Dear Colleague

“To be a writer is to have hope, and to a writer, no matter how old, hope is belief in one more work yet to be written, another book that is somehow the capstone or distillation of all that has been written before.”

This is how Yi-Fu Tuan begins the Introduction to Dear Colleague: Common and Uncommon Observations. In a way, isn’t it the hope of every person, writer or not, a hope to set off on one more path, another life, another place, one last adventure?

In Tuan’s case, as it was mine recently, he had just finished his autobiography and was searching for another work that would bring together his lifetime of observations and experiences. This is what he has done in Dear Colleague, an unusual book, something between a personal journal, set of fragments, and letter writing collection.

The volume has a rather curious origin. Remarking that “real” conversations at a research university are rare, Tuan began writing his reflections as short letters sent biweekly to his friends and colleagues. The letters were brief, most them short one or two paragraphs in length. In a way, they were not unlike present-day blogs.

In Dear Colleague Tuan has assembled a fair number of them under twenty topical headings. The topics have been arranged to follow a path that “leads from nature and human nature, through society and culture, geography (Tuan’s professional discipline at the University of Wisconsin), history, morality, and religion, to stages of life and a sense of ending.”

In the section Home, Rootedness & Place Tuan wrote, “I am reluctant to admit that mere physical environment can affect my mood. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was likewise reluctant. “Change of place” should make much difference, for the true source of happiness or misery lies in ourselves, he opined. But then he remembered who said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” It was Satan—the fallen but still defiant archangel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

One more from the section on Nature, “A human being can go blind, lose a limb or two, or a third of the brain, and yet in time adjust so well that these losses are barely missed. The same would seem to apply to external nature. Suppose for reasons of pollution and urban glare we can no longer see the stars. W.H. Auden, for one, honestly admits that he would learn to look at an empty sky and appreciate its “total dark sublime,” though this might take him a while."

Reading an unrelated set of fragments on a set of diverse topics may not be to everyone’s liking. But Tuan invites the reader to browse as you would in a bookstore. There’s nothing about his observations that command they be read in order. They can be dipped in and out of, skipping from comment to comment, independent of topic or order. He suggests his book might be enjoyed at the airport as you wait to board your flight. Given the conditions of most air travel these days, most travelers should be able to finish the book in one sitting.

Tuan also maintains an easy-to-read blog with his current and past “letters, “as well as links to his various publications. He concludes his Introduction by asking what reward is there in reading a book like Dear Colleague?

“Well,” he says, “they will get to know one person and his world better. It doesn’t sound like much, yet I think the effort worthwhile—as worthwhile as getting to know stock options, baseball, or a cat.”