“Compass Lines,” a new book by John Messick, a local writer and Assistant Professor of Writing at Kenai Peninsula College, is something he describes as being a collection of essays, a travel book and an Alaska book.
He said it has whirlwind adventures in it, too.
“It’s about home,” he said Tuesday. “It’s about the people, the places and experiences that have guided me from naive youth to wherever it is that I am now, which I hope is a more ethical and engaged place.”
“Compass Lines” is available at River City Books and the Kenai Peninsula College Bookstore. Today, as part of the Kenai Peninsula College Showcase, Messick will read selections at the campus during a release event hosted by River City Books.
Messick described the book as following an arc — beginning in Fairbanks and following his travels in childhood through his late 20s. His travels are varied. He cleaned up garbage on the southern border with the Conservation