Thursday, September 19, 2013

William Lychack Recommends: The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post

When a book plucks a chord inside you--the metal harp string humming and going blurry as it vibrates--and you connect with the words on a visceral and/or intellectual level, then there comes a moment when you can't keep that book bottled up inside any longer.  You burst out of the house at a run, or pop your head over the cubicle divider, or dial your daughter's phone number, and blurt out, "Listen, I just read the best book!"  And then, for the next five minutes to an hour, you badger, bug, and berate your poor, trapped audience with the high points of this Best Book Ever.  Has that ever happened to you?  Or am I the only one who loses all sense of social bearing when I talk about books that really matter to me (Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, the poetry of Brian Turner, anything by Lewis Nordan, etc.)?

William Lychack recently wrote me an email which, in essence, reassured me that I am not alone.  Lychack (author of the short-story collection The Architect of Flowers and the novel The Wasp Eater) seems to exhibit this same kind of passionate behavior for at least one treasured book (I'm sure there are others in his personal library which are equally well-worn with love).  Here is his recommendation for the 1958 classic The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post (1906-1996):

Surely, it must be true, everyone has a book that truly changes their lives.  There’s always a context to how this book finds you--a context which probably isn’t that interesting or magical to anyone except you yourself--so I’ll spare you the story of how a stranger handed me this book, how forlorn and lost I must have seemed, how this strange quest of Laurens van der Post’s spoke directly to me.  But I would, if I could, give you a copy of the book, if I saw you in such a state right now in front of me.  And I’d make you wait a moment until I found a brief passage I’ve all but memorized.  I’d tell you that you don’t need any context for it, but then I’d probably say that, in the book, van der Post, who’d dreamed from boyhood of finding the nearly-exterminated Bushmen, had just committed to organizing his expedition into the Kalahari desert of what is now Botswana.  I’d tell you it’s a spiritual quest for him and would thumb through the pages and read the following passage to you:
In fact all the aspects of the plan that were within reach of my own hand were worked out and determined there and then.  What took longer, of course, was the part which depended on the decisions of others and on circumstances beyond my own control.  Yet even there I was amazed at the speed with which it was accomplished.  I say "amazed," but it would be more accurate to say I was profoundly moved, for the lesson that seemed to emerge for a person with my history of forgetfulness, doubts and hesitations was, as Hamlet put it so heart-rendingly to himself: “the readiness is all.”  If one is truly ready within oneself and prepared to commit one’s readiness without question to the deed that follows naturally on it, one finds life and circumstance surprisingly armed and ready at one’s side.
Then I’d hand the whole caboodle of this book to you and simply disappear, just as someone handed a hardcover copy to me.  I was fresh out of college and working in a bookstore at the time on the upper east side of Manhattan--the long-gone Madison Avenue Bookshop--and I had never felt more adrift in my life, trying to find my feet as far from home and the life I wanted to live as I might have ever been.  Maybe I'd recognize some of that same kindred feeling in the way you look, maybe that's why I'd hand the book to you, maybe that's why you'd read it, and maybe that's why it might speak to you in the life-saving way that it did for me.  You never know.  Stranger things happen.

Author photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

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