When Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams — Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape appeared in 1986 I remember Malcolm Parry telling me it was one of the best books he had ever read. Since I also read fiction (Mac doesn’t) I was skeptical but upon reading Arctic Dreams I agreed with Mac. If I flew more often I would probably read more non-fiction. It was on board some airplane that I “discovered” an installment in the New Yorker of John McPhee’s wonderful La Place de la Concorde Suisse. I had to read the conclusion of McPhee’s account in which he watched and documented (in the admirable McFee way) Swiss Army “refresher” courses with soldier companion Luc Massy. I bought the book. It was around 1995 that I read a Barry Lopez essay in Harper’s (again some airplane) on being aboard a cargo Boeing 747 in a world-wide trip and where he wrote:
“In this world, `perishable’ refers to more than flowers, food, and newspapers; it includes everything in tenuous fashion: watches, video games, shades of lipstick, a cut of trouser — objects for which a few days’ head start on store shelves is crucial.”
I was hooked to reading the occasional non-fiction book. With Mac I share a fondness for Henry Petroski’s engineering books which include not only To Engineer Is Human but his excellent autobiography Paperboy — Confessions of a Future Engineer. My interest in “engineering” books began when Erich von Däniken published his questionable “non fiction” Chariots of the Gods in 1968. He was hailed as the “father of the ancient astronaut theory”. I preferred L. Sprague de Camp’s The Ancient Engineers where the credit for the building of all the ancient wonders was convincingly placed on the shoulders of von Däniken’s inferior humans. The just released (and on my bed table right now) Mountains of the Pharaohs — The Untold Story of the Pyramid Builders by Zahi Hawass (secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities) is no McPhee or Lopez but fascinating, nonetheless.
My friend John Lekich talked, for years, about his favourite non fiction writer A.J. Liebling, to no avail. It was in a copy of Liebling’s Between Meals which was on Vancouver Magazine restaurant critic Jamie Maw’s living room coffee table when I became a Liebling fan. I read:
Mens san in corpore sano is a contradiction in terms, the fantasy of a Mr. Have-your-cake-and-eat-it. No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted.
In 1990 when I photographed author Barry Lopez we found we had one thing in common. While I had been educated by Brothers of the Holy Cross and he by Jesuits we both agreed that our Catholic education had given us a more liberal understanding of the world which somehow gave us a competitive edge in some of our pursuits. Liberal Catholic Education Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.