Walking and Not Reading Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa”

Where are the benches in this cute gazebo?

We’ve had such lovely weather that I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors.  Nothing is more charming than sauntering on cobblestone sidewalks past lilac bushes and blooming fruit trees in the wild yards of old hippies.  White blossoms covered one brick sidewalk like snow.  I walked under blossoms across blossoms.

I also walked up and down hills, and my hips feel creaky as a result. I ambled around a scenic cemetery, green and leafy, very hilly, and looked at gravestones–the dates give you a perspective–other people have done this life thing before–and you’ll be in a grave one day .

The new gazebo in the cemetery had no benches.  I had planned to sit  there and read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, her exquisite memoir about life on a coffee plantation in Africa.  But I couldn’t sit on a stone slab! A pity, because Dinesen is ideal outdoor reading.  Her memoir is not precisely linear, but the language washes over you as her vivid vignettes unfold.

I wondered as I walked around the cemetery if Out of Africa, published in 1937, is still appreciated, or if it is dismissed as racist because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”?  And can the fussy readers of today imagine a Danish woman in 1912 moving to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returning to the man who infected her? After Dinesen’s husband left her in 1921,  she ran the plantation alone until 1931.  Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant.   No matter that she knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai: I can imagine the Millennials slamming the book shut.

I have not observed this readerly intolerance myself.  I worry about this only because professors and journalists rant about the younger generation’s rejection of classics.   If Millennials and Gen Z think something is sexist or racist, they’re done with it, according to several writers of articles.  I do hope they’re exaggerating.  I’m praying that the end of the world won’t go down in iPhones and intolerance.

I do love Out of Africa, and recently found a new Modern Library hardback with a pretty cover.  In my favorite part of Out of Africa, Dinesen decides to write a book.  The Africans who work for her gather in the dining room and watch her.  Kamante   asks if she really thinks she can write a book.  He picks up her copy of The Odyssey and points out that it is hard and the pages stay together, while hers are loose and all over the dining room table.  She explains that in Denmark they can put it together. But he doubts that anyone can make it blue.

And I love this bit about reading in a drought.

So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn.  In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.  Your mind runs, transported, along a fresh deep green track.

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