The Hamilton community welcomed Verlyn Klinkenborg to the Hill on Sept. 19 as part of the Fall 2013 Reading Series. As an esteemed author, Klinkenborg has published hundreds of pieces of non-fiction and has served as a member of The New York Times editorial board since 1997. He is known for his work concerning rural life, which is largely impacted by his upbringing on his family’s Iowa farm.
Margaret Thickstun, the Jane Watson Irwin Professor of English at Hamilton, had the pleasure of introducing her personal friend and former co-worker. She began by confessing that one would be hard-pressed to find one of Klinkenborg’s books on her shelves, describing his books as the type she “compulsively gives away” due to their relatable anecdotes and pithy nature.
Before reading select narratives, Klinkenborg briefly described the nature of his work. Growing up on a farm, and now keeping one himself, Klinkenborg often writes of his rural lifestyle. He chuckled as he admitted that he is often surprised, after talking to his readers, to find that their mental pictures of his farm are often much nicer than their corresponding reality; a delightful byproduct of the human imagination.
Klinkenborg read selections from his book, The Rural Life, broadcasting his low voice with a soothing tranquility that settled in the auditorium. His pace was measured and his tone reflected the monotonous nature of farm life; a slowness, gleaned not from boredom, but rather from a cultivated patience, accented his narrations. His readings varied in topic and theme, from the interconnectedness of nature, to the strange dignity that death can bring.
Commenting on the nature of passing years, and the aging of objects about him, Klinkenborg lamented the loss of his countless yellowed paperbacks, gathered over decades, slowly cracking at the spine and dropping their heavily marked pages. He admitted that he has begun reading books on his iPad, which allows him to carry multiple half-started stories and read even more than he was before. Still, he stated that it’s impossible to digitize a book, arguing that even with its contents preserved, an integral part of the experience has been lost. This physical object connects us more intimately to the author; it provides a personality, a smell, a size, a shape, a color and a feel that is unattainable from an electronic screen.
The reading ended with a brief discussion, during which Klinkenborg answered questions about his writing methods and style. He connected with the audience early in the evening, earning both laughs and captivated silence. With an inviting style, Klinkenborg’s anecdotes guide the reader through a memory or moment while leaving room for personal reflection.
For Klinkenborg, looking back makes it clear that the animals he set out to tame ended up taming him: he never rushed ducks, it only frightens them; he never asked too much from the chickens, after all, they always do what they can; he learned that horses expect a certain presence around them and that pigs only want joy.
These are the lessons from the farm.