Pearson’s voice is consistently candid, whether reflecting thoughtfully (and at times self-mockingly) upon the grim Bronx of his childhood, the boyhood friendships that flourished in that seemingly infertile ground, his stalwart love for his wife Jo-Ann (“the farther away she was, the less air there was to breathe”), his relationship with his students, or, most earnestly, the role that beloved authors and characters play in his life. Pearson never deviates from the trinity of place-experience-literature, and despite a few points where the connection between these elements feels a bit more clumsy and artificial than others, this collection is engaging more often than not, is frequently entertaining, and occasionally, could even be called enlightening.