ABR author examines life, nature in essays

March 26, 2014 at 4:05 p.m.
Updated March 25, 2014 at 10:26 p.m.

Jeffrey Sartain

Jeffrey Sartain

The author of more than 20 books of fiction, short stories, essays and children's books, Scott Russell Sanders is one of the most deeply humane and passionate individuals in American literary arts today.

The American Book Review is proud to welcome him at noon Thursday to the University of Houston-Victoria/ABR Spring Reading Series in the University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

Even though Sanders is now known almost exclusively for his essays about the environment, spirituality and humanity, his earliest works featured similar concerns.

Originally a novelist and short-story writer, Sanders had a half-dozen books published when he made the shift to writing essays in the middle of his career. His early work as a fiction writer served him well. His essays are so skillfully -written and lyrical that many have mistaken them for fiction.

Socrates (as quoted by Plato) famously argued, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Sanders lives an examined life on the page, an implicit example to those who also search for meaning and hope in the world.

Sanders often examines transcendent human emotions. He is deeply interested in what it means to be human on this fragile planet. He uses words like awe, hope and spirit seriously and without irony. Sanders asks difficult moral and ethical questions - the kind that make one a better person for even contemplating them.

More often than not, Sanders finds the inspiration for meaning in the natural world.

His environmentalism is linked to his time in the southern Indiana forests. In 1971, Sanders accepted a faculty position at Indiana University in Bloomington and moved his family to the low, rugged hills known as the Uplands. There, the beauty is immense and timeless, with hills and valleys teeming with hardwood forests of oak, hickory, elm, ash, cottonwood, walnut and maple.

Very quickly, Sanders found himself drawn to the woods, moving as they did on completely different time scales than the artificial ones that humans impose with their calendars, deadlines, semesters and vacations. The woods have remained on the same calendar for eternity. This is one of the deep wellsprings of hope that Sanders explores in his work. He finds comfort and solace in the fact that people are a part of a vast living system, merely stewards of the environment, passing through an ancient landscape.

Sanders does not limit his writing and thinking to only environmental issues. Indeed, his concerns for people are connected with his concerns for the world. His essays argue for individual justice, fairness and human dignity in the world, all while keeping an unwavering eye on the larger planetary context.

Sanders finds his reserved optimism in the tenuous balance between the needs of the individual and the planet, the human and the environment. Sanders wrote it best himself in "Hunting for Hope" when he said, "The earth's a tough old bird. And we should be smart enough to figure out how to live here."

In a recent return to fiction, Sanders released his first novel in many years. "Divine Animal" is available as a free e-book on his website, scottrussellsanders.com.

As he states in the book's introduction, the novel is free in an effort for Sanders to give something back to "the commons of language, literature, libraries, schools and colleges, the arts and sciences and all forms of knowledge as well as countless conversations with fellow seekers and makers."

To his longtime readers, what Sanders gives back with his writing is optimism uncharacteristic of the times. He offers his hope for a literature of rejuvenation, not exhaustion.

For Sanders, optimism springs from living an examined life - from reflecting on the immensity of the world and finding one's place in it.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of American Book Review and an assistant professor of English at UHV.



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