Alaskabibliosnubitis–Bringing prejudice to reading, Alaska style: A Guest-post by Steve Kahn

Years ago I was bending nails for cash in Anchorage. You know, a construction job—think insulated Carhartts, temperature dropping, long hours. Rather than commute back to the Valley each day a friend and I stayed in a tiny cabin behind his sister Kathy’s house off of Rabbit Creek Road. One evening before stumbling back to the cabin and lapsing into my nightly coma Kathy and I started talking about books. She had just finished a woman’s account of fishing a set net site on the west side of Cook Inlet. (You guessed it—Fish Camp by Nancy Lord.) Kathy asked if I wanted to borrow it. I politely declined.

I was catching a cold and so exhausted from work I could barely read my watch without planting my nose into my morning oatmeal. Fish Camp never had a chance. Cormac McCarthy would have had to plumb and wire The Road for espresso and electric shock delivery to keep me awake. But I’ll admit there was more to it. Being a lifelong Alaskan I figured I knew enough about the lifestyle—I wasn’t keen on a treatise on slime and Xtra Tufs. (Please forgive me Nancy.)

Flash forward several years—I’m wandering the isles of a great independent bookstore (Yup, TitleWave) and pick up Fish Camp. Being well rested, virus-free and a bit more open when it comes to literary and other manners, I thought, I’ve heard the author is pretty good, I should give it a try. I’m glad I did—it was a great read, interesting and informative. But more than that I think the book helped me come face to face with one the biggest limitations I had as a reader, my own prejudices. And because reading is such a big part of writing …

A friend refuses to read Into the Wild because, “McCandless was idiot.” Debatable as his point may be, I read the book for several reasons. I trusted Krakauer as a writer, and my experience with Fish Camp gave me permission to think outside of the fish tote.

Other now-favorite northern books I avoided for years for various reasons: The Arctic Grail (too long), Shadows on the Koyukuk (loyalty to On the Edge of Nowhere), 50 Years Below Zero (I have no clue why, always loved the title) and The Blue Bear (others had already written about Michio Hoshino.) Of course, this is only a partial list, and I haven’t touched on fiction or poetry.

What a shame when a been-in-Alaska-longer-than-you or climbed-more-peaks or kayaked-the-Sound-more whizzing contest gets in the way of good literature. The older I get the more I realize I don’t know diddly about a lot of things (and I don’t even have teenaged children to tell me so!) Not that I intend to go out and read every book ever written about commercial fishing—or kayaking or climbing for that matter. How many times can a person read about running the Iditarod, climbing McKinley, floating the Yukon? And what if you are a veteran dog driver, climber, or paddler—does that make you want to relive your experience through other’s words, or just make you more critical? Or bore you? Depends on mood, attitude and background. Maybe most importantly, it depends on the words themselves. If the writing is excellent somehow we forget many of our preconceptions.

It’s valuable that we all have our preferences in genre, subject and styles—heck, we couldn’t read everything out there even if we wanted to. For me, I’m just trying to lighten up my prejudices—who knows, one of these days I might even read Coming into the Country (I think I’ve avoided it mainly because it was so popular). Since I’m stepping into the confessional blog booth (say three hail St. Marys and one Tuntutuliak) I’d feel a bit less alone if others shared some of the books they have snubbed then loved. I’d like to know I’m not the only one with such a checkered past, and besides, don’t all guest bloggers secretly fear the stigma of zero comments?

Steve Kahn is the author of The Hard Way Home.

3 thoughts on “Alaskabibliosnubitis–Bringing prejudice to reading, Alaska style: A Guest-post by Steve Kahn”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I'll happily go first, Steve. The book I avoided when it first came out was Seth Kantner's Ordinary Wolves. My head was in a different place, not in the mood for an AK setting, but what scared me off was several writer friends who assured me it was FANTASTIC. I didn't want to disagree with them, didn't want to be disappointed about the state of AK lit in general if it turned out they were giving it too easy a "pass." The more they pushed, the more I resisted. Then I finally read it. And loved it. It remains my favorite novel set in AK, and I recommend it to others.

  2. Funny, I had the same thing with Ordinary Wolves, (fear that it would out Alaska fiction as just not all that good, if it was the best and not great) but I now agree it is my favorite book about Alaska, fiction or non.

    Luckily, I read Coming Into the Country before I moved up here, and I hate to be predictable, but it was exceptional.

    Other favorite Alaska books include Blonde Indian by Ernestine Hayes, and Resurrection Update by Eva Saulitas. No matter how long or where you've lived in AK, both are completely original.

  3. "A Land Gone Lonesome," by Dan O'Neill. I DID think "oh, just another book about Yukon floating and homesteaders, old-timey memoir," but was pleasantly surprised by its critical stance toward the park service and by how it treats the tensions between Alaskans and a federal agency in a protected area (Yukon-Charley National Monument). It gave the conflict a human dimension and struck a nice balance between reportage and memoir.

    I think a very good reason to read books about subjects that you think you've heard enough about (or think you know enough about) is to see how writers manage to give it their personal stamp and make the story their own in a way no other writer could have.

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