Neil Peart, Far and Near: On Days Like These (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014)
One of our greatest living essayists in the English language, Canadian Neil Peart moves relentlessly through his life, breathing the rarefied air of excellence well- chased, and across varied cultural and natural landscapes, anywhere and everywhere to be discovered or rediscovered. An observer almost without compare in our post-modern whirligig of a world, this Canuck man of letters misses nothing. From the smallest bumper sticker on the crummiest car in Alabama to the lingering religious elements of a community festival to the most minute details of a bird’s flight pattern or nest habits, Mr. Peart observes it all.
And in an innocent fashion, he’s unafraid to comment on anything that comes his way. From politics to religion to pop culture to sartorial fashions to architecture to serious philosophy to current understandings of evolution, Mr. Peart offers an entire book of well-formed opinions. He loves things done well, including his own work—whether as writer, musician, or father. And, true to form, he never gives us his second best. It’s clear that Mr. Peart has crafted each word to match, perfectly, each thought.
Most people who know of Mr. Peart know of him, first and foremost, as the drummer for the long-lived progressive rock band, Rush (now slightly more than forty years old with Mr. Peart as a member). Since becoming the drummer and main lyricist for Rush in 1974 at the age of twenty-one, Mr. Peart has also pursued an almost full-time career as a writer. Modeling himself first after his heroes such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and T.S. Eliot, he tried his hand at poetry and fiction. He quickly found, however, that his passion and his talents resided in non-fiction prose. In particular, he revived to a large extent the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century travelogues. Unlike, say, a James Fenimore Cooper whose Italianate Gothic style gave every forest a chapter and every tree a paragraph, Mr. Peart relies on photography as a vital means of description. Freed from visual descriptions, the kind demanded by nineteenth-century European readers of American life, he spends his time describing all of the other senses and the rational intellect. He is, then, the master story-teller, giving us the most intimate details about a place, a person, an event, or an idea.
Throughout the book, Mr. Peart knows how exactly how to captivate his reader.
This is not to suggest that he doesn’t write fiction. He most certainly does. Most recently, he wrote what has become an epic of rock music, Clockwork Angels (2012), with science fiction guru, Kevin J. Anderson. The two have written a best-selling novel, a sequel to that novel (Clockwork Lives, arriving on bookstore shelves later this year), and a graphic novel of the story and its universe. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Clockwork Angels is a Chestertonian fairy story—and a beautiful one at that.
Mr. Peart’s natural writing, though, comes out best as a man of letters in the vein of Russell Kirk, rendering judgment on this or that thing and doing so with astounding depth and integrity.
The only thing that can come close to matching the precise beauty of Mr. Peart’s prose is the actual construction of this book. Hardback with stitched, high-quality glossy paper, large margins, and perfectly-constructed layouts and photos, this is exactly the kind of book that makes me want to throw my Kindle at the wall (well, not really…but you get the point, I hope). It is the kind of book that makes you love an actual, physical, tangible book. Far and Near is certainly a thing of intense beauty just as a cultural artifact. Of course, this is what ECW Press does best—taking our best writings and making them even more beautiful by the time-honored medium of book-building. It has the feel of a coffee-table book but without the coffee-table book’s legendary superficiality. Imagine Aristotle armed with a graphic artist, a layout specialist, a photographer, and a master bookbinder.
If you’re interested in almost any aspect of the world and in superb writing, Far and Near is a must-own.
Author’s Note: A great thanks to Samantha D. of ECW Press for sharing an ebook with me. Though I had purchased the hardback, having the ebook as an additional resource helped me with this review considerably. Additionally, an immense thanks to Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta of WordFire Press for their friendship, encouragement, and advice.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.