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The Nature of Generosity Hardcover – December 5, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
In this memoir turned inside out, veteran writer Kittredge (who won the PEN West Literary Award for his earlier autobiography, Hole in the Sky) jigs in and out of his childhood on an isolated ranch in Oregon and the much older cities of Europe to make a plea for a what he terms "extreme long loop altruism." His geographical movement is quickly outpaced by his tour of literature (from Darwin to Walt Whitman to E.O. Wilson), as he races haphazardly through the development of an increasingly isolated and corrupted human society that disdains compassion, seeks to control the natural world and tries to buy happiness. He argues that we mustDand canDreinvest in the world by, for example, "learning to think of progress as a movement toward sharing, rather than accumulating, and to consider our most central values in terms of our willingness to give." But such ethics seem palpable only in the rare moments when Kittredge slows down enough to describe how they spring from the world around him. He acknowledges that "[t]his book proceeds more like a dance than an argument," but the rush of his often gorgeous images and jumbled summaries yield only flirtatious glances at the power of his ideas. (Dec. 8.--his book proceeds more like a dance than an argument," but the rush of his often gorgeous images and jumbled summaries yield only flirtatious glances at the power of his ideas. (Dec. 8)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Kittredge, a renowned philosopher of the American West, conducts a grand tour of Planet Earth past and present in search of a working definition of generosity on a global scale. His ramblings are both internal, in the form of remembrances of his boyhood on an Oregon ranch and musings on everything from food to love to landscapes, and external, as he chronicles his sojourns in locales as far-flung as Alaska, Peru, and France. The connecting theme is his attunement to the stories that underlie belief systems, especially those that generated the ungenerous systems of contemporary business and government, benefit the few rather than the many, and cause egregious ecological degradation. Provocative, imaginative, eloquent, and profoundly critical, Kittredge considers such landmarks as the birth of language and the invention of writing and the rise of agriculture and the mania for private property. And whether he's appreciating prehistoric cave paintings, a fresco by Fra Angelico, or the poetry of Wordsworth, the chilling facts about the loss of biodiversity and the deprivation suffered by the majority of the world's people are never far from his mind. What's needed, he believes, is a new set of stories that value generosity instead of greed, creativity instead of commodification. Donna Seaman
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Top customer reviews
But my own reading of this book is complicated. I felt a bit misled by the title, which makes the book sound like a treatise, or at least meditations on a single theme. Generosity figures in the book, of course, but this is not a theme that obviously holds this book together. It is also being billed as the sequel or perhaps second volume of his memoir/meditation, "A Hole in the Sky," which it is in a sense, but for me it lacks the autobiographical and emotional tension that made that prior work so powerful. I found this book looser, and its autobiographical exposition or reportage is less interesting that the thoughts and historical information he weaves into it. In short, for me this book is brilliant in parts, combined with sections that are pretty mundane and not all that well connected. So in my own perhaps odd system of values, I couldn't reccommend buying this book in hardback, but I can reccommend buying the paperback. I find myself returning to various parts of the book, but I doubt if I will read it front to back again. That's fine, of course--we use books in all kinds of ways, and a few lines can be just as precious as a thousand pages, and a reader like me can be just as grateful to Kittredge for writing and publishing it.
Like Ivan Doig's magnum opus, "This House of Sky," this resumed memoir explores Kittredge's youth in the West and the influences of family, landscape, and a dismayingly complex "outside" world on personal values. In the end, he seeks a world that is less dismaying and less complex, one where the "endless project" of generosity breeds peace and plenty. Man's primitively selfish and combative behavior, he says, is not only bad for the human race, it will ultimately destroy the Earth if unchecked. Kittredge's premise: Man has a moral and spiritual obligation to his planet and his memories to be kinder and gentler.
His poetic petition is both personal and panoramic. Its genesis is a 60-something writer's memory of childhood, of travels in diverse landscapes (and mindscapes) such as Montana, Venice, New York City, the heartbroken Andalusian hills of Federico Garcia Lorca , and the French village of Les Crottes, where Nazis executed the entire population -- 17 souls -- in the desperate fury of defeat near the end of World War II. In the end, "The Nature of Generosity" is an eloquent philosophical treatise, a sublime travelogue and a visceral memoir of an Oregon boyhood that straddled the Depression and World War II, and it all grows from the taproot of sensual, but fleeting, images long lost.
On this journey through time and space, the reader is accompanied by eclectic companions: Pablo Neruda, Piet Mondrian, Joseph Brodsky, Niccolo Machiavelli, Walt Whitman, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Aristotle and Annie Dillard, among others. Others flash past like ghostly hitchhikers on dusky roadsides: Vance Valorida, a cowboy's cowboy who dies alone, or Oscar and Jo Kittredge, the author's own parents, whom he describes as "secret radicals" who simply forgot how to talk to each other.
Kittredge is at his lyrical best when exploring the place of storytelling and the storytelling of place. To him, the future is mapped by stories.
Ambrose Bierce, a devilish writer who haunted the American West even before he disappeared into thin air, once said philosophy was a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. But "The Nature of Generosity" is a book of graceful rhythms, from one of America's most elegant writers in a place of extraordinary beauty. It aims toward a noble, if elusive, *something.* Kittredge has helped define a whole school of literature from the Interior West, but in this volume his place is clearly at the center of a world where the boundaries are not geographical, but emotional.