Bookstores are among my favorite places. And it just might be that Powell's in Portland, Oregon, is my favorite store of them all. I was there last weekend. Wandering the aisles made me imagine the joy of never having to leave the shop. I wondered whether they were hiring.
But too soon the fancy passed. And I was about my business. I am back now in Connecticut, with a bag of books purchased and transported cross country with almost superstitious intensity.
One display at Powell's caught my eye. The theme was apocalyptic literature: musings, really, on what the world would be like were some catastrophe to strike and the world as we know it were to end. This is the genre of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, now a so-so film, but, in fact, one of the most powerful stories about the love between a father and son that I have ever read.
On the shelves at Powell's was a book I had heard of, but never read: Earth Abides, by George R. Steward. It was first published in 1949, and was reprinted with an excellent introduction by Connie Willis in 1976 by a division of Random House. The book won the first International Science Fiction Award.
Until recently, I've not been much of a fan of science fiction. The world of facts in which I am immersed as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer is strange enough for me. There is a numinous aura at the courthouse door that reminds me of the Twilight Zone.
But the I've been reading more science fiction lately. I am taken by how a small, or not so small, change in the material circumstances of life can yield profound consequences not just in the psyche of individuals, but in the institutions and mores of a given society.
So when William Isherwood recovers from a snake bit in Earth Abides and then learns that a killer virus has decimated the human race, I was gripped. Ish lives in the San Francisco Bay area, within eyesight of the Golden Gate bridge. As the silence descends, he travels across what was the United States in search of others. There are isolated survivors, but no communities. He is along, a new Adam cast from paradise. He faces an uncertain future.
In time, he meets a woman, and small community forms around them. Ish is the leader of sorts. The group learns to survive, largely by relying on canned goods and products remaining after the catastrophe. He lives in his boyhood home. A handful of other souls gather around him, and life assumes a rhythm once again.
Ish is the last American. The group confronts a stranger and then falls ill with the plague brought from afar by this stranger. Some die. Others remain. Ish ages, and then dies amid young men who never knew the civilization Ish had worried so about preserving. As the twilight descends, Ish knows something akin to peace. "Earth abides," he recalls from the Ecclesiastes. But his memory is weak about where he first heard those words.
Millions of books go unread in the university library that used to be more than a second home to Ish. Homes collapse. Rust reclaims the metal girders that once supported structures that seemed permanent. And life stirs, following the push and pull of natural selection set loose from the constraints of millennia.
This is a wonderful tell well told. I read the book late into the night, missing sleep as I watched the human spirit emerge from a civilization gone to ground. More than once I watched the Last American struggle against despair, always finding hope in the ordinary cycle of simple living. Earth abides, I'd find myself thinking, even though civilizations collapse and societies crumble. Earth abides, I thought, and suddenly the time I spent laboring in my own gardens to prepare for the Spring planting seemed like sustaining work.
Earth abides, I mused, as Wall Street stumbles and politicians become an elite detached from the lives of those I represent and the life I live finds moorings in visions increasingly detached from the rhetoric of the of a world gone by. Every end is also a beginning, I learned. And as William Isherwood died in the company of young savages who were born and who matured in a world foreign to the one in which Isherwood was reader, I found hope in simple things.
This is a book of quiet dignity. I cannot recall now who it was I ran into in court the other day who asked why I had not recommended something to read in a while. I hope he reads this review, and I hope all of you read Earth Abides.