Sonya Huber's Reviews > The Book of Knowledge and Wonder

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder by Steven   Harvey
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir

Steve Harvey’s book, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, is an essayistic memoir that attempts to excavate the thought processes and personality of the author’s mother, who committed suicide when he was a child. The telling of this story and the method of inquiry into this topic are completely unlike any other book I’ve read that wrestles with grief or loss. Harvey uses the simple joy of a set of encyclopedias, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder of the title, which his mother purchased for his brother and him, as a lens and touchstone to preserve the questioning mind of a child. In attempting to hone in on his mother’s thoughts and her periods of depression, Harvey also uses the thread of letters between his mother and his grandmother, but the quotes from the letters never disrupt the narrative and are thoroughly integrated into the text. The writing itself is luminous and even joyous, even as Harvey wrestles with blank spaces in memory and longing; he writes of his dilemma after observing a family photograph closely enough to come into dialogue with its shadows: “I have none of her. I am drenched in her, and I have none of her.” I believe the strength of this essayistic memoir lies in the depth of its writing, as I know it was written as essays and then woven into a memoir. Steve and I have discussed the challenges of turning essays into memoir, and his book offers a strong example of using the “mind at work” of an essay to enhance memoir—and in fact to make a completely new kind of text, the memoir that loops in on itself, that mulls, and that emerges with truly stunning yet humbly presented insights. What could have been done here was to offer chunks and fragments, and Harvey did not do that either—and I believe that would have been the easy way out. Instead, the voice and the conversation among the reader, the writer, and the mysterious shifting subject matter is maintained through the entire text.
This book is a model for essayistic memoirists because Harvey goes beyond the telling of the story and its events to bring up fresh and stunning perspectives on depression and the nature of mental illness and memory. Toward the end of the book, he inquires into the role that his mother played in her letters home, the presentation of good days and joys to bely the presence of depression, and the complex way in which that both hid the truth from her family, isolated her, and also offered the possibility of working herself back up to stable ground: “The letters served as a reminder of her best self and created an exemplary biography for her to imagine and, when she could, live up to. They allowed her to be the loving mother she described and…. [i]n part they worked their magic by allowing her to pay attention to the world outside herself…”
Harvey wrestles with the role of women in the 1950s, tracing possibilities of depression through his mother’s interrupted career as well as through her family, and also excavates the growing pressure on the family as his father worked up the corporate ladder of American Cyanamid and uprooted the family several times, and as his mother and father dealt with opposing temperaments. He also puts into words an evocative idea about grief, and how he dealt wordlessly with the absence of his mother by beginning to love being alone: “If she had become her absence—no more to my life than the whisper of the wind whipping past—then I would embrace that, take it in, and make it my own.” Harvey’s generous lyrical moments of painterly stillness also ask the question of how art and vision helped his spirit survive.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Book of Knowledge and Wonder.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 5, 2015 – Shelved
March 5, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 5, 2015 – Shelved as: memoir
March 5, 2015 – Finished Reading

No comments have been added yet.