Reading Lessons

Thomas McGuane’s The Longest Silence

A lifelong pursuit of mastery and meaning

By Stephen Goodwin | August 10, 2015



To describe The Longest Silence, by Thomas McGuane, as a collection of essays about fishing is like saying Moby-Dick is a novel about whale hunting. It leaves out obsession, mortality, the howling fantods, adventure, humor, awe, and a precisely noted reverence for the marvels of the natural world, to name only a few of the qualities that make both books worth reading.

For an angler, The Longest Silence is a fabulous armchair book, a record of journeys to some of the world’s legendary waters. Tarpon and permit in the Florida Keys, brilliant steelhead in British Columbia’s Dean River, brownies in Patagonia and New Zealand—McGuane has caught them all. In these essays, however, angling is emphatically not a simple “escape” but a discipline that underlies a lifelong pursuit of mastery, and meaning, too. The reader soon understands that as much passion has gone into the crafting of the sentences as into the angling itself. The prose has richness, depth and acuity, an intellectual elan that is unflagging. Here is McGuane on rivers:

Mortality being what it is, any new river could be your last. This charmless notion runs very deep in us and can produce, besides the tightening around the mouth, a sweet and consoling inventory of all the rivers in your life. Finally, the fit is so perfect that it creates the illusion that there is but one river, a Platonic gem. . . . like the trout, we must find a way of moving through the water with the least displacement. The more we fish, the more weightlessly and quietly we move through a river and among its fish, the more we resemble our own minds in the bliss of angling.

Three or four times a year, maybe more often, I find myself dipping back into The Longest Silence, once more to savor language so right and vivid that it has come to define my own angling experiences. It also makes me want to get back out on the water as soon as I can. This is a holy book.

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