#114: PLACES TO GO. The recent (2015) Nobel prize for literature having gone to the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich is unusual in being the first time the award has been given to a writer whose entire oeuvre is non-fiction. History has always had its status (it gets its own muse) but non-fiction writers in general have traditionally loitered in the back streets of official recognition: the rude mechanicals of literature. This in a way fails to recognize the wonderful and immediate pleasures of books that are contemporary, factual, informative, the pleasure of being told something we didn’t know. In a recent New Yorker (12/17/15) Kathryn Schulz wrote a delightful essay called “The Best Facts I Learned from Books in 2015” (Alexander Hamilton’s grandfather was Jonathan Edwards; Martin Luther invented the word “poltergeist”). The British journalist Rose George has published three books, each of which involve us in a subject about which we very likely know next to nothing. Her prose (first things first) is absolutely terrific: she marshals her facts with enormous skill and good sense, times them out beautifully with anecdote and humor, and brings to her subjects an unobtrusive but balanced and sometimes urgent moral sense. She is the best guide imaginable to the worlds she introduces.
A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World (Penguin, 2004) is about the plight of Liberian refugees. She follows and talks with people who have been driven in a kind of desperate circle as tribal warfare has driven them from Liberia to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and at times back to Liberia; she deals with the Kafkaesque world of official papers and documentation, required of people who have often left burning houses or in the dead of night; she gives voice and background to those exhausted faces we have seen on posters and charity appeals. Her most recent book is Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Table (Metropolitan Books, 2013). Within the framework of a voyage of the cargo ship Maersk Kendal (which in a year will travel the equivalent of three-fourths of the way to the moon and back), she evokes not just the enormity of the vessel, the work it does and its crew, but will guide us through the complexities of international registries, the peculiar extra-legal territory of the sea, the details of modern piracy, and the industry’s forms of ecological impact (whale mating, for instance, has been affected by the noise pollution caused by the boats). And on the way she will tell us, for instance, what portion of the price you paid for that t-shirt is shipping (about 3.25 cents). The prose is engaging throughout, not in the manner of someone dressing a dull subject, but as the expression of a sharp and interested mind.
Her coup in the choice of subject matter is probably her second book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (Metropolitan Books, 2008). Not just a coup but something of a tour de force, in writing a fascinating book on a difficult topic and convincing us it does indeed matter; this really is one of those books that alters the way you look at everyday life. As a writer, it’s impossible not to admire the way she handles (and finally sidesteps) the embarrassed humor inevitable to the topic, and the force with which she presents her most urgent concerns: diarrhea, she tells us, kills more children than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria; cholera and typhoid kill as many as if two jumbo jets full of children crashed every four hours. And at a human level George’s books are marked by her ability to notice, within any of the worlds she investigates, people who are doing their work with a kind of dogged decency—even, in some cases, heroism. Her books stay with you as modest revisions of our sense of reality, that special delight of worlds we haven’t known. Define literature.