Minnesotan John Toren has spent his career working with books — editing, reviewing, designing, writing, reading and distributing them. (He once worked for the now-defunct Bookmen, which he describes in his essay “Warehouse Work.”) “By the Way” is an entertaining, eccentric reflection of Toren’s varied interests, from nature, to travel, to music, to (of course) books. What Toren writes about 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne (“Montaigne: The First Blogger?”) could easily be written of Toren himself: Montaigne, explains Toren, “turned his ruminations into internal dialogues, challenging his own assertions, wandering hither and yon, holding the ‘chain’ of thought (such as it is) together by a supple prose style.”
Toren has a gift for elevating the ordinary, for writing about something mundane, such as winnowing his books and then sliding into a larger discourse about the joys and challenges of the reading life. Readers of these essays might not know where Toren will go next, but since he’s such a smart, companionable guide, we follow happily.
When Toren attends an event where author Garrison Keillor interviews novelist Louise Erdrich, he finds it humorous that both authors run Twin Cities bookstores and yet neither, when they began, really understood how to manage them. Erdrich, observes Toren, “had never heard of ‘returns’ or refreshing the stock,” nor had Keillor, but both have made it work due to their love of books.
Although Toren is wont to break into spontaneous observations on the philosophy of Hegel, the poetry of Robert Bly or the dialogues of Plato, he’s remarkable in his lack of pretense and his enthusiastic desire to share what he knows with others. “By the Way,” as its title suggests, is a kind of conversation between the reader and a wide-ranging, lighthearted companion.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.