That’s Where That Dog Chased Me

Nacoochee Valley

Nacoochee Valley, north Georgia

Following your Christmas carousing, with the passing of the soporific turkey coma, having opened, played with, and broken all your presents, suppose you were to wander down to the bookstore (while they still exist), to browse about.

If you were walking down the aisle and saw a book that is set in the town where you’re living, would you stop to look at it? Don’t try to lie to me, because that was a rhetorical question. And if the book had interesting elements, like theological discussions, explorations of metaphysical conundrums, or crazy hot sex scenes, would you buy it and read it? Don’t try to lie to me.

I was driving home this afternoon from the north Georgia mountains, where I spent Christmas, and on the radio from a local college station, I heard a writer being interviewed about a book he had written. The book was set in the Nacoochee Valley, which is where I had basically been. I somewhat know that area (in fact I lived there for a while), so the discussion of the book caught my attention. Regarding a different book, I’m also currently reading Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, who lives close to me, over in Decatur. More pertinently, the book takes place in contemporary Atlanta and Decatur, and I know all the places being talked about.

Having read half the book, I like it (so far) enormously, but my point is that the book is even more interesting because it’s in a place I live and know. I’m going to posit the proposition—because I’m such an average common person—that most people feel this way. A book holds an extra interest when it’s about a place we know.

Why is that? Our first response is “duh” because it seems obvious, but I’d say, rather, that while the fact of being interesting is obvious, the reason is not so clear. Because I am the master of this blog and it will do what I tell it, it proceeds with several possible explanations for this phenomenon.

1) When we read about places we know, we can see ourselves there, can actually picture ourselves doing things in those places, either by imagination or by memory. Thus we perceive a locale that we connect with as somewhat representing us, and we like to read about ourselves (unless of course we discover our arrest record on the internet, when we do not like to read about ourselves—or I don’t know about you, but I hate that).

2) We take an interest in reading about topics we know about. The topic may be an abstraction such as “why does love suck so damn often?” (I’m just saying), or it may be horses or Turkish culture. In a different sense, the topic we know about may be geographic, as a place we know. And how much better if the book took place on my very street?

3) The literary presentation of a place we know seems to simultaneously add both profundity and magic to a place that is familiar. That isn’t merely Ponce de Leon Avenue, which I often drive down. It’s the place where Rory was jogging when he first met Carolyn, with all the consequences that followed. Ponce de Leon Avenue has turned into something new and greater, lifted above the real avenue.

4) [I reserved number 4 for you to fill in your own reason, because after all, we’re talking about places you know.]

For my own reading, maybe it’s helpful that I’ve lived and visited so many places. So many more books that I can say “hey, my car broke down there” or “boy, I managed to avoid being arrested there, so it’s not on the internet”. Ah, memories.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “That’s Where That Dog Chased Me

  1. David, as you know, my work is often about place and I feel there is an advantage in knowing and having lived in a place as one reads a novel or a poem. But I am reminded of a talented poet friend of mine from California, who was at Pitt with me in the MFA program. When we workshopped my poems about central PA, she used to make comments like “Well, I don’t know anything about Boalsburg, so I don’t know what you’re trying to say about Duffy’s Tavern and ‘leaving loose brick messages’ there.” And I’d sign and accept her comments politely, yet she was free to right about native tribes in souther mexico and her time on the Volga river—and the wine country of the Modesto, California without restrain or criticism.

  2. Couple of typo’s above. Sorry

  3. Hmm, she was on the Volga River and spent time in wine country? How do I meet this woman? As to your feeling about evoking a sense of place in writing, I’m very strongly in agreement. The place, and capturing a feel of it, is always very important to me, even to the point, perhaps, of wanting to overdo it. The novel I’m currently writing even has a working title of Boalsburg, though I would never use that as a real title.

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