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Writers as Readers

In the January 27, 2020 issue of The New Yorker Rebecca Mead, a frequent contributor to the magazine and a pretty reliable source of amusement and enlightenment for me, wrote about the pleasures of wild swimming. Titled "The Subversive Joy of Cold-Water Swimming," it opened with an account of British writer Roger Deakin's decision to "make an aquatic journey around England, Wales, and Scotland, bathing in seas, rivers, ponds, and lakes." She calls Waterlog, his book about that experience, "a classic of British nature writing" and finds his prose "sensuous," erudite, and "subtly political." I almost immediately wanted to track it down and start reading.


The book was published in 1999 and Deakin died in 2006, his home at Walnut Tree Farm now maintained by a couple who offer overnight stays on the property. In 2019 Mead visited the farm with the intent of immersing in the moat Deakin renovated and, in the opening of his book, swam in himself, partly inspired by John Cheever's short story, "The Swimmer," about a man crossing pool by pool through his neighborhood on his own aquatic odyssey. I remember Cheever's story well and Burt Lancaster's portrayal in Frank Perry's film version. The rest of Mead's article records her visits to sites of "wild swimming," a popular pastime in Britain since the publication of Waterlog.


I recommend her article and hope to soon be able to recommend Deakin's book, but the element that first caught my attention was the chain of influence she records: a Cheever short story inspiring Deakin's book which inspired Mead's article and influenced the wild swimming movement, which in turn has provoked further writing, including a book of essays, At the Pond, with a contribution by Margaret Drabble. Mead doesn't mention Joe Minihane's Floating: A Life Regained, a memoir about recreating Deakin's book. All this made me remember how often in my own reading I've selected books for their resemblance to earlier books I'd enjoyed or, in reverse order, discovered earlier books mentioned by authors I'd just read. Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk, a profound nature memoir, has much to say about T. H. White's much earlier The Goshawk; Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways pays respect to Nan Shepard and her book The Living Mountain (which I'm just about to read).


Everywhere I travel I try to find a book to guide me there, and sometimes the combination of book and onsite wandering prompts me to write about the place itself. That happened with my visits to Belgrade Lakes in Maine, the site of E. B. White's classic essay, "Once More to the Lake," and to Walden Pond, motivated by not only Thoreau's book (which I've reread more than any other) but also by White's essay about his own visit there, making me wander the pond looking over their shoulders. It happened with reading Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, leading me to record a retired English teacher's wanderings in Rocky Mountain National Park in Following Isabella, and with my visiting Wisconsin landscapes written about by John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth (all Thoreau enthusiasts themselves) in Walking Home Ground. It isn't simply following in the footsteps of earlier writers for me and for the other writers I've mentioned; it's also having those writers open me up as a reader to the possibilities of connection with particular places.


I remember studying English literature in graduate school, particularly the rise of British fiction, and discovering the connections among the novels by reading them in the order they were published. Samuel Richardson's Pamela prompted Henry Fielding to first publish a satire, Shamela, and then a comic novel about "Pamela's" brother, Joseph Andrews. Richardson countered with the darker novel Clarissa and Fielding moved on to his masterpiece, Tom Jones. With these models before them Tobias Smollett wrote The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker and Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I suspect that a great deal of literature is generated in response to earlier literature, whether deliberately or inadvertently. A later writer thinks, 'Here's the way I would have told that story' or 'Here's a story that reminds me of one that also needs to be told' or 'Here's the way I would have presented the issues dealt with in that story.'


Stories arise out of experience, it's true, but the way stories are told arise out of the way earlier stories have been told. You can't be a writer without having been a reader.


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