New Beginnings

Alta books editor David L. Ulin finds that amid a crisis, the soul of our culture still survives.

california book club, paul beatty, nina revoyr, elaine castillo
Steve Carroll

What does literature offer us? Most fundamentally, perhaps, it represents a mechanism to tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going, both individually and collectively. Call it a series of beginnings, since each book contains multitudes of possibilities. We turn to the first page and enter a world—or a variety of worlds—that opens up to us, in which we immerse ourselves more deeply as we read.

For this issue of Alta, we have gathered excerpts from a wide array of books, most of them new, as well as three titles we’ve selected for Alta’s California Book Club. Last year was a rough one for writers and publishers and booksellers, with COVID-19 shutting down book events and festivals and keeping readers in their homes. In April, San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore announced a GoFundMe campaign to remain in business, raising nearly $500,000 to preserve the store’s essential legacy. Five months later, Vroman’s Bookstore, in Pasadena, informed its clientele that, with revenue down by almost 40 percent, “sales must increase significantly now through the holidays.” The solution? Customers were asked to do their year-end shopping early. Online and in person, thousands heeded the call.

This suggests both the severity of the crises we face and a certain necessary creativity. If books represent the soul of the culture, we must do what we can to make sure they survive.

That’s the intention behind this selection of excerpts: to showcase a range of extraordinary work. Whatever else we might say about 2020, it was an astonishing year for books. Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence, Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility—this is all groundbreaking work, speaking to the world in which we find ourselves and suggesting ways we might endure. I don’t want to call it testimony, but these and the other books excerpted here are nothing if not acts of witness, revealing the humanity at their core. Urgent? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. We human beings are narrative animals, after all.

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.
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