It has been seven years since I visited Portland. Having young children has mostly kept me close to home, but now that they are six and four I feel more confident that our family can cope with the separation, so I went with a friend and stayed two nights.
"What are you going to do?" people asked me.
"Powells," I said.
I had a plan, based on past visits and an understanding of my limited time. I came prepared with a series of interlocking quests, or inquiries, which could be answered only by going from one section to another. I would spend all day Saturday there, tasting books and going for walks when I needed a break. And I would spend $100 or less on books.
I am proud to say that I limited myself to $75. I bought Ishi: Last of His Tribe, a children's archaeology book, two children's pirate books, the picture book Shibumi and the Kitemaker, Locus magazine, a history of children's strikes in the U.S., a book by bell hooks, and a book by Gloria Anzaldua.
But I tasted many more books, and I ended up with a surprise theme: love and radical politics.
We'll be reading Gwyneth Jones' Life for our book group, and I do better with a little appetizer that helps me gain trust in an author. So I opened her book of short stories Seven Tales and a Fable and was immediately drawn to the title "The Princess, the Thief, and the Cartesian Circle." It combines a classic and enjoyable princess story with the modern epidemic of young women cutting themselves and with various threads of philosophy from Descartes to Jung. Although the narrative was complex and difficult, Jones quite considerately brought everything to one understandable question. (Thank you, Gwyneth, for being thoughtful of your reader.) Here it is:
"Does love exist? I do not know. But I know that if it were to exist it could have no limits. It could not have a beginning, or an end. There could not be a place where love was not, or a time when love had not been."
When later I visited the bell hooks book All About Love, I found the same question:
"My grief was a heavy, despairing sadness caused by parting from a companion of many years but, more important, it was a despair rooted in the fear that love did not exist."
From there, hooks redefines love:
". . . to truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients - care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication."
Using her redefinition, she asserts that love cannot be present in an abusive relationship. I disagree, but at the same time, I recognize that words are tricky beasts and sometimes cannot be given a workable meaning. And her redefinition allows her to present a coherent framework that examines partner abuse, child abuse, domination in general, militarism, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, class struggle, the nuclear family, equality, spirituality, and the need for community.
I am always interested in ways to share radical politics with a general audience, and I was impressed to see that the book was on the bestseller list in 2000. So as I read, I noted some of her techniques. She started off by addressing the reader's need for love, the lack and longing for love, using self-help books written by a bunch of white guys. Then, gradually, she worked in social justice concepts from women and people of color. Nicely done.
I made sure to stay at Powells one hour after I got tired, to be sure I had my fill. But I'll be back, and this time I won't wait seven years. My family can manage. Really.