My new book arrived today. Although it will be a few weeks before it hits the bookstores, “Backyard Maine: Local Essays” (Tilbury House, Publishers, $15) is a collection of columns from The Forecaster masquerading as a book. I wanted to call it “The Universal Notebook: Scribbling for a Living in Maine,” but the publisher has vain hopes of selling it beyond southern Maine and figured that title would only have meaning to Forecaster readers, perhaps not even them.
The “local essays” are not the liberal political rants and wild-eyed takes on local news and issues that comprise about half my columns. They are the other half; personal observations on life around us. My critics (of which there are many, you may have noticed) will see both the book and this column as just more shameless self-promotion by a pathetic little man starved for attention. But I’m hoping there are enough compassionate readers out there who will understand that when I write about myself, my family, my community, my state, etc., I am really trying to get at the things we all have in common. Back when I was on the staff of Maine Times, we used to call essays like these “lite ‘n’ brites.”
I feel kind of guilty about asking readers to pay for short essays they may already have read for free, but I have been forced into it by circumstances. Journalism as a profession is dying, drying up and blowing away on the Internet. There was a time when I could sell feature articles to national magazines for as much as $5,000. Now I write on-line for as a little as fifty bucks. I’ll be lucky if this little book makes as much as a $2,000 article in Down East or Yankee.
As a journalist seeking solace in books, I’m in good company. Two of my former Maine Times colleagues, in fact, also have books being published by Tilbury House.
Phyllis Austin, Maine’s best environmental reporter, has just published “Wilderness Partners: Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park” (Tilbury House, $20), a 586-page magnum opus that, knowing Phyllis’s penchant for exhaustive research, I’m sure had to be edited down from several thousand pages. And Pat Nyhan, who now teaches English as a second language in Portland, is the author of a forthcoming book entitled “New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors” ($20).
And just so I don’t get accused of shilling for Tilbury House, let me call attention to two more recent Maine books worthy of your attention.
Tom Hanrahan, erstwhile political commentator and columnist, apparently took to the woods after being kicked off the air at both WMTW and MPBN and out of the pages of the Morning Sentinel back in the 1990s for telling the truth. Since that time he has followed the more noble callings of inmate advocate and Maine Guide. Now he has something of a regional bestseller in “Your Maine Lands: Reflections of a Maine Guide” ($12), a book of evocative essays on Maine’s public lands commissioned by the Maine Department of Conservation.
And, finally, so you don’t think I’m the only self-absorbed local writer, Hannah Holmes, who I first met when Casco Bay Weekly and Maine Times shared office space back in the 1980s, extends her reach as a science writer with “The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself” (Random House, $25 hardcover). Hannah previously did empirical navel-gazing with “The Secret Life of Dust” and “Suburban Safari,” books about the myriad life forms in her own backyard. Her new book is about what it means to be human – essentially the same subject I essay, albeit far less scientifically, in “Backyard Maine.”
Just as every painting is essentially a self-portrait, so every good book is in some sense an autobiography. Support your local authors. Buy a book. Or, at the very least, read one.