We keep reading. When the writing is bad, it’s a fleeting disappointment but when it’s good, there’s nothing better. When it’s good, it matters in the moment and in our memory; nothing matters more.
Few words are new, but lately they come at us in torrents. Words, words, words career toward us, screaming, tweeting, each true enough but incomplete. Words alone are isolating; writing, telling stories, that’s what takes the isolation away.
So naturally an isolated Island seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts all but dares the best writers to try it — tell your stories here, here where sea meets shore, where what is needed is at hand and out of reach simultaneously.
It was Somerset Maugham who noted that his wartime summer home on Martha’s Vineyard was “a place where there is nothing to do and no time to do it.” A century before, writing in rooms only steps from those Maugham took, Nathaniel Hawthorne told of yet another scribe, he who carved tombstones. His work was lucrative, for “The secluded life, and the simple and primitive spirit which still characterizes the inhabitants of those islands, especially of Martha’s Vineyard, insure their dead friends a longer and dearer remembrance than the daily novelty, and revolving bustle of the world, can elsewhere afford to beings of the past.”
Secluded no longer seems the word to describe life on the Vineyard, at least not in August. But simple still does characterize Islanders’ spirit, and we do hold dear our continuing legacy of writers here. The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, which will be held all day this Sunday at the Chilmark Community Center, enriches that legacy. Writers, 24 of them, will be on the lawns of the Chilmark Community Center, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., reading, answering questions, signing, connecting with us who keep reading. Admission is free.
The late William Styron, in an interview with his Vineyard Haven neighbor Sheldon Hackney, spoke of a biography then underway; “I think nothing could be more disagreeable than the experience of reading a biography of a person which avoided the underside of a person’s life . . . as long as he’s fair about my own flaws and failings, I would really almost welcome it.” His daughter Alexandra Styron’s memoir spares readers any such disagreeable experience; her father would surely welcome it.
The writer Geraldine Brooks delved into the colonial history of her adopted Vineyard home for Caleb’s Crossing, her imagining of the life of a Wampanoag student who in reality was the first of his people to graduate from Harvard — in 1665. She walked the cliffs and meadows and shores here, listening for her character’s voices, letting them speak to us today. Another Pulitzer prize-winner speaking at the festival, Siddhartha Mukherjee, goes to the cellular level to tell a story that is universal in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer. Perhaps, he writes, cancer defines the inherent outer limit of our survival.
Writers explore our many outer limits. The festival brings them here to tell the stories that connect us. They tell stories of sport, of innovation, of finance and international intrigue, romantic love and searing, suffering love. These writers tell us of people long dead and predicaments still all too present. They tell stories of our common humanity.
If people are reading less, they are still alert for voices true and fresh and stinging like the briny air in the Island morning. So, we keep reading.
— Lauren Martin