The 2016 One Book, One Philadelphia selection was announced at the beginning of this month—for its 14th season, One Book examines our nation’s past and the power of perseverance through Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, winner of the 1997 National Book Award.
The announcement on October 1 launched what we call the "Reading Period", a four-month period during which Philadelphians can dig into the selection before city-wide One Book programming begins on February 2, 2016.
So our task now is to READ.
Before tackling a new book, many readers turn to the back cover or to reviews for a preview. Author John Irving, who will be visiting Parkway Central on November 4 as part of the Author Events Series, prefers not to give prospective readers a synopsis of his work or a what-you-are-about-to-read preview:
As a novelist, I know something that works better than any synopsis of what a new novel is about. You would be better off reading the first few paragraphs of the first chapter, because that’s all the author wanted you to know about the book before you start reading it for yourself. Believe me: the author just wants you to BEGIN READING.
So with that in mind, rather than a thematic preview or pre-reading food for thought, we are going to dive right in! Here are the first few paragraphs of Cold Mountain (followed by some post-reading analysis):
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman's eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see to the red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.
Had it not been too dim, Inman would have read to pass the time until breakfast, for the book he was reading had the effect of settling his mind. But he had burned up the last of his own candles reading to bring sleep the night before, and lamp oil was too scarce to be striking the hospital's lights for mere diversion. So he rose and dressed and sat in a ladderback chair, putting the gloomy room of beds and their broken occupants behind him. He flapped again at the flies and looked out the window at the first smear of foggy dawn and waited for the world to begin shaping up outside.
The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move his head, and all that kept his mind occupied had been watching out the window and picturing the old green places he recollected from home. Childhood places. The damp creek bank where Indian pipes grew. The corner of a meadow favored by brown-and-black caterpillars in the fall. A hickory limb that overhung the lane, and from which he often watched his father driving cows down to the barn at dusk. They would pass underneath him, and then he would close his eyes and listen as the cupping sound of their hooves in the dirt grew fainter and fainter until it vanished into the calls of katydids and peepers. The window apparently wanted only to take his thoughts back. Which was fine with him, for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.
What did you think?
Already, we get a great sense of Frazier’s writing style—descriptive, lyrical, tinged with emotion—and some hints of what is to come. Of our main character, Inman, his desire to read tells us he is an educated, thoughtful person, who right now seems to be stuck—trapped?—in a hospital.
This passage’s final line is also very telling: “… everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.” Inman has lost something or someone, possibly by force. We will have to read on to find out if he can get it back…
**Check back every Wednesday during the Reading Period for some One Book food-for-thought, including discussions of the adult companion books—Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup, and The Civil War by Geoffrey Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns—and the children’s companion books—Sounder, by William B. Armstrong, for middle readers, and Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson, for young readers.**