Author and anthropologist John Colman Wood is an advocate for exploration and discovery. He said he always wants to “encourage people to find the strange familiar and to find the familiar strange.”
And he does just that with his book, The Names of Things. Wood has decades of experience as an anthropologist, but The Names of Things is his first novel. The work follows an anthropologist and his wife as they study the lives of the fictional, camel-herding Dasse tribe in northern Africa.
Wood, whose book is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Eight, will discuss his work today at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Eight’s CLSC Roundtable.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said that Wood’s experience as an anthropologist gives The Names of Things both authenticity and originality. The book was a finalist for The Chautauqua Prize in 2013, and Babcock said that was how it first came to her attention.
When “Chautauqua’s Global Public Square” was chosen as the theme for Week Eight for the 2014 season, Babcock said the pieces just fell into place.
“We just knew that this was the book for this week,” Babcock said.
For Wood, The Names of Things came from a familiar place.
“It certainly grows out of what I know,” Wood said.
The Names of Things toggles back and forth between what Wood calls “straight-up ethnography and factual descriptions” and the actual plot of the novel. Wood said he was hitting a point in his career as an anthropologist where he was finding writing theoretically to be “clunky.”
“I thought, what if we throw a story at this ethnographic description, and let the story shine a light on that ethnography?” Wood said. “So it’s not trying to explain the ethnography in terms of theory, it’s trying to explain it in terms of story and narrative.”
Wood keeps the story simple with The Names of Things: the anthropologist and his wife are never named. The conflict of the story derives from the fact that, despite their close connection, these two people can never truly know everything about each other.
“I guess for me, the book is really about the value of getting to know others and yet the near impossibility of doing so,” Wood said. “It’s about a married couple who are, to each other, the most intimate other. And they still don’t fully understand each other. Anthropology’s a project of trying to understand other people, and it’s such an important, valuable task to be involved in. And it’s hard. Even when we get to know somebody very intimately, there are still gaps.”
Wood said it is these gaps that should humble people — it makes one human “to recognize that our understanding is always in some way partial.”
“And isn’t it more interesting when it’s like that?” Wood said. “If we figure it all out, then it becomes boring. Life is not boring.”
While Wood’s book is set in Africa, Wood said that one does not need to travel to faraway lands to discover something new.
“I would say — as an anthropologist and as a writer — I’m interested in how people can explore even their own backyards,” Wood said. “One of the things that I think we need to remember is that someplace else is also right here. I think exploration speaks to a kind of openness to the world, openness to others, and openness to other people’s experiences.”
Wood believes that that openness is one of the greatest aspects of anthropology, which he said is “a discipline that is about trying to cultivate our capacity to understand and appreciate each other.”
For Wood, exploration and travel is a way of increasing that capacity.
“Mark Twain said that, in some ways, travel was sort of death to prejudice,” Wood said. “Because the more we travel, the more we encounter difference, our prejudices will be eroded.”
On the other hand, he said, there’s Thoreau’s assertion that it’s not worth traveling halfway around the world to “count the cats in Zanzibar.”
“But he was also saying the same thing: we need to be open to exploring in our own backyard,” Wood said. “And I think that’s a good value system. It’s good to travel and it’s good to explore, and it’s good to explore far away — but it’s also worth exploring right here.”
The idea of truly knowing each other and how that applies to The Names of Things is something that Wood is excited to talk about with Chautauquans. Wood said that interconnectivity among people — or what he and fellow anthropologists refer to as “intersubjectivity” — is so valuable.
“That’s the notion of humanity; that’s what we really are,” Wood said. “We think of ourselves as separate beings, but we are nothing separate. Our whole being is dependent on our relationships with other people. So we are nothing without others. And yet others are so inscrutable to us at the exact same time. I just love that paradox: We have to know each other in order to be ourselves, and yet it’s hard to know each other.”
Something Wood knows well is Chautauqua. He used to come to the Institution as a child. After being away for nearly 40 years, Wood said it is rewarding to return to the place that taught him what it meant to be an academic.
“It’s kind of a fulfilling thing, personally, because I got my first glimmer of what the academic life was coming here as a boy,” Wood said. “Seeing people walking by the Hall of Philosophy or the Amphitheater, hearing people converse with one another — that gave me a kind of initial feeling, even though I was just a boy, for what the intellectual life was like and what the spiritual life was like.”
That taste of the academic life is what Wood said helped lead him into his career as an anthropologist, so to have his novel honored by the Institution and the CLSC is exciting. Wood said that Chautauqua is a perfect example of people trying to understand each other, despite their differences.
“We look around the world, and there’s so many troubles, and here’s a model for getting to know each other, having conversations — and disagreeing,” Wood said. “It’s showing us how to have a civil conversation across our differences, and I can’t think of anything more important than that.”