Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Art of Porching

Wide was the divide between the northern and southern halves of my family, but one thing the southern side had going for them was porches.  In the South, before there was central air and climate control and before 432 channels were on every TV, there were porches.  That people actually sat on to “visit.”  With other people.

Mamaw’s house actually boasted two porches–one in back where Papaw worked on his electric fishing reels and where the wringer washer sat, and one in front, with actual windows, effectively her indoor greenhouse.   This was in northern Florida, but lest they become too soft, my grandparents hardly ever used the window a/c’s.  So when the summer air was sticky and close, we’d retreat outdoors to the back porch in search of a breeze.

My sisters and I would fight over the sacks of muscadines and peaches we’d picked up at the Georgia roadside stands on the trip there, and my mother and Mamaw would snap beans, shell peas, or shuck corn, depending on what the garden offered that day.  You could tell their moods by their pace–slow and lazy was a good sign; brisk snapping with a quickly filling bucket meant you’d best give over the sack and share the peaches.

My mother and her siblings grew up on those porches.  The screen door slammed behind them on their way out of the kitchen.  They greeted neighbors there, collected bins of reels that needed fixing, broke up, made up, and snuck back in, tiptoeing up the slanted wooden steps, shoes in hand and giggling too loud.  My siblings and I played cards out there, read books, and petted the raggedy cats that came to slink around our legs and meow for scraps of fish.

At the other end of the house, the front porch off the living room was filled with pots of philodendron vines and spider plants.  In the tropical heat, they grew to infinity, creeping out of their containers, their vines roping outward until they had to be tacked to the walls and ceilings to keep the chaos at bay.  Every surface was leafy, and if you were lucky, you got to sleep out there on the daybeds beneath that tangled jungle.  I used to drift off to sleep, slightly worried that in the dark of night, with only the buzzing cicadas bearing witness, I’d be incorporated, somehow, into the curtains of green, never to be seen again.

In the South, porches are where you cut your teeth on lolly-gagging.  You may or may not have a swing, screens, or the kind of upright rockers that come from Cracker Barrel, but that’s not the point.  There’s an unspoken art to it, an easy cadence.  Porch is more of a verb than a noun.  It means soaking in a long summer evening, the kids sticky from popsicles, bug spray, and sunscreen.  It means swatting a few mosquitoes and drinking sweet tea.  It is the South.  There is no un-sweet tea.  We are not philistines.

Porching is greeting your neighbors barefoot, garden tomatoes in hand, and asking about mom’n’em.  It’s digging splinters out of a kid’s foot with the nearest pocket knife and jawing about the finer points of local politics over the low grind of the ice cream maker and the steady thump of the dog’s tail against the floor.   Because we are commoners, it’s a far cry from the grand veranda and stately columns where Scarlett O’Hara held court for all her beaus.  But porching isn’t meant to be fancy.

There’s this place not far from us, up on top of Monteagle, Tennessee, called the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly.  An unassuming little slice of community, it sits quietly on top of the mountain, a collection of charming cottages with the best porches around.  The MSSA has been operating there over 100 years, conducting spiritual and educational activities during sessions each the year.  It’s a little like TV’s Mayberry.   Those who come to stay walk the trails and regularly stop by each other’s porches for conversation and company.   I drove around there once, met a few folks, and marveled at the trillium and wildflowers in bloom.  Lovely.

We work so hard trying to find things to salve our hurts, reading all the books, playing all the roles.   You can’t find a much better de-tox than morning coffee with the hummingbirds or talking it out with a friend til the moon rises and the moths beat against the porch lights.  We need less scrolling-a-screen time and more unwinding screened-in time.  What if the healing things, the holy things we need for sustenance and buoyancy, are the same as the ordinary things right in front of us?  Shucking corn while rain drips from the eaves.  Laughter with a sister or two.  Peaches, popsicles, and porches.




Jacket Judging

As the fourth of five siblings, most of my childhood books had already been well-loved by the time they came to me.  Covers, if they remained at all, were worn and tattered, often with some words rubbed off altogether.  My parents’ shelves were lined with classics, all with identical green and gold covers, designed to look swell on display.

