Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America
by Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press
This article, under the title “Defensive Reading,” appeared in the travel section of the
New York Times on Sunday, October 25, 1998.
Not long ago, in search of a book to accompany a trying journey, I took from my shelves a volume that had served me well before: “A Sportsman’s Notebook,” by Turgenev, its pages still redolent of jungle rot, its stories evoking the hardest journey of my life.
It was nearly 30 years back that I spent 18 months in the bush doing fieldwork with my husband, an anthropology student at the time. We had been guided to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea by my husband’s tutor, who had himself done fieldwork in the region. But it was our own young perversity that had led us astray.
When we first considered visiting the Baining people on the island of New Britain, we had certainly been warned: the terrain would be difficult, mountainous and rugged, hard to reach in the dry season, impossible to leave when rivers flooded in the rains. Breaks would be hard to come by, tensions between us would run high, and the Baining, rumor had it, were neither pleasant nor friendly.
Mysteriously, three prospective field trips to this tribe had been canceled: one, 40 years earlier, had failed.
We laughed, thrilled by the challenge: it sounded ideal.
Our trip was such a fiasco that I’m sure we would have seen it as a comedy had we not been so young and so unhappy. My husband’s thesis topic was “The Ritual Expression of Opposition Between the Sexes.” But the only opposition between the sexes in our village was the fighting that erupted from our hut; our arguments—ritually repeated daily—must surely have intrigued the Baining. I myself, a former classics major, had hoped to gather myths. But their own myths, I discovered, were not terribly important to the Baining, who did, however, ask me about mine.
As for the Baining themselves, the rumors were wrong. They were extremely friendly—though you would never call them pleasant: they were too individually eccentric for a word so bland. They certainly welcomed us in their laconic way, took us under their wing—two more children—and saw that we were fed: they brought us taro, bananas, coconuts, and even, once, larvae, for a treat.
But they were, it turned out, a private people. They seldom asked each other questions more personal than, “Where are you going?” And they often seemed reluctant to tell each other even that. They no more welcomed queries about their sex lives than I would. After several months, I told my husband that for fieldwork, he was on his own.
Why I didn’t leave at the point is one of the mysteries that will forever shroud our curious sojourn. Tenacity? Duty? Bravado? Without doubt, competition was involved. We each, my husband and I, felt we had to see the trip through. It was the weaker man who would leave.
But from then on, though I maintained my simple bush life—mainly gathering firewood and cooking taro—when I visited the villagers, I neither prodded nor probed. And when I stayed in my hut, I would read—fervently, avidly, intensely: in books I found alternative worlds.
I began collecting books in Rabaul, an enjoyably seedy town, on one of our hardwon breaks. I strolled down Mango Avenue to the news agent, where I picked up what I could: some Penguins (I recall E. M. Forster’s “Room With a View”) and a ghastly little anthology of horror that I remember reading with surprising affection—I found comfort, I suspect, in those tales of people boiled and flayed; they were surely worse off than I.
I asked my mother to send books and her cartons made their way around the world: flying to Rabaul, taking a freight boat to the nearest coastal plantation, and riding on a Baining’s back as he returned home from some adventure of his own. The title that stands out from her supply is “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth, which was not the best of the lot, God knows, but seemed the oddest to be reading in the bush.
But none of this was enough for the hours in my jungle day. At length, I discovered an Australian bookstore offering literary succor to the outback: they had everything, they mailed anywhere, and I began to read in earnest.
I worked my way steadily through the novels of Thomas Hardy, whose hard view of the world was just what I needed. I delved into the essays of Randall Jarrell, whose witty intelligence I needed no less. I jogged through Jaroslav Hasek’s “Good Soldier Schweik,” whose humor I obviously needed. And I drank in “A Sportsman’s Notebook,” whose humanity I needed perhaps most of all.
What the Baining made of all this reading, I have no idea. How could I have asked? How could they? Only the children seemed curious, gathering around my hut to observe me in my utter stillness. Once, to my shame, I felt so vexed by their eyes that I let loose with a tirade: Why were they crouching by my doorstep? What were they doing? Fortunately, my Baining, poor at best, grew so garbled in my rage that whatever I said apparently had no meaning at all. Affable as ever, the children smiled and didn’t budge.
For my husband, my withdrawal clearly brought relief, freeing him to find his own way through the bush. He turned, in time, to work, a final push to salvage what he could. In fact, when we left the field, he would leave the field of anthropology as well: the coda to our jungle fugue. But he didn’t know that yet. He carried on, immersing himself in the finale: preparations for the spear dance that would mark the climax of our field trip and its long-awaited end.
We packed at last, surrounded by villagers lamenting our departure and shyly eyeing our goods. There wasn’t much—we had lived very sparely—but most of it would have to stay: the road to the coast was long. We took so little that we found, back home, we had almost nothing to remind us of New Guinea, an absence of mementos that no doubt has served our marriage well.
But that volume of Turgenev is almost all I have of my jungle library, and I’ve always regretted having to leave those books behind. I’m sure though that the Baining put them to use. I’ve often pictured Baiki and Kyimkyim, Taingan and Suga carefully dividing up the books, neatly tearing out the pages, deftly rolling each around a leaf of their aromatic tobacco, and smoking them, with pleasure, line by line.