The entanglement of the online v. print literary worlds can be baffling, and these days who doesn’t have an opinion about adapting to the way of the future or preserving the way of the past. Recently, for the first time, I’ve gotten to know a writer, Susan Orlean, first online and then in print. I started following @susanorlean on Twitter because I saw her name listed on some post, somewhere, about the best authors to follow on Twitter. @neilhimself (Neil Gaimon) also made the list as did @MargaretAtwood, both of whom I’ve previously read in print and enjoy following online.
There were others on the list who I have not read and began to follow, but Susan Orlean is different. She is incredibly funny. She has interesting conversations, and not just with other authors. She is down to earth. Every once in a while our literary worlds cross cyber-paths, which is in part what can make Twitter fun.
Before I began to follow her, I’d heard Susan Orlean’s name, but couldn’t have told you what she’d written. When I started following her, I didn’t even know if she wrote fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or one of those fancy hybrid forms. Turns out, she says on her website that she loves “writing shorter pieces for magazines” but she’s now on her 8th book, many of which include portions of shorter columns or articles. From what she tweets, I gather that she travels a lot doing book tours and research. I knew I was hooked on her when she wondered how she’d managed to pack 3 pairs of shoes and no underwear.
What irony. What humanity. I identified with her predicament, and then and there I decided I needed to read something longer.
I went to the library to find what Susan Orlean would have to say if given more than 140 characters. I had read a few of her blog posts at the New Yorker, but in the transition from pixels to print, I wasn’t picky. It didn’t matter whether the book I chose was the most famous or the best representation of her writerly accomplishments. I just grabbed the first thing I found: The Orchid Thief, a 1998 account of a Floridian man put on trial for stealing endangered orchids. It later inspired the movie Adaptation, which for full disclosure, I have not seen.
I’m not writing a book review, but I will say this: The Orchid Thief is driven not by plot but by the author’s quest to understand an obsessive and self-motivated human being, and his place in a long history of sometimes twisted collectors. My recommendation comes in part because The Orchid Thief is a well-written, meticulously researched book with a compelling structure. But my opinion is driven as much by my online introduction to Susan Orlean as it is informed by the book itself. I have become familiar with her intense curiosity about the oddness of the world; I appreciate her sense of irony. Thus I wasn’t surprised to read a nearly twenty-five page history of orchids, which read like a page turner.
I finished the book on a plane, and the man sitting next to me flicked pages on his iPad. I’ll admit, part of me envied his gadget. I doubt Susan Orlean would have minded if I’d been reading her book electronically, but I also enjoyed discovering pages that had been dog-eared by some previous reader and the little orchid motif that appeared at the beginning of every chapter. On an electronic reader, these details that have nothing to do with what the author actually wrote, but nonetheless provide the sensory details that enhance book-reading would have been lost. Then again, if it wasn’t for the quickly expanding world of online literature, chances are I never would have picked up The Orchid Thief.
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