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Nonfiction in Brief

RIVER ETERNAL

by Lance Kinseth (Viking: $16.95; 117 pp.) Hardly searching for a Walden safely secluded from urbiculture, naturalist authors of the baby boom generation tend to be “allergic to what we write about,” as Gary Nabhan put it, even “distrustful of the forest, or any other wilderness, as a place to live,” as Annie Dillard has confessed. Like earlier generations of the city-weary, they view nature as reinvigorating, a feeling Lance Kinseth eloquently captures when portraying the “wild, splitting and fusing” terrain of a river.

Unlike their parents’ generation, however, they also view nature as a source of spiritual inspiration, an alternative value system to institutions such as politics and religion. The purity of nature seems to offer an appealing contrast to the perceived “impurity” of these institutions; the interconnectedness of nature, in turn, seems to comfort the feelings of social alienation so common among baby boomers.

While generally an underlying theme in the new nature writing, this spiritual quest is the explicit focus of “River Eternal.” Kinseth offers some eloquent depictions of wilderness, but his river is essentially metaphorical: “In all landscapes there is that powerful commonness that holds the world together. It is river eternal, the streaming beyond appearances, the inseparability that makes one thing also the other, that is nothing but cooperation and fittedness.”

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Kinseth’s writing is highly ambitious (“I am going to fly so deep inside the dance of a river that your everyday may be changed forever”) and as such suffers from the problems, as the late naturalist Edward Abbey put it, of “gushing about finding God in every bush.” Kinseth’s sentences sound impressive, but their meaning is often muddled (“There is a rivering of sorts . . . in the astro-ecology of galaxies”) and their metaphors often mixed: “My eyes have been sealed up in my head and used sparingly, as razors, to cut the landscape apart or to plug a gap in the wall of my thinking.”

Also confused is Kinseth’s philosophy, which celebrates just the kind of relativism that has riled conservatives in recent years: “Nothing is important,” Kinseth writes, “and nothing is unimportant.” Kinseth tries to cast a positive light on this conclusion, which is based on his belief that nature can be experienced but never understood, by contending that “such a perception facilitates a view beyond the limits of time and the narrow three dimensions of space.” It is more likely, however, that this outlook, increasingly common among baby boomers, will only limit our faith in human perception and in any knowledge that endures.

WORDSTRUCK

by Robert MacNeil (Viking: $18.95; 230 pp.) In an era when teen-agers dissent by crying, “Gag me with a spoon!” and leaders inspire by invoking “the vision thing,” one might expect to sense an elegiac quality in this deeply felt tribute to the power of the English language, “the collective memory of our culture . . . the living DNA, if you like, of our race.” In “Wordstruck,” however, Robert MacNeil actually presents a spirited defense of such expressions, contending that they are as valid a contribution to the language as “the tortured image of the academic, or the line the poet sweats over for a week.” “Our language is not the special private property of the language police, or grammarians, or teachers, or even great writers,” MacNeil writes, arguing persuasively that purists often discourage pleasure in the language in the name of saving it.

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Acting on his own advice that writers can better assure language’s livelihood by inspiring rather than castigating, MacNeil describes how literature intensified his moods and clarified his thoughts when he was a boy growing up during the Depression. He remembers, for instance, the way Hamlet’s words, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / seem to me all the uses of this world,” exquisitely portrayed the “enervating mood” and “painful-delicious” despairs he felt as a 17-year-old: “Never before had there been such instant connection between something I felt and words to describe it.”

One need not be a snob such as Allan Bloom to lament the fact that today’s 17-year-olds do not feel as viscerally connected to the language. MacNeil seems to underestimate the danger of their apathy: “It is all English,” he writes, “and it belongs to everyone--to those of us who wish to be careful with it and those who don’t care.” One suspects, however, that MacNeil is merely playing down his criticism to avoid tying the tongues of teen-agers, for toward public officials who can take the heat, he is unsparing: “The United States was founded on words that weighed heavily, words that carried the deepest convictions of thoughtful, daring men, (but) politics, the law, advertising, religion have become the art of employing words to cover for the moment, to get you off the hook, to win a verdict, pass a test, fill a space, get rid of a question.”

FORCED OUT

The Agony of

the Refugee in Our Time edited by Carole Kismaric;

introduction by William Shawcross (Random House: $19.95; 193 pp.) The plight of the people graphically portrayed here is especially tragic because most of them are not “refugees” at all according to the editor’s definition: “A person who has . . . a well-founded fear of persecution upon returning (home) on account of race, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Were these people in fact able to draw strength and purpose from a political cause or from practicing traditions in solidarity, their “marching, stopping, marching,” as William Shawcross writes in the introduction, “sailing, landing, sailing; shuttling, pausing, shuffling,” might sparkle with the glint of defiance. These first-person accounts and full-page photos clearly show, however, that these people are too absorbed in a day-to-day struggle for survival to build a liberating social or political identity. A photo here of a Nicaraguan woman wondering whether to accept money from Contra soldiers after giving them food shows not a person deliberating between “liberty” and “socialism,” for example, but an anxious mother trying to decide which course will best ensure her children’s survival.

Despite the misleading definition of “refugee,” the design of “Forced Out” seems to recognize that these people are apolitical victims. Integrating photographs and stories from various regions and cultures, it encourages us to see the common bond, for instance, between an Ethiopian photographed on one page who had been forced to flee from his farm (“I left before my harvest. They would have taken it anyway”) and a Vietnamese grandmother and refugee pictured on the facing page.

Shawcross more explicitly recognizes that these people are pawns rather than dissidents, pawns not only of their home nations, he writes provocatively, but of the superpowers. “In the last decades of the 20th Century, while the nuclear rivalry of the superpowers has kept war out of one traditional battleground--Europe--proxy wars or surrogate conflicts have been fought all over other parts of the world in the pursuit of that same rivalry.” Refugees are often the victims of these wars, Shawcross writes; they are “a commodity to be traded for political ends.”

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Reading these accounts of cannibalism on a Vietnamese boat and viewing pictures of dozens of outstretched hands almost undoubtedly will give readers “compassion fatigue,” a condition Shawcross names and then denigrates, for it is the reason “today’s cause becomes tomorrow’s bore.” It is unfortunate that Shawcross and the editor dismiss this feeling so quickly, however, for it could have been mitigated had the editor focused on practical solutions as well as problems. “Forced Out” is, nevertheless, an extraordinarily powerful book, ingeniously designed to bring immediacy to worlds we too often like to think of as far away.

IDEAS AND INFORMATION

Managing in a High-Tech World by Arno Penzias (W. W. Norton: $17.95; 219 pp.) In sharp contrast to the predictions of sociologists such as Barbara Garson and Shoshana Zuboff that information technology will transform society, Arno Penzias, Bell Labs’ vice president of research and ever the pragmatic engineer, contends that people most likely will use new advances in computers and communications to “cushion against impending disruption” rather than to bring about dramatic change.


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