In middle school, we were instructed to cover our textbooks with folded paper bags from the grocery store, which provided blank canvases for doodling in class.  Later, we learned to camouflage Flowers in the Attic or Wifey so we could read such contraband without parental interference.   My formative reading experience was with books from the local library, their jackets wrapped in annoying crinkly cellophane secured to the book with yellowing tape.

Book jackets were either absent or needed to be engineered or endured.  I learned not to pay attention to them.  Cover art only spoiled the images of characters or places my imagination would create, and reading the pert summaries might reveal too much of the plot.

Titles held the allure for me.  They were the beckoning finger, the enticing come hither.  Once the title had my attention, if I could make it through the first paragraph with my interest piqued, then I’d give it a go.   Happy, sad, horror, mystery, romance–it didn’t much matter so long as the story had a decent pace and the plot wasn’t too predictable.  A book’s jacket, if it had one, was useful as an impromptu page marker at best.

Turns out, I may be an anomaly.   Apparently, second only to favorite author, jacket copy is the next most important factor in the average person’s book purchase.  Plus, most people don’t want to work that hard to figure out what a book is about.  Who has time to read an opening paragraph or even a whole chapter to sample an author’s voice and style when you can make a quick judgment based on crafted adjectives and celebrity reviews?

Of course there’s a wealth of talent and creativity in those who design cover art and word jacket summaries!  Clever design and painstaking art are beautiful in their own right. Many covers can stand alone as frame-able.  Distilling a novel to its essence in just a few enticing sentences can be insanely difficult.  And woe to you if you mislead the reader, billing a plot as horror when it’s more suspense or thriller.  Forgiveness comes slowly.  Despite an entire industry devoted to them, jackets are advertising:  show and spin, designed to turn heads.  The meat lies within.

We are a fickle species, our attention diverted by sparkle, shine, the new, and the next.  Witness the trend of movie tie-in covers, which may generate additional buzz, but for purists who know the movie is rarely (never?) as good as the book, are insulting.  Plus, I don’t need Daniel Radcliffe’s face staring at me from my nightstand, thank you.   That’s what Google’s for.

An accidental experiment:  While writing this post, the book I’m currently reading (The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks) sat on the counter, sans jacket, just a plain dark brown cover.  My teenage son, who despite my best efforts would rather eat an entire can of beets than read (et tu, Brute?), repeatedly picked it up and thumbed through it, almost without realizing it.  When I asked why he kept being drawn to my book, he said it was because it had no cover and he wanted to see what it was about!

It was a mystery, an invitation to explore, which is what books are all about in the first place.  When it’s all done for you, laid out in bold type on the cover, maybe it steals some of the discovery.  When we were young, my mother would occasionally bring home a case of discount canned goods with no labels.   Sometimes you’d get pickled asparagus, but sometimes you’d get your favorite.  I guarantee it made dinner that week an adventure!

Am I a book jacket curmudgeon, shaking my cane at the bright and shiny displays lining the entryways of bookstores?  Perhaps.  But maybe jackets shouldn’t be abandoned totally. Juniper Books, based in Boulder, manufactures custom jackets on a large-format printer to create unique and artistic book displays.  What if bookstores displayed Jack London’s works like this, using murals based on some of the themes in his novels.


Maybe it wouldn’t be 100% practical, but wouldn’t it be interesting to look for books on politics in a section shelved like this?


There’s no denying the whimsy and visual effect!

Maybe book jackets are essentially costumes.  We have been conditioned to pay no attention to the guy with the crooked necktie and thick-rimmed glasses.  He may be Mr. Right, strong, faithful and affectionate, but he looks like everyone else.  When he steps into that phone booth and dons a pair of tights and a bodysuit emblazoned with a giant “S,” we sit up and take notice.  Same guy–he was there all along–but it took some primary colors and bold type to show us Superman was in our midst.  From now on, they’re not book jackets.  I’m calling them Book Capes.


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