Worth A Read: Life Work, by Donald Hall

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The BUZZ: 1993 memoir by the award-winning Poet Laureate and children’s author. Winner of the New England Book Award for non-fiction.

The GIST: I read this book years ago, and felt the need to revisit it. Hall impressed me back then as a counter-cultural character, living a country poet’s existence away from his Harvard and Oxford pedigree. His daily reflections on work as the foundation for personal happiness seem even more timely today. He makes a clear delineation between chores, labor, and work. The first two might fill many hours of our day, but if that’s all there is, we will not be happy. Depression, restlessness and anxiety can plague anyone who toils without devotion on a path removed from personally meaningful work. From a desk in the house built by his dairy farmer ancestors, Hall recounts their arduous lives, and his own efforts to avoid their fates. Through loss and crisis, his work sustains him. The stages of our life have work to do for us as well, and we can help that along or hinder it, depending on our efforts to toil in the spaces that call to us.

The WRITING: Intelligent and soulful. Reading about the structure of a poet’s days in rural New Hampshire could be mind-numbingly dull, but in the hands of Hall, each anecdote is lovely and inspiring. Beautifully crafted tales of his family history, and the places his ancestors worked and lived, read more like a novel than memoir. Hall as protagonist, and his grandparents, parents, his wife, their minister, and a few famous friends peppered here and there provide plenty of color and interest. Although pretentious at times, (he’s the product of an elite education) Hall redeems himself with frequent appreciation of his roots and a humble love of history. His moods and vulnerabilities are familiar, smoothing out the infrequent bumps of posturing. In the second half, Hall confronts his own mortality after a cancer diagnosis, brags less about his own industriousness, and moves beautifully into a review of the work of life.

BUY OR BORROW: Buy. My latest copy has a more recent preface by Hall, addressing the death of his beloved wife, poet Jane Kenyon, from leukemia in 1995.

“Grief has a life of its own, and its own work to do. It is born howling, it labors, it grows old.”

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