My conversation a few days ago with the musician Makana, for my weekly literary feature “What I’m Reading” in the Honolulu Advertiser, got me thinking about small tastes of writing that, in mere moments, are still able to infiltrate my consciousness. As a book critic, long reads, and indeed any reads these days, are inevitably work-related, not for pleasure (which isn’t to say some aren’t pleasurable). Yet I still yearn to be fed by writing I choose or which chooses me—writing that is beautiful, multi-dimensional, and visceral.
Some of my favorite vignettes are by a Uruguayan writer I discovered during college: Eduardo Galeano. My childhood friend, Lori, borrowed “The Book of Embraces” from a friend and never returned it, an act I am grateful for simply because it delivered me to Galeano. I use his quote, at the bottom of my site, on the homepage of my online undergraduate composition classes. I’ve also used his series “The Function of the Reader” in English classes I have taught in the Academy at Punahou School.
Here’s one I was reminded of, about simplification, and another about humanity; its image rests in me always:
On Vancouver Island, Ruth Benedict tells us, the Indians staged tournaments to measure the greatness of their princes. The rivals competed by destroying their belongings. They threw their canoes, fish oil, and salmon eggs on the fire, and from a high promontory, hurled their cloaks and pots into the sea.
Whoever got rid of everything, won.
A man from the town of Negua, on the coast of Columbia, could climb into the sky.
On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated life from on high. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.
“The world,” he revealed, “is a heap of people, a sea of tiny flames.”
Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercly that you can’t look at them without blinking and if you approach, you shine in fire.
(From: “The Book of Embraces” by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Cedric Belfrage, Norton: 1991, pg. 140 & pg. 15)