A few years ago, I read Staying Put, a collection of personal essays by Scott Russell Sanders. That collection had a sense of coherence around the same theme: what does it mean, to a geological place, and also to the mind and spirit of a person and a community, to stay in the same spot for years, even decades? I admired the collection, its willed entanglement with Indiana, and its tough, interesting voice, and wanted to read more. This collection, The Force of Spirit, is both less coherent and less interesting. There are some quite good essays, but for me, the overall effect was much less enchanting.
Some of the best essays in the book are the shortest. One is “Heartwood,” in which Sanders looks at the grain and pattern of wood in his home and reflects on patterns in nature, and on the value of seeking meaning in a chaotic world. This essay is only a few pages long, but its concision is part of its beauty. Another short essay — perhaps my favorite — is “Cabin Dreams,” in which Sanders makes what is almost just a simple list of a certain kind of books that have been meaningful to him over the years. These books are ones in which the author has found a small cabin to hide away in and write, close to the landscape, from shore to mountain — books from Black Elk Speaks to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to Walden. This brief essay has all the force of Sanders’s longing to do the same.
Some of the longer essays lose a little of their power by meandering; some are even a bit self-righteous. I am absolutely the right audience for an essay like “The Power of Stories,” for instance. I believe in that power wholeheartedly. But when Sanders announces that of all the reasons we should read stories, he is going to address only ten — ten? That seems like a lot. I bet you could boil that down, buddy, and hold my attention a bit better. “Silence,” an essay about Sanders’s experience worshipping with Quakers, would have been very interesting, except for his repeated sideswipes at other denominations. (“It’s no wonder that other religions put on a show, anything to fence in the wandering mind and fence out the terror of the Spirit. It’s no wonder that only a dozen people would seek out this Quaker meeting on a Sunday morning, while tens of thousands of people were sitting through scripted performances in other churches all across Indianapolis.”) In there for what purpose? I can’t say. But congratulations on the off-putting pat on your own back.
I really liked and appreciated Staying Put; I thought it had some very interesting and even important things to say. The Force of Spirit was a much more mixed bag, with some good essays and some with a dulled point. If this author interests you, start with Staying Put and then look for some recommendations.