Book Review: The Loren Eiseley Reader

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Review by By John Janovy, Jr.

The Loren Eiseley Reader“The Loren Eiseley Reader”
Author: Loren C. Eiseley
Publisher: Abbatia Press/Loren Eiseley Society

The Loren Eiseley Reader,” published by the Loren Eiseley Society (LES) and pushed to fruition by Bing Chen, the society’s unabashedly enthusiastic president, is a labor of love and an act of honor. It’s also an excellent example of what happens when a group of idealistic, insightful and well-educated people decide that their intellectual hero must not sink into the electronic quicksand of our digital age. Starting with his essays in Harper’s and his first book, “The Immense Journey,” Eiseley began telling us about the human condition, drawing upon his anthropological experience and sharing a personal vision that is sometimes disturbing but always enlightening. As much as any other writer, he came close to answering the leading question of our time: What is a human being? The society’s intent was to ensure that Eiseley’s answer does not disappear from our collective memory.

Those of us who read Eiseley tend to pick and choose our own favorite passages and essays, passing judgment on their significance, filing some away for future reference and relegating others to the upper shelves. My personal copies of his books are marked up with pencil and inside the front covers are lists of page numbers—my own index to what I believe is important to remember. The “Reader” does some of this marking for us. The selections are excellent samples of Eiseley’s work, and although the essays are stand-alone pieces, they also are best understood in context of the books from which they were lifted.

“The Immense Journey,” for example, is so blatantly evolutionary that it could easily generate controversy if assigned, in its entirety, in a public school. When asked to write 250-word essays on the subject “What evolution means to me personally and to humanity in general,” at least half of my 200-plus General Biology students last fall began their pieces with the claim that evolution is “a touchy subject.” Touchy indeed. “How Flowers Changed the World,” a selection from “The Immense Journey,” admits no such touchiness; the phraseology is direct, factual and narrative. In contrast to contemporary creationist culture warriors, Eiseley assumed that whatever paleontologists had discovered was tangible evidence for the nature of history, and in his writing moved quickly beyond interpretation to issues of larger meaning.

For example, although Eiseley used the term “stolen energy” in a slightly different sense than we understand it today, the idea is still valid. His reference is to “the insatiable and growing numbers of a carnivore” (humans) who domesticated cereal grains, thus providing sustenance that in turn allowed the development of societies, i.e., “his swarming millions.” One wonders what Eiseley would have to say nowadays about scientists’ prediction that the world’s human population will stabilize about the time Lincoln, Nebraska’s kindergartners reach retirement age. From reading his wisdom and insight, I suspect that the word “stabilize” would not take on a happy meaning, but that the phrase “stolen energy” would still be central to his vision.

By his own description, Eiseley did not consider himself a teacher and did not enjoy the role when forced upon him. Yet his essays contain a rather amazing lesson about writing itself. The “Reader” ’s selections show clearly how quickly, how adeptly, he was able to move from an immediate and personal observation to a grand generalization. In his visit to a wild-plum thicket, tasting fallen fruit becomes “scooping up some of it into thoughts and dreams.” In other words, food sustains our body, including the brain, and thus the mind—a simple idea expressed so eloquently that it sticks. A dog in his headlights becomes “frozen into the shape ‘dog’ by me. A word, no more.” Eiseley thus comments on language, and at the same time explores the idea of ghosts. A rapidly approaching fog bank leads quickly to memory of “a primitive dialogue as to whether God is a mist or merely a mist maker.” These kinds of links are pretty much on every page; you can find them by opening the book randomly.

Eiseley’s writing is so rich and extensive that selection of these essays must have been a challenge. We can only imagine what lively interactions occurred during those discussions between Bing Chen, Deborah Derrick, Jim Cook, and Kira Gale, the individuals most responsible for the choices. Ideally, the “Reader” finds a home in school libraries. The book is beautifully designed; Aaron Franco’s drawings add exactly the right touch of mystery, and the archival photographs are in exactly the right place: at the end, thus bringing us back to Earth intellectually. Six-year-old Loren and his mother Daisy are worthy of serious contemplation. If we’ve learned our lessons from the “Reader,” we study this picture and find ourselves asking: How many Loren Eiseleys are out there among the nation’s elementary school children? If the “Reader” finds its way into enough young hands, by way of either teachers or parents, then hopefully the answer will be at least one.

 

 

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