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Reviewed by:
  • A Private History of Awe
  • Robert L. Root Jr. (bio)
A Private History of Awe By Scott Russell SandersNorth Point Press, 2006336 pages, cloth, $24.00

In The Country of Language Scott Russell Sanders declares, "I enter the country of language not to escape the chancy world that precedes and surrounds all language, but to ponder that world, to hold up portions of it for examination, to decipher its patterns and celebrate its wonders." It's as succinct a mission statement for an essayist—and, for that matter, for the role of the essayist in general—as any I know, and it encapsulates the defining characteristics of Sanders's own essays: the conscientiousness of his exploration of his life and his world, his insistence on reaching as thorough an understanding of his subject as he can, the integrity of the conclusions he reaches, and the revelations they produce about the forces at play on him and his family and his environment. The honesty of his essays and the urgency of their probing have only increased over the years.

As a memoir, his new book, A Private History of Awe, in some ways coalesces material gathered in collections beginning with The Paradise of Bombs (1987) and running through The Force of Spirit (2000). Characters and incidents familiar to readers of such essays as "The Inheritance of Tools," "At Play in the Paradise of Bombs," "Cloud Crossing," "The Men We Carry in Our Minds," "Under the Influence," "Reasons of the Body," "After the Flood," "Wayland," and "Buckeye," to name the most frequently anthologized examples, reemerge in this major narrative with all their threads of connection established, rather than implied, and still fresh in the telling, as if they hadn't been recounted before. Indeed, one of the strengths of this [End Page 143] book is its ability to be equally engaging and enriching for both first-time readers and long-time fans.

That this should be the case arises from Sanders's tendency to grow as well as to age. This aspect of his writing has been apparent in the titles and subtitles of his books from early on: the somewhat grandiose title Secrets of the Universe counterbalanced by its humble subtitle, Scenes from the Journey Home; the deceptively domestic combination of Staying Put and its subtitle, Making a Home in a Restless World; the rich implications of the title Writing from the Center. Two more recent collections, Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journeys and The Force of Spirit, were remarkable not merely for how well he was able to continue exploring the meaning of commonplace events—an essayist's subject matter, happily, can be anything and everything he or she thinks, feels, experiences, or encounters, and the prime requisite is the ability to stay simultaneously alive and alert—but how insistent he has become at expanding his comprehension, of both his life and his universe, ever more deeply. In Hunting for Hope (1998), a book somewhat closer to an organic whole than his other collections, he wrestles with the challenge thrown out by his son, that his complaints about the contemporary world leave no room for his children to have hope about their future. Sanders has always had a moral or ethical dimension to his writing; here he pushes beyond reflection and retrospection into the realm of moral philosophy.

The Country of Language (1999), a short book for Milkweed's splendid Credo series—really a long multi-segment essay, a combination of memoir and manifesto—seems in some ways a rehearsal for A Private History of Awe. "The lessons I live by have come to me piecemeal, unexpectedly," Sanders tells us, claiming that, rather than "a philosophy" or "a tidy system of ideas," they are "more like a grab bag of stories, each one capturing a moment of insight when some heart's truth came home to me." He writes that he "can't fully separate the insights from the experiences that gave rise to them. . . . My beliefs are rooted in ordinary, earthy life." As credos go, The Country of Language is particularly perceptive and forthright. Writing, Sanders tells us, is his "slow, stubborn way of asking questions...


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