Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Place of My Own, by Michael Pollan

Perhaps one of the most compelling of individual dreams is to have a place of one’s own.  Whether that be a study, studio, off-limits bedroom, basement hideaway or personal garage, many of us yearn for a secluded place situated to our own personalities, where our will was law.

Author Michael Pollan (born 1955) found himself in much the same place shortly before the birth of his first son, Isaac.  A writer and editor for Harper’s Magazine and a columnist for House & Garden, Pollan moved to a few acres in rural Connecticut in the late 1990s.  But while there, he began to dream of a little shack, a ‘writer’s hut’ where he could work, look at nature and collect his thoughts.

This dream took Pollan on a personal odyssey.  Though more at home with words and concepts than tools and building materials, Pollan decided to build his own little writer’s hut behind his home.  He hired an architect to design it up-to-code, but, other than that, he strove to build it himself with just the help of a local handyman.

The project, which should’ve taken just two months, took more than a year and taught Pollan a great deal about both the natural and theoretical worlds.  Though buildings first exist as constructs and drawings on pieces of paper, they must be translated into solid, three-dimensional entities.  And, more importantly, the materials must first be converted from raw materials – trees, stones, etc. – before they can be turned into building components.

While building, Pollan developed a new understanding of wood, of the complications that come with the execution of plans, and of landscape.  He investigated the mysteries of architecture, as well as such philosophies as feng shui and postmodernism.  He also had something of an imaginary dialogue with Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who faced many of the same challenges while building his shack at Walden Pond, and much of Pollen’s book detailing his experience, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, is a prolonged discussion with the now-dead philosopher.

A Place of My Own benefits from Pollan’s jaunty writing style, as well as from his self-deprecating honesty.  He admits upfront that he is not handy, that he has no grasp of math, and that the idea of building something is entirely alien to his experience.  However, he also felt that dealing in a purely theoretical world of words and ideas kept him separate from some vital part of the human experience.  Moreover, he also believed that our technological advances had somehow separated us from some component of our basic humanity, and that building something that would last – like his writer’s hut – was a way of reconnecting with that missing link.

Here is Pollan on why he did it: For if the wish for a room of my own answered to a need I felt for the literal and psychic space, the wish to build it with my own hands, though slower to surface, may have reflected some doubts I was having about the sort of work I do.  Work is how we situation ourselves in the world, and like the work of many people nowadays, mine put me in a relationship to the world that often seemed abstract, glancing, secondhand.  Or thirdhand, in my case, for I spent much of my day working on other people’s words, rewriting, revising, rewording.  Oh, it was real work (I guess), but it didn’t always feel that way, possibly because there were whole parts of me it failed to address.  (Like my body, with the exception of the carpal tunnel in my wrist.)  Nor did what I do seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.  Whenever I heard myself described as an “information-services worker” or a “symbolic analyst,” I wanted to reach for a hammer, or a hoe, and with it make something less virtual than a sentence.

A Place of My Own is a fascinating meditation on our relationship to man-made spaces, as well as how we incorporate ourselves into nature.  The main flaw of the book, however, is that it seems as if Pollan has never had an unrecorded thought, and many of his ruminations pad a fascinating story with irrelevancies.  Think of A Place of My Own is much like the world’s longest New Yorker article – filled with great stuff, sometimes numbingly repetitious or padded, but ultimately rewarding.  Recommended for anyone who is feeling penned in by our modern world.

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