Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mirrors

[Eduardo Galeano. Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. New York: Nation Books, 2009.]

Earlier this year, I came to the rather startling realization that relatively little of the what I read bears much resemblance to what I want to be writing. I want to be writing things that are thoughtful and social and radical (in the sense of to-the-root) and writerly, yet online most of what I read is either journalistic or polemical or analytical without being particularly thoughtful, and offline much of the nonfiction that I read ends up being too scholarly or too plain or not quite enough of one of those things that I really want. I have good reasons for reading all of these things, certainly, but it doesn't change the fact that there is definitely something counterproductive about not reading more that experiments with craft and form and the like in ways that I find interesting and challenging, rather than exclusively for content.

I came up with a number of ways to try to change that, one of which was to brainstorm authors whose writing I knew or suspected might fulfil those requirements. One of the people who ended up on that list was the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, and the book of his that I semi-randomly decided to read was this one.

Mirrors is a history of the world, but of a very specific sort. It is "from below and to the left," certainly (to re-purpose a slogan from the Zapatistas), but it does things with craft that are very different from either left historians in the academy writing for the discipline or most movement-based historians (whether autodidacts or deprofessionalized) writing for a lay audience. This book is written from the sensibility of the storyteller. It clearly emerges from vast amounts of research and reading among more scholarly and conventionally historical sources, but it aims for something more and different than simply adding to the ranks of those sources. One way to say it might be that it aims for accessibility, but that is an inadequate description, because accessibility on its own often ends up plain and boring, whereas the focus here is being entertaining and mischievious and clever and engaging.

The almost 400 pages of this book are packed with brief, carefully crafted stories, most shorter than a page. They begin from the ancient world and its myths, and proceed to the present day. They draw from all parts of the world, and they centre the overlooked, the downtrodden, the forgotten.

These little stories take a range of forms -- a moment or a tangent or a list of key points from a life or a telling conjuction of facts or a poetic vignette -- and they have the feel not of written history but of stories told aloud. They are put together with a master storyteller's ear for both rhythm (for which translator Mark Fried surely deserves some credit as well, and not just Galeano himself) and for exactly the right details to create an effect and to convey an essence, with no attempt at giving an exhautive accounting of anything.

You could quibble, of course. You could insist that such-and-such is not adequately nuanced, that this detail over here is not the one you would have chosen, that the anecdote on that page leaves out too much. You could also probably critique the selection of stories, because for all that it pushes back against Eurocentrism and patriarchy (among other things), it perhaps could do more and better.

Nonetheless, it is delightful to read, and its politics are clear and powerful (if sometimes more heartbreaking than inspiring).

As for whether it is the kind of writing that I want to do, I'm not sure. In some ways, that kind of misses the point if asked too narrowly. My goal with this somewhat reoriented approach to reading is not find forms to mimic, but to find examples and explorations to inspire. This book is most definitely thoughtful and social and radical and writerly, and it feels like it falls very much within the scope of the kind of writing that I want to be reading more of, and learning from, as I plod forward in my own projects.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.]

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