The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf


For a month I have been devouring The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. It tells the story of scientist Alexander von Humboldt’s love for science and nature, describing in exciting detail all the countries that he visited and all of his achievements.

I carried it down to South America intending to read it on the plane, but sleep prevented that. Then I brought it back home to the US, where it sat on the bedside table of my aunt’s house in Virginia for three weeks while I hung out with my cousins.

So many distractions emerged that I was not able to get to it until June, and it gripped me at once. Including compelling sketches and visuals of his journeys, it made me somewhat nostalgic for a time when there was more to discover.

Von Humboldt was in love with science, and had a level of concentration for his projects that I envy. After a tour of South America, he spent every free moment writing an account of his journey and discoveries that spanned several books, which I intend to read at some point.

Science has never been one of my fortes, but as I read The Invention of Nature I wondered whether that may have been different if I’d learned hands-on like he did. I found myself itching to dig in the ground with him for an interesting beetle, or to scale mountains that strike awe in me today.

His love for nature might be strong as my love for literature. What I feel is a physical need to always have a book with me; what he felt was a physical need to discover the truth of the world. They’re different subjects, but the passion is similar, and isn’t truth still truth, whether it is in the pages of a book?

Some of the things von Humboldt did make me smile, like when he promised the Empress Alexandra that he would find her diamonds in the Russian mines, and showed up with dozens of them.

He rightly believed slavery to be immoral, and spent his entire life as an abolitionist. While he got along well with American presidents, he constantly lamented that, at the time, it did not seem that slavery would be abolished.

There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.

Alexander von Humboldt

Von Humboldt wrote tirelessly on the broad subjects of nature and science, until he became too old to travel anymore. At this point, heartbreakingly, he began to forget what he himself had said.

Nonetheless, he became a hero, and the world mourned when he died. He had become the trusted voice on science; he inspired who we consider to be the greats of nature writing, like Darwin and John Muir.

I love books about historical figures, and I am grateful that this one exists. More people should know about Alexander von Humboldt and all the things he did to contribute to our knowledge today.

Until recently, I didn’t have a “favorite” genre when it came to books; this past year, I’ve discovered that, aside from the classics, I most enjoy history and historical fiction. I want to read about figures that changed the world, even finding obscure heroes that should be known. Perhaps it stems from an innate desire to someday, somehow, change the world myself.

My focus has therefore shifted to history as well as fantasy, and I’m eager to explore these two genres. Fantasy makes me dream; history makes me grateful– or, in certain situations, humbles me.

I recommend The Invention of Nature because I think more people should love their work in the way hat von Humboldt did. He was the very first person to see many remarkable things that we take for granted today.

Though it might seem as if everything in the world has been discovered, there is always some marvelous thing that needs to be seen for the first time, if not by the world, than by the person looking.

Do you have a historical hero that you think should come to light? Give me history book recommendations; I beg you, I can’t get enough of it!

On Robert Frost and the Rise of Poetry


We are fortunate to be living in a time when poetry is once again becoming popular. Instagram poetry is on the rise; it’s easy to post our work for thousands to see. If we learn the use of hashtags and posting times, we can build an impressive following. It is a breath of relief, since there had been a time when many claimed poetry to be dead.

As time changes, so do the poems that define a generation. What we share on social media has a different feel from the poetry of old. It’s designed to grab attention, to stop someone mindlessly scrolling to read a snatch of art. Much of modern poetry bears a minimalist quality. Literature evolves with the people who write it, changing with society.

Sometimes I am nostalgic for classic poetry. I’ve been reading Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe. Last week I focused on Robert Frost, who was considered the first American poet. His most famous piece, The Road Not Taken, is still taught in school. I wanted to go beyond that and learn about the author himself. I wanted to read the lesser-known pieces.

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Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist; his mother, Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish immigrant. The family hoped his father become a lawyer, but William Prescott Frost had a rebellious spirit. It led him instead to become a teacher, an editor, a politician. After his death in 1885, the family moved to New England, an area that would inspire much of Robert’s poetry.

He discovered poetry at the age of fourteen, and a year later published his first poem in his school newspaper. Though his mother was proud, his grandfather warned him that “no one can make a living at poetry.” Two years after his marriage at the age of twenty-two, Robert tried to please his family by seeking an education in Harvard. He was drawn to philosophy and the classics, but claimed “It wasn’t what I wanted.”

Disappointed in Robert’s artistic ambitions, his grandfather gave him a farm in New Hampshire on such terms that he was committed to it for ten years. Once that time was up, Frost sold the farm and moved to England with his wife, Eleanor. They found a home in Beaconsfield, a little town near rural Buckinghamshire, and lived a comfortable life. During this time, his first two books were published.

Robert Frost Home
Image Source

A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were received by the English with great enthusiasm. Of North of Boston, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote, “Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry…Tales that might be mere anecdotes in the hands of another poet take on universal significance because of their native veracity and truth to local character.”

What makes his work so special? An essay by Mark Van Doren titled The Permanence of Robert Frost explains: “Whether in dialogue or in lyric, his poems are people talking…The man who talks under the name of Robert Frost knows how to say a great deal in a short space, just as the many men and women whom he has listened to in New England and elsewhere have known how to express in the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express.”

