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January 19, 2017  

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The Mighty Pen
by Wood Turner
Posted November 1, 2001

Are you doing good from your desktop? Sure, making a difference in the world usually means (pick your metaphor) getting your hands dirty, putting yourself on the line, getting down in the trenches. But sometimes what you say and how you say it can be as important as what you do.

NEW Join the conversation with Marj Wyatt of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and share your thoughts on this story.

Dear GoodLetter readers,

Books are booming. Whatever you think of the major chains, they've brought volumes to the masses. Reading -- or at least book-buying -- is at record levels. Celebrities are signing book deals. Book clubs of every shape and form are bringing people together. Bestselling authors are testing emerging online publishing technologies. Not since the days of Dickens have people been as passionate about reading. And in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Milkweed Editions, a spirited non-profit publishing house, is -- in the storied tradition of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Rachel Carson -- using words to change the world.

A self-described book fanatic and former New York editor, Emilie Buchwald started the journal Milkweed Chronicle in 1979 to fill a void: Minneapolis was lacking a locally based forum for writers to share their art. By the mid-1980s, the Chronicle had become Milkweed Editions, adopted a unique environmental focus, and published a couple of books. By the end of that decade, Milkweed was on the national radar screen.

Unlike most publishing houses, many subject to economic forces necessitating two and three hundred releases each year, Milkweed is driven by its adventurous mission to publish fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that's transformative and has a sustained and deeply humane impact on society. Its publication goals are modest (in a typical year, 18 to 20 titles hit bookstores), but not its educational aims. A successful Milkweed release is one that has the power to inspire action. The folks at Milkweed recognize that even those with the strongest land ethic won't always be on picket lines or chained to trees, but they may very well be moved to write decision-makers. Says Milkweed's Elizabeth Cooper: "Reading and the exchange of ideas is a kind of activism that's attainable. You can get involved in an issue while sitting at home reading or discussing something you've read with your book group."

In March, Milkweed published Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, a collection of essays by some of today's most well-known environmental writers -- Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez -- about the ongoing debate over oil drilling in the Arctic. By design, the essays are not predictable environmental sermons, but instead offer a balanced, diverse perspective that is deeply rooted in place and landscape. This is true of all Milkweed authors, as in the case of Ann Daum in The Prairie in Her Eyes or Larry Watson in Montana 1948. They tend to rely on the shared emotional language of home and of dreams, using personal testimonials to draw attention to the fact that we're all part of a grand global ecosystem. Theirs are books about rediscovering nature in some of the most unlikely places, tales of reconciling ecology with family tradition. Though radical environmental activism is not a universal calling, all of us remember and experience the landscapes within which nature lurks. Even through the name of its series of place-based writing, Milkweed wants to help us see The World As Home and what we can do to keep it that way.

Milkweed's home is the world, but true to the publisher's beginnings, so too is Minneapolis. Eager to solidify its roots in the upper Midwest, Milkweed joined with two other literary non-profits -- the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Loft -- to rehabilitate a downtown warehouse and rename it Open Book. The building houses each of the organizations, as well as the independent store Ruminator Books, and offers a range of events that focus on the capacity of books and reading to inspire passion and commitment and, of course, to transform.

So what does the name Milkweed have to do with passion, commitment, and the power of words? Milkweed Editions founder Emilie Buchwald says the wild, unassuming milkweed grows almost anywhere: "It's a humble-looking plant that opens up and flies. It moves from the inside out. Just like literature."

Wood Turner
Editor/Publisher, GoodThings, Inc.

[what did you think of this goodletter?]

How has reading changed your world view or strengthened your commitment to a cause? Share your stories.

Milkweed Editions
The World As Home literary series
Open Book

Consider taking The World As Home Resident's Pledge.

Have a conversation. Get a personal recommendation. Support a local business. Buy Milkweed Editions books from your neighborhood independent bookseller. Find out who's selling them near you.

Get your copy of a favorite children's Milkweed edition, Laura E. Williams' Behind the Bedroom Wall.

Readers Respond

Dear GoodThings,

I actually visited Open Book last week after a luncheon in downtown Minneapolis. It is a wonderful space offering many options for exercising your creativeness in writing, book arts, and paper making. As a true believer in synchronicity, it is no accident that your newsletter this week is reaffirming that place to me. I've long aspired to write a book and the universe seems to be creating a path to that end.

Keep up the good work. I look forward to the GoodLetter on Friday afternoons.

Marj Wyatt
Minneapolis, Minnesota

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