What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Indigo teaches you to be humble in life."


           For years, Catherine McKinley has been almost hypnotized by the deep blues created by indigo dye – and particularly fascinated by the indigo cloth that once served as a key trade good and source of wealth in several West African nations. Deeply conflicted by her own heritage and upbringing – the daughter of an African American and  a Jewish American, adopted by white WASPy parents – McKinley’s fascination with indigo becomes even deeper as she investigates her own roots and heritage.

            Of course, not all personal obsessions, however fascinating, translate into great books, and this is a reminder of that. The story of McKinley’s quest to discover more about indigo during a long stay in West Africa, this is a book that is filled with “wow” moments but that somehow never manages to deliver a knock-out blow as an entire work. For instance, I found myself riveted to the page as McKinley discusses the life of an Austrian opponent to Nazism who built a new life for herself in Nigeria based on Yoruba spiritual traditions and the related crafts; as she explores the stories of the warrior women of Dahomey and their indigo; as she is caught up in a coup in Ivory Coast as she hunts out more indigo, or encounters a modern-day Dogon from Mali who is reviving the ancient customs of the dye pot. But these stories and adventures don’t  really knit together as well as they should, or form a coherent narrative arc.  McKinley is clearly on some kind of quest related to or sparked by her indigo compulsion, but is it a scholarly one? A personal and psychological one? What are the steps along the way? These are unclear, and McKinley herself seems to dither about this, repeatedly breaking into her narrative to question why she is caught up in this quest.  Several times she repeats the criticism of Eurama, the Ghanaian woman she meets and who becomes almost a surrogate mother that she “is chasing folly, and the mere vessels of life’s beauty.” And she seems to agree, describing her fascination as  “my insatiable desire, my drunken need.” She reaches out and then pulls back again: “I had hoped to touch the way of being of the artist, the cosmological and spiritual world of the dye pot, but evidently it was a world I might never enter. And should I enter, the uninitiated, the stranger with time only to look and buy?”  But within a few sentences, she is back on the hunt for indigo cloths and indigo stories.

            That kind of agonizing gets annoying after a while, as do some of the author’s more purple-hued turns of phrase. (Perhaps the indigo has spread into her writing style??) Some of her descriptions or comments left me downright flummoxed as to what she meant, or wondering why on earth she had chosen such oblique and ornate language. For instance, McKinley describes  the Ivoirian minister of communications as “a dark, hedged soul”, whatever that might be. She refers to a clothing making technique that is ancient but which the maker “flexes with Japanese knowledge.” Does she mean combines?? She comments on the extreme heat in Niger that  “there is a gentleness to the extreme, and you trust and dance into the fire.”  There are certainly creative and colorful ways to express heat, but that just felt florid.

            Nonetheless – this is a fascinating book, and one I’d recommend taking a look at. It’s the best kind of “who knew?” story, one absolutely littered with obscure tidbits of information that help the reader piece together a broader tale about West Africa, about slavery and colonialism, about traditional arts and crafts and the link between those products and culture and religious traditions. Who knew, for instance, that those vivid designs on the clothes those of us who live in large cities with West African populations can see women wearing can be up to 150 years old, and carry names that identify them? The choice of what cloth to wear can deliver a message to a husband, a co-wife, a community – names like “men are not like ears of corn” or “stairs to heaven” or “life is sweet” each convey certain meanings, even when they no longer contain any indigo.

            Even though I started this book with minimal curiosity about indigo itself (I was more intrigued by element of the journey of self-discovery), I found myself Googling images of the cloth, the designs and the people who wear them by the time I was halfway through the book. It’s a reminder that the objects that we value – even in this ultra-globalized society – still differ depending on our cultural heritage. McKinley offers her readers the chance to look behind the curtain at one part of the world that is still too little known, and if the price to be paid is to put up with some bumpy writing and the author’s personal dithering, well, I ended up feeling that it was worth it. 4 stars; recommended.

            Full disclosure: I obtained an advance review copy of this book from Amazon.com through their Vine program. 

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