On the Lake:  City Air & Reading at the Beach

In our twenties, we moved to a city by a lake. The lake was dead, or perhaps in the final stages of reincarnation. The river was so polluted that it was legendary. And the city was the subject of jokes on late-night TV, which left the residents chronically depressed .

It was a bit like living in one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels. The air was hazy and the sky a dismal  gray, but we tried to ignore the ring of factories around the city.  We ignored the stacks, which emitted smoke and particulate matter.  The Clean Air Act in 1970 had lessened the pollution, but it was still an environmentalist’s nightmare.  It infected  lungs with asthma,  bronchitis, emphysema, and cancer.  URBAN LEGEND:  there was an exceptionally high incidence of cancer in the city.  Still, an elderly friend told us that the air used to be much dirtier, that  his mother had to clean smuts off the door, windows, steps, and curtains, sometimes twice a day. 

In the epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius explains physics, the swerve of indestructible atoms, and Epicurean philosophy.  I can’t help but think that if he lived today he would love the excitement of doom.  He would write with gusto about the nature of particulate matter and air pollution,  perhaps as an addendum to his intellectual epic.

 Okay, so the lake was dead and the air was polluted.  We still had the scruffy urban park. There were dead fish on the beach,  but we sat far away from the water.  A few mad men and women splashed around in the lake, which seemed unwise. If we got to the beach early enough, we could luxuriate on the sand and read the newspaper in peace, or  the Village Voice, which truly had the best book review section. 

But it could be noisy on weekends.  That’s because people would bring their boomboxes and blast them at nine in the m0rning. Once I was utterly absorbed in Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, the first of a quartet of lyrical literary SF novels,  when R.E.M. (the best disbanded rock band in the world) nearly broke my eardrums with one of my favorite songs played at top volume:

Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk                                                                      
I’ll see you in Heaven if you make the list

And then Tears for Fears:

In violent times
You shouldn’t have to sell your soul
In black and white
They really, really ought to know  

I felt intense exasperation.  “Let’s move up the hill.”

“It will be crowded.”  

The hill was pleasantly populated with picnic tables and trees. There was usually room for readers.  Not today. Groups of people in too-revealing swimsuits crowded the picnic tables, snapping open cans of beer, grilling chicken, and listening to terrible music = so bad I could not identify it.. 

We were much better off with R.E.M. and Tears for Fears!

We strongly felt it was our park, though, because we lived nearby. When we sat under a tree, it was our tree.  We sat under a tree on the edge of the parking lot -hardly ideal – and read happily enough for half an hour…

And then- oh no- Queen.  Déjà vu:  a neighbor had driven us insane playing this song over and over:

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the World  

And this is why people read at home!

Deep Breathing, Dystopian Classics, and Obama’s Letter to Librarians

I’m breathing smoke from Canada and coughing. I tell myself, “Stay calm.” I sit down on a tree lawn and riffle through my bag to find my inhaler.   It is buried under a small notebook, a paperback mystery, and a wad of Kleenex.  

One walker slows down and asks if I need help. “Or are you vaping?”

“It’s for allergies, “I explain.

The plastic inhaler resembles a Pez dispenser, but instead of Pez it emits puffs of albuteral sulfate. It was prescribed for my new allergies to dust, smoke, pollen, and the unhealthy particulate matter caused by air pollution this summer.   

I wonder how many of us are breathless in this new, quasi-post-Covid, wildfire-riddled world.  Some of us may have long Covid; all of us are breathing more particulate matter from the wildfire smoke. And we also inhale generous amounts of microplastics (little plastic bits) daily. “There’s a great future in plastics,” Benjamin was advised in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Information from scientists, the writer Bill McKibbon, the Sierra Club, and countless other environmentalists is ignored or met with delaying tactics. And because of the negligence of corporations and politiicans, we are living in the worst possible future: a dystopia where burning fossil fuels controls the earth, raises the temperatures, and burns the planet down.

And so we turn to dystopian novels, because science fiction writers speak the unspeakable and suggest alternatives – and most do scientific research before they write. Here is my personal Dystopia 101 syllabus (I have reviewed most of these here): John Brunner’s  The Sheep Look Up, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Karin Boye’s Callocain, T. C. Boyle’s Blue Skies,  John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and  Orwell’s 1984.

Of course not everyone has access to these books. That is another problem. And a growing number of mad book-banning groups are challenging books chosen by librarians and teachers, insisting that such tomes will corrupt their progeny. They campaign against classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, biographies of Democrats, and Y.A. fiction with LGBTQ themes. Whether they have read these books is another issue.

Fortunately, President Obama is a hero. He has written a brilliant, articulate open letter to  librarians on the importance of providing books that introduce readers to a variety of ideas.

Here is the link to Obama’s letter.

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