Reading in a time of COVID

Let’s call this column “Reading in a time of COVID.” No, this won’t be anything like Daniel Defoe’s “A Journey of a Plague Year.” However, I will say that one of the few upsides of living through this pandemic has been the extra time I’ve had to read.

I can’t go very many places right now, and I don’t find much more to entertain me on television than usual. Maybe you could also consider this a belated summary of new year’s resolutions. Though my personal reading subjects always range broadly, I’ll stick for now with books related to the Adirondacks.

My tentative list for 2021 already includes a recently published environmental history of the New York state prison system. It’s entitled “A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country,” by Clarence Jefferson Hall. That’s all I know about it so far, but it arrived in my mailbox last week. I’ll be interested to see what the book contains.

I’m increasingly fond of rereading books I’ve enjoyed previously. One hopes a second (or third) experience reveals insights overlooked previously, plus we bring greater perspective from passage of time. That’s why Roderick Nash’s “Wilderness and the American Mind,” a classic of environmental history, is on my shelf again.

This is one of those older books that doesn’t become dated. It’s an analysis of the evolution of attitudes toward the outdoors in general, and wilderness in particular. The author bridges the era during which wilderness was seen solely as something to be conquered, and the present day, when preservation has moved to the forefront. He gives full credit to Adirondack precedents as major forces in these movements. It’s worth noting that many aspects of this saga, even if not specifically Adirondack, owe their accomplishment to individuals whose outdoor experience either began in, or was heightened by, their time in northern New York — people like Gifford Pinchot, Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser.

Another Adirondack book that I’ve pulled from my shelf for rereading is “Contested Terrain” by Philip Terrie. I once took an environmental history course that used this as its basic textbook. It’s highly readable and puts environmental and political issues in specific context for the Adirondacks. For those lacking a sense of the history that helped make the Adirondack Park what it is today, this book is a must. Even if you’ve read it before, you’re bound to appreciate a few new insights on a repeat look.

If your leanings are toward biography, I have two to recommend. One is “Time Exposure,” the memoir of William Henry Jackson, born near Peru, New York, in 1844. Here’s a man who went west to escape a failed romance and ultimately became one of the country’s most celebrated pioneer photographers. His efforts played a role in establishment of our first national parks. And he never lost contact with his home region. How many biographies will you ever read about someone present at the Battle of Gettysburg who lived long enough to learn about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

Another good choice is Mary Hotaling’s “A Rare Romance in Medicine: The Life and Legacy of Edward Livingston Trudeau.” Trudeau, a New York physician diagnosed with tuberculosis, came to the Adirondacks during the 1870s, seemingly to die. Instead, he regained physical stamina, returned to practicing medicine and went on to build a sanitarium that became a national model for providing care. With his “gospel of optimism,” he instilled hope into hundreds, perhaps thousands, who likely never felt they’d enjoy that emotion again. This book also doubles as a history of Saranac Lake and its development and growth, especially its centrality in the so-called “curing” industry, a history still reflected in local architecture and culture today.

If you’ve never read Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel “An American Tragedy,” this might be a particularly good choice to fill free time during a pandemic. The huge tome (my edition runs 874 pages) will take a while to finish. Dreiser searched long and hard for an actual incident on which to base his class-based story. He found newspaper reporting on this event, a drowning that took place on Big Moose Lake. Yes, you can glean much of the tale by streaming “A Place in the Sun,” a 1951 movie with starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor that won multiple Academy Awards. But you’d lose the full moral complexity of the tale.


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