Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Taking Group Pictures for Tourists

Amateur snapshot photography has been popular since the introduction of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, but the recent emergence of digital photography seems to have greatly increased the popularity of picture-taking. Most of the developing and printing costs have been eliminated, and pictures can be distributed over the internet with a click of the mouse. Many—myself included—believe the average quality of snapshots has decreased, but this flaw is overshadowed by the benefits of digital pictures. Nowadays, many people seem to bring their digital cameras wherever they go—just in case something memorable happens.

Lately, I have taken great pleasure in a simple act of photographic kindness. Couples and families who are traveling together often find themselves in front of a scenic backdrop, unable to create a photo of the entire group. They go through the ritual of assigning one member after the other to be the photographer, but unless they are assertive enough to ask a stranger to take a picture—and willing to hand over their camera to someone they don’t know—they never get the shot they want. Recently, particularly if I am traveling, I have begun to be much more forward with offers to take photos of couples or families together.

Many of my most cherished family photos were taken at distant locations by strangers recruited on the spot. Naturally, the quality of these photos is quite variable, but having a record of the entire group is very important. For any couple or family, the sights and sounds of traveling are an exciting experience, but encountering them with others is a memorable part of the event. The group photo records that sense of shared travel in a way that separate photos cannot.

In the summer of 2007, I spent a few days in Seattle alone. It was a nice trip. The city is quite beautiful and exciting, but at various points I felt a little lonely. One day I took the ferry to Bainbridge Island and back, an inexpensive excursion that affords beautiful views of Seattle across Puget Sound. This is a West Coast equivalent of using the Staten Island Ferry as an inexpensive Manhattan tour boat. On the return trip, I wandered around the large, modern vessel, and when I arrived at the bow, I found several couples and families taking photographs of themselves with Seattle in the background. Without hesitation, I began to offer to take pictures of several of the groups. Naturally some people were a bit hesitant to accept my offer, but no one turned it down. In several cases the travelers were very appreciative as I patiently took multiple shots when necessary.

It is just a simple act: offering to take a picture. But knowing how much I value my own family photos, made it seem important, and for a few moments far from home and work, taking those pictures gave me a much needed sense of purpose. I stepped off the ferry in a far better mood than I when I got on.

Friday, September 05, 2008

John Gardner's Ghost

When I went to my mailbox at work today I found a book that was sent, as the slip of paper tucked inside indicated, “With the compliments of the publisher.” Textbook publishers send college professors many books we never ask for in the hope we will adopt one as a required text. But this unsolicited book was something different. It was a copy of John Gardner’s novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, originally published in 1982, just months before Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident.

John Gardner was a wildly talented American novelist and medieval scholar, and I was briefly his student in the mid-1970s. At that time, I was a graduate student in English Literature at Southern Illinois University, where Gardner was a professor who had just achieved national acclaim for Grendel, his retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster, and The Sunlight Dialogues, a New York Times bestselling counterculture novel. I have written about Gardner’s brief and controversial career in an op-ed piece “John Gardner’s Lesson about Teaching.”

After Gardner’s death, many of his novels went out of print. Grendel remains very popular because many college professors assign it as a companion to the study of Beowulf, but all his other novels faded away. Because I knew Gardner and took his graduate-level Chaucer seminar, I followed his career long after leaving school, read most of his books, and collected copies of almost everything he published.

I’ve enjoyed many of the Gardner books I’ve read, but for years, I avoided his hefty final novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts. Then in 2006 I read Barry Silesky’s biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, and was inspired to take on Mickelsson. It was wonderful. My favorite Gardner novel to date. In an review I wrote:
This book is a gem. The main character is a troubled philosophy professor who is sometimes difficult to like, but the book itself is one to love. It is philosophical work, but it is also part ghost story, part mystery, and part romance. The pages just keep turning, and the ending does not disappoint.

In the meantime, I learned that New Directions had committed to bringing back into print paperback editions of four of Gardner’s novels. Soon the word came out that three of these titles had been decided. The first would be Gardner’s National Book Critics Circle Award winning, October Light, followed by the bestseller Sunlight Dialogues, and Gardner’s pastoral romance, Nickel Mountain. The final novel had not been chosen, and I took it upon myself to contact New Directions by email to urge them to give serious consideration to Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I pointed out that Mickelsson’s average Amazon readers rating was higher than the other three novels they had chosen to publish. Elsewhere in my review, I wrote:
I am hoping New Directions will choose to reissue this novel, along with the other Gardner books they are bringing back into print. To overlook it would be a big mistake.

An editor at the press wrote back to assure me that Mickelsson was being given serious consideration.

When Nickel Mountain was reissued last year, I bought a copy and was delighted when I found a page among the front matter with the heading ALSO BY JOHN GARDNER from New Directions. Of course, the other reissued novels were listed, but at the bottom of the page were the words “Forthcoming MICHELSSON’S GHOSTS.” I was thrilled.

Then today a copy of the new edition of Mickelsson’s Ghosts came in the mail. The book is nicely constructed and includes photographs by the author’s son, Joel Gardner, that illustrated the original volume. The US Postal Service envelope containing the book had been addressed to my office by hand, but inside there was no letter of explanation. I did not need one. I am a psychology professor, and although I receive many books “compliments of the publisher,” I am never sent novels. This was one of John Gardner’s ghosts, sent as a thank you.