Library Column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News


by Jake McGinnis

Imagine a glowing autumn afternoon in the far-flung reaches of Latah County, on a gravel road winding past quiet farmhouses and into the woods. Would you do a double-take if, coming around a corner, you spotted a fellow like me, shuffling along with dog leash in one hand and a book in the other? Would you roll down your window to ask the title?

Recent work in the cognitive sciences has suggested that reading, especially fiction, builds empathy. Basically, when we read a book, we identify with specific characters, and our brains react as though we experience the same emotions. If a character is happy or sad, the reader’s brain reacts as though she, too, were feeling that way. She might even tense the same muscles or have the same aches. But what about the senses? If a good book can build an emotional connection, can it also offer us a sort of sensuous, bodily experience?

During the past few days, I’ve been deeply engaged in “Painted Horses” by Malcom Brooks. The novel builds around the story of Catherine Lemay, a young woman from the East who is conducting an archaeological survey in remote, 1950s Montana. Working in a canyon “as deep as the devil’s own appetites,” she finds herself in a changing world of one-time mustangers and massive hydroelectric projects, a particularly tense blip in the history of the American West.


This tension, the conflict between the past and the present, drives the book forward, highlighting the conflicts within Catherine herself while also underscoring the timeless details of the canyon, where the smell of sage wafts up from the warm stones — just as it always has. In a way, the details of the canyon seem timeless, and just like her, I come away having heard the startling flush of sharp-tailed grouse, having felt that searing August thirst. Returning East at the end of the summer, Catherine is a strikingly different woman. I emerged a different reader, too. But are we changed, at least in part, because of the sensations of that canyon, including the events that transpire there?

Paperback copies of “Painted Horses” are widely available in Moscow and at other Valnet libraries. Best of all, Brooks will be touring the region in November as part of the Everybody Reads series, an annual literary event on the Palouse and in the Lewis-Clark Valley.

Of course, other recent fiction beckons, too. On a rainy Sunday morning earlier this month, I turned the last page on Jim Harrison’s latest collection of novellas. It was a painful last page, not in the least because Harrison, a longtime favorite and a master of the novella, passed away earlier this year. The Moscow library hasn’t yet picked up “The Ancient Minstrel,” but it is available through Valnet. In the meantime, you might try some of Harrison’s other fantastic collections. “Brown Dog,” “A Woman Lit by Fireflies” and “The Farmer’s Daughter” are all available in Moscow even as I write this. For me, Harrison’s work brings bodily sensation to the forefront.

There are also a great many books that take the question of the senses with a more inquisitive, curious flare. If you’re of the nonfiction bent, try Diane Ackerman, whose “Natural History of the Senses” explores the very human ability to perceive the world. “Her Dawn Light” is another favorite — a deeply personal engagement with the private, 4 o’clock in the morning world, when the senses and the heart are most deeply connected.

For me, these titles, and dozens of others, have engaged the senses as much as the mind and heart. But are these books as good as that long walk, the sun on my shoulders on a late October day? Well, for me, walking and reading are almost one and the same.

Jake McGinnis works in the access services department at the Moscow Library.