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Hitting the Books

The blog is shutting down until next Wednesday, March 30, though this does not mean that we are getting lazy. No, it is time for meditation, spiritual renewal and the pursuit of wisdom. Mainly it's too rainy and chilly and drab to do anything but read, and we're going to hole up for a few days with some serious tomes, including Will Durant's "The Age of Faith." It's about a thousand pages and covers about a thousand years, roughly from Constantine to Dante, and is just one of Durant's many volumes telling the Story of Civilization. Gosh the guys knew a lot of stuff. His tale is full of all these religious groups, sects, empires, kingdoms, sultanates and whatnot that most of us have never even heard of: The Sosonians, the Flibbertians, the Westbardians, the Glebes, the Caliphate of Skung, the Madras Empire, the Jurassicans, the Potentate of Pooj, the Gator Country, etc. The basic gist of the story is that for a thousand years people disagreed about very fine points of theology and thus had to behead one another promiscuously. They do their best to keep civilization going when they're not too busy finding someone to eviscerate. Who knew the Dark Ages were so interesting?

I am going to try to read a couple of stories by the sportswriter Gary Smith. I'd like my Georgetown students to read him. I am hoping that in the final month or so of the course we can look hard at examples of literary non-fiction. Smith always immerses himself so deeply in his material, you can sense that he's breathing the story, exhaling it, that he's broken down all the artificial barriers and awkward protocols between story and storyteller.

I'm going to ask them to read the beginning of John McPhee's "The Pine Barrens." -- The book begins with a tidy sketch of the geographical significance of the Pine Barrens, and then McPhee steps into the picture, but just barely: His thirst drives him into the colorful home of a certain Fred Brown, who is in the middle of eating a pork chop.

I've also assigned a funny piece by David Sedaris. Sedaris is the master of delivering a joke without any verbal arm-waving. There are no gimmicks (italics, exclamations, etc.) to signal that, hey, reader, you should laugh now.

And finally we are going to read this excerpt from Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Wolfe knows precisely when to put the pedal to the metal: He's cruising along in a very controlled manner and then suddenly hits the gas with the description of the body burned beyond recognition.

I'm pretty sure that's "literary nonfiction." It's also darn good writing.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 25, 2005; 2:14 PM ET
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