Frost returned to America in 1915 to find himself suddenly famous. His books were on sale everywhere, and he was hailed a leader of “the new era in American poetry.” He bought a farm in New Hampshire and lived there for five years. In 1938 he moved to Boston, and later to Cambridge; wherever he went, he took a bit of the land which had captured his heart.

Frost’s poetry crosses many styles and subjects. His focus on farming and field work makes him very much a poet of the people. He has written sonnets and works of lyrical beauty. He has written epics which were adapted into screenplays. I prefer his shorter pieces because they can be memorized; we can take beautiful verses into our own souls to fill idle moments. One such example is the poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost’s twenty year wait for publication serves to remind us that not even those whose work became classic achieved fame overnight. Some didn’t get published until they were old; others weren’t discovered until after death. An author should never write for the sole purpose of publication. If we do this, we risk writing stories that lack soul. I write more about this in my review of Anne Lamott’s memoir, Bird by Bird.

Literature gives voices to things which normally wouldn’t speak, such as stars or houses. Robert Frost spoke even for ghosts and the forest. In The Sound of the Trees, he gives us a glimpse of their minds—

They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.

Skilled poets raise the voice of each gust of wind. They also open our ears so that we, the readers, can understand what the breezes whisper. Poetry is on the rise, and we can expect a new era of poetry worldwide. I am eager to find out which of these new voices will live to be classics.

In the midst of this, let us not forget the poets on whose shoulders we stand. As we breathe life once more into poetry, let us follow them down roads less traveled; only after we learn their ways can we go down paths of our own.

Bird by Bird: On Writing & Honesty


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What does it mean to be a writer? Ask anyone who practices the craft. You might hear several answers, because people have different reasons.

Anne Lamott’s memoir Bird by Bird offers a response I believe few would disagree with:

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

Lamott offers advice on matters such as outlining, but she makes sure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture while fussing over technicalities. Our obligation is to tell the truth, the truths of our readers and of the human race.

But I write fiction, you might say. Everything is made up. So do I. I’ve yet to try heavy worldbuilding; however, soon I will. Even then, my story won’t be an untruth. It’s set in a realm that’s very real to me.

I have yet to meet a devoted author who hasn’t felt their dream world as if they lived in it. When a writer puts soul into their story, they’re telling the truth about themselves, using words to help it be seen by an audience.

It would be nice to have thousands of readers, but it’s still a story, even if no one has read it. It would be convenient to make a living off of it, but I can’t bet on that. Lamott believes, and I do as well, that any writer who wants to write well should desire nothing more than to tell their truth.

Formerly a creative writing teacher, Lamott offers advice to improve our craft. By means of parables and flashbacks, she instructs without sounding like an instruction manual. I highlighted sentences so I can go over them again, but three tips stood out to me most.

First, she instructed her students to write 300 words daily. I found a notebook and resolved to fill a page every day, no matter how tired I am. One page seems a small goal when you start, but it’s comforting to see progress as the days pass.

Secondly, Lamott’s resolve about honest writing is powerful:

Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

She tells us to take the truths that frighten us, spinning them into tales that make an impact. Even if we change names, truth remains the core of it. Readers feel it between the lines. A writer’s job is to tell the truth.

Finally, her most unpopular advice is that publishing can be overrated. Lamott made sure to warn her students that contracts don’t take away Writer’s Block. We will never be happy if we write for publication. We should write because we love it.

Writing can be bittersweet. On days when it’s hard to put words on paper, we are tempted to quit and find an easier hobby. I don’t think true writers can quit for long. Even when we aren’t writing, the worlds we write are a part of us.

Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.

Bird by Bird reminds us that writing can drive us mad, but it’s worth embracing this madness. It reminds us that fiction is never a lie, encourages us to soldier through rewrites and bad reviews because we’re storytellers.

I believe any writer should read it at least once. Let us never lose sight of the honesty that characterizes our work; we owe the world our truths.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway


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This is my first Hemingway novel. It’s a quick read and struck me for being so detached. The writing style seems indifferent by nature, focusing little on the main character’s emotions and more on dialogue.

I don’t know if Hemingway’s writing is like this in other novels. It isn’t bad: the way the main character interacts with others, rarely showing strong emotion even to the woman he loves, gives the settings sheens of gray.

At first I thought Maybe he doesn’t love her as much as he thinks. Later, when his child is born, he feels nothing towards it, not even anger. Maybe it’s the war, and the drinking certainly didn’t help. Whatever the case, it’s a powerful scene, bringing out his inability to feel.

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
― Ernest Hemingway

Some criticize Hemingway’s style for being too bare. We know what’s going on from what the characters say to one another. The writing is very minimal, so I could not pick it apart for layers like I have done with Dickens. You’re pulled along by its straightforwardness.

There are different styles for different authors; it’s a reminder that there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell a story. The book is worth a try, keeping in mind that some will enjoy it and others will not.

There were descriptions that plunged me in. You will find and remember them. Overall, I’m glad I read the book. It’s a powerful statement about writing style and the impact it has on a story.