The Gutenberg Galaxy

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A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

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A few days ago, I thought that a gray fox was nosing around in our yard. Red foxes, rusted and jaunty, usually visited us—so I was intrigued by this apparent newcomer. I rushed outside and fumbled a wobbly video that only caught the fox sneaking into the woods. 

I followed its route, down a trail that curls between high brush, and checked one of our wildlife cameras. The gray fox was not a fox at all; it was a coyote, thinned and shaky from mange. I crouched under the tree’s canopy and watched the coyote sniff and jostle leaves, and then shake like a dog—likely a result of its pain and itching.

On another camera, further down the trail, I watched how the coyote settled into an unstable trot, crossed the low brook, and then disappeared into the forest.

Coyotes with mange in the winter often don’t survive. It is certainly cold here in mid-November, but we don’t yet have the true freeze of winter. In the forest, the coyote likely found the brook again where it curves further downstream. The coyote might have stopped at the horse farm that bordered the forest, keeping its distance. It could have rested beneath a thicket. It could be anywhere now, or, perhaps, it is nowhere.

The best short story that I’ve ever read is “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas, from his book Adventures in the Skin Trade. It is such a wildly unkempt story. Here is how it begins:

Rising from the house that faced the Jarvis hills in the long distance, there was a tower for the day-birds to build in and for the owls to fly around at night. From the village the light of the tower window shone like a glowworm through the panes; but the room under the sparrows’ nests was rarely lit; webs were spun over its unwashed ceilings; it stared over twenty miles of the up-and-down country, the corners kept their secrets where there were claw marks in the dust.

The corners kept their secrets.

Thomas continues in the second paragraph: “The child knew the house from roof to cellar; he knew the irregular lawns and the gardener’s shed where flowers burst out of their jars; but he could not find the key that opened the door of the tower.”

The gardener tells the boy ancient stories, including about a tree from the beginning of the world. He also told the boy the story of “the death of Christ on a tree.” The tree is the cross of wood, so that the tree is a singular tree and also a tree among trees, the way in which we are lost among trees in a forest. The story rises toward wild notes of violence—and then it finishes, and we almost drift back across the Jarvis hills, with the comfortable melancholy that comes from great art.

I’ve spent much of the past year reading everything Marshall McLuhan ever wrote, from his obscure essays on how the usage of microphones in Mass garbled Latin into irrelevancy, to his mass-packaged, most famous volumes. The reading was for my own book on McLuhan, Digital Communion, a spiritual biography of the Canadian media theorist. 

McLuhan is best understood as a Catholic jester-poet, who wrote in a mosaic style, and for whom the electronic world was equal parts edifying and terrifying. A Cambridge PhD on the caustic (yet brilliant) Thomas Nashe, McLuhan was the wrong person for his electric moment—which makes him, of course, exactly the prophet that was needed. 

For much of this year, I went from reading the likes of The Medium Is the Massage, The Gutenberg Galaxy and The Mechanical Bride, and then outside onto the trail, a winding path that has been uncovered with care but would—without attention—become overgrown and subsume back into the wilderness. McLuhan’s electronic world was wild; the Internet is its own wilderness.  

To me, the internet feels overgrown. Full of blazed but abandoned trails. Trails littered with snapped branches, windswept leaves. Trails of promise that lead nowhere. Rock-choked routes, ankle-twisting and mind-bending journeys. 

I can see that coyote when I close my eyes. Its tail thin, its fur bunched. The worst nightmares are the ones that happen when we’re awake. 

I’ve also been reading a lot of Carl Phillips. His wonderful collections—Pale Colors in a Tall Field, Double Shadow, Speak Low—as well as his prose, like The Art of Daring. Phillips always gets me thinking of the ligatures of sentences (what an odd coincidence that my MFA thesis advisor and mentor, Jayne Anne Phillips, a marvelous craftswomen of sentences, shares his last name and his revelatory attention toward the sentence as a body).

Sentences are trails, trails are sentences. Paths, promenades, entries into a suffocating world. Ways to journey and ways to disappear. 

Sometimes, at night, our cameras pick up motion in the woods. Perhaps it is a bobcat darting down the trail. A spider stalking along a branch. I walk that same trail hours later, and sometimes there are prints and evidence of lives that have passed through, but other times, the past dissolves in silence—like a sentence that makes an acute mark on us, but afterward, when we close the book, disappears into the mess of words that collect during a life. 

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