A good newspaper tries to surprise its readers at least once a day, and The New York Times helped advance that ideal in 1997, when its editorial page began publishing small columns on rural life by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
Klinkenborg’s observations from his modest farm in upstate New York seemed an unlikely fit for a publication that is, essentially, the parish newsletter of Manhattan.
But Klinkenborg’s tiny, graceful essays about his pigs and dogs and horses, the slant of the sun or the coming of frost, suggest the small revelations that can touch us when we stop to pay attention.
Klinkenborg’s columns are also a reminder that few of us are more than a generation or two removed from life on a farm, where the rhythm of the seasons orders a day more powerfully than Twitter or the news cycle. That’s why Klinkenborg’s writing resonates so deeply among readers across the country.
“More Scenes from The Rural Life,” Klinkenborg’s latest collection of columns, is on my 2013 Goodman List, named in honor of longtime Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. Before she retired from the Globe, Goodman devoted a year-end column each December to celebrating books she’d enjoyed the past 12 months. I’ve adopted Goodman’s tradition as my own, listing a few titles here that I liked in 2013, and that you might also like to give as holiday gifts to someone special — or to yourself.
“Sightlines” is a collection of essays from another one of my favorite writers, the Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie. I hesitate to call Jamie a naturalist, since that label suggests to so many people a sanctimonious detachment from everyday life. But Jamie is no hermit, and I like her essays because they’re so grounded in her life as a wife and mother. When she casually notes, for example, that her kids would rather play Nintendo than watch a lunar eclipse, I feel as if she’s writing as much about my household as her own.
Poetry, like nature writing, is another kind of book that readers often assume will be too precious for their tastes. But Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, is funny and familiar, tender and touching in “Aimless Love,” which collects some of his best stuff and adds a few new poems. It’s poetry for people who don’t think they like poetry.
Equally accessible is “Dog Songs,” Mary Oliver’s book of poems about her canines. Although all those dog poems seemed a bit much at first, I realized that the theme here really isn’t pets, but the profound gifts of family and friendship. Let me suggest another leap of faith: Spend a winter day reading “One Summer: America, 1927,” Bill Bryson’s new book about a telling season in our national life.
All of these volumes offer what any good book does: the promise of turning to a page, and finding something you didn’t expect.