When I first started work on an essay for the book Pacific Northwest Reader
, I thought, Who do you think you are? Trying to write about Oregon.
What right does a transplanted Californian who spent most of her adult life on the road with the circus, playing practically every state but
Oregon, have to write about this place?
I'd only been living here four years. Could I really get away with calling myself an Oregonian? I never wore flip flops in the rain and I did in fact carry and use an umbrella.
What does it take to claim a place as your own?
Thing is, with everywhere I'd gone across the country, there was something in me that felt I could claim each place as my own. Virginia, where I rode in a circus parade down the magnificent colonial streets of Winchester during apple blossom time. Florida, where I opened the washing machine in a Laundromat and discovered what looked like a baby alligator sitting on top of my pile of wet clothes. Alive. Louisiana, where, each year, a hurricane warning would shut down the circus and I'd get a day off to go listen to the blues in New Orleans. I ate soul food in Mississippi, boiled peanuts in Georgia, fried cheese curds in Wisconsin.
With Oregon, it was all about newness for me. About finally finding a place to call home after having spent so much time whizzing my way around the country. Once I realized this, I was off and running with my essay. Letting myself go back to my first few months in Portland and write about the time I'd finally run away from the circus and moved here to be with a man I hardly knew. Whom I'd met through email. Whom I'd first seen hanging on a gallery wall, painted in a dress.
But that's the beauty of The Pacific Northwest Reader. And the other titles in the Reader series (the first, The Great Lakes Reader, came out in October, and there are more to come). Not to mention the book from which this series sprung — State by State by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey — a book Powell's loved so much we made a movie about it for our Out of the Book series. None of these are dry collections of facts and figures. What you get when reading The Pacific Northwest Reader are lovely, interesting, at times funny, at times sad, personal stories about place. And the understanding that a place isn't just a place — it's a million places. It's different for every person who sees it, smells it, steps through its streets. But. It isn't just a million places — it's one place. With its own flavor, its own look and feel.
A beautiful duality. And in the midst of it, you do get some facts and figures too. Like how Alaska's capital, Juneau, can only be reached by air or sea. And Washington has more bookstores and more college degrees per capita than any other state. And Oregon is home to the largest single organism in the world. Not to mention the world's largest hairball.
Another aspect of the Reader series is that all the writers are also booksellers and librarians. It's a unique provision — and who better to talk both personally and expansively about place than the keepers of books. We've spent our lives obsessed by these paper and ink-bound worlds, where place is often as important as story. Where place becomes a character of its own:
Portland wasn't an endless skyscraper city or a wide-open tumbleweeds-and-bars city. Just the perfect kind of Goldilocks just-right. It even had its own smell. Something sweet and real. Coffee and roses and wet dog.
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A portion of the proceeds from The Pacific Northwest Reader goes to benefit the American Booksellers for Free Expression.