Book City: Barbara Earl Thomas, literary fiend

Meet writer and artist Barbara Earl Thomas. In her house, furniture is made of books and poetry is as essential as breathing.
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Barbara Earl Thomas in her studio

Meet writer and artist Barbara Earl Thomas. In her house, furniture is made of books and poetry is as essential as breathing.

“I am a storyteller, recycler of memory and everyday acts. I reshape the common experience and give it back in image and word. I’m a book lover,” writes Barbara Earl Thomas in the artist statement for her current show. Thomas is a visual artist, a lecturer, a writer of essays, and the Deputy Director and Major Gifts Officer of the Northwest African American Museum. Her solo print exhibition, “The Reading Room”, runs through April 30th at Paper Hammer.

Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Barbara Thomas: My books actually are my nightstand. Currently on the bedside I have James Baldwin’s “Collected Essays,” James Hillman's “A Terrible Love of War” and Ahdaf Soueif’s “The Map of Love.” That last one is taking me some time, because in between I listen to audio books. I like to listen to mysteries. I never read them, but I do like to listen to them. PD James, Agatha Christie…all those terribly mean Brits get my attention. They seem to take such pleasure in the loss of privacy, in death, and bodily decomposition.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I don’t know so much about truly “great.” That’s a big label that I will leave to others to apply. I’m happy to say that I’ve read some books that have held my attention. James Baldwin — everything he has written I’m reading again. Thomas Mann has been my favorite author since my young adulthood. I still possess my original copy of “Magic Mountain.”

Elaine Pagels’ “Origins of Satan” and “Revelations” are two fun books for those of us with dark personalities. She is a brave writer who takes on religion and contemporary culture. She is not afraid to wade into the murky waters of religion. I will add Karen Armstrong to that ilk, “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Great Transformation.”

Do you mostly read fiction or non-fiction?

It depends on the year. I’ve had whole seasons of my life where I only read biography or autobiography. Nabokov's “Speak Memory” comes to mind. Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams and Reflections” marked my twenties. Other times I want to read a well-written story.  Edith Wharton is amazing; John Edgar Wideman can break your heart. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are at the top of my list. If I could write just one sentence like any one of them, I’d die happy.

I also adore those Southern writers like Carson McCullers, Harper Lee and Flannery O’Conner. Flannery writes like an angel of darkness come lightly to roust you out of your hunter’s blind. And I’ve read everything Abraham (“Cutting for Stone”) Verghese has ever written.

I’m intrigued by the book theme in your art – does your reading inform your art?

I don’t know when I started to literally include the shape of the book in my works, but I will say that anything that finds itself in my sightline is fair game. I like the shape, smell and feel of books. I don’t deconstruct these things too much. It just seemed like a good idea to visualize the source and shape of that love object. The book is a talisman, an icon-like object that holds the promise and possibility of discovery, delight, rapture and transcendence. Words create a narrative and I like to think my work has a narrative line.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

Pippi Longstocking sticks in my mind. I like the idea that if someone had a horse that he/she would keep it in the kitchen. I also loved “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That was one of the first books that made me think about children as having import and being real people in the world.

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I tend not to give much credence to that kind of thing. If one of my favorite writers has a book, I will read it. I am the kind of reader who might stick with a book that isn’t totally captivating because I want to see how the writer resolves the work.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

I re-read Jane Eyre all the time. I love it when the plain girl gets the rich crazy guy and they live happily ever after in a landscape full of fog. 

Can you give us a few favorite titles in your guilty-pleasure genre?

All good reads are guilty pleasures of good fortune. I feel lucky that my attention span demands a good workout. I will not listen to, or read, an abridged version of anything.

I read Alexander McCall Smith when I want to indulge myself. I’m working on the Dalhousie series. It’s light, well written and thoughtful. He doesn’t bother to tie up all the ends. Sometimes I will ponder over why he left an obvious detail hanging, but mostly I just enjoy them.  

Do you read poetry? Any poets you turn to often?

Poetry is as essential as breathing. I couldn’t imagine the world without it. I think of it like music and faith — it’s the highest form of writing. Pablo Neruda is my favorite poet. He is passionate without apology. His work is full of the world, love, water, salt, death and mystery. I also love Rilke.

Do you get books from the library, do you read on the Kindle, download, read on an iPad? Keep a library queue going?

I listen to audio books frequently, but no iPad or computer book reading as yet. But that may happen. I have favorite readers whose voices I love. I will sometimes take a chance on a book because a favorite narrator is reading it. One of my favorites at the moment is Davina Porter. She reads the Dalhousie series.

Any book you’ve read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Every book I read touches my imagination, some lightly and others markedly. I remember, in my early twenties, reading Truman Capote’s, “In Cold Blood.”  That book was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. It was a well-written, well-researched piece of literature. I learned I couldn’t let myself read those kinds of books as I become too disturbed. Neither can I read Anne Rice. There’s something in me that can’t admit the vampires.

I believe that all books change or confirm one’s view of the world, if imperceptibly. A recent best art read was “Francisco Goya: A Life” by Evan S. Connell. This book is excellent. Inquisitions are not to be desired. Vote no if you ever have the chance.

What do you plan to read next?

I can say with certainty that the future as it pertains to books is full of sweet promise that is yet nameless.

What Val is Reading This Week: “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists” by art critic Kay Larson is a loving look at the New York art world, from the 1950’s through the ‘70’s. Zen saved Cage, and Cage influenced the beat generation and beyond, from Allan Watts to Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol to Yoko Ono. It’s a book about meditation, inspiration and a once avant-garde scene that now seems almost quaint.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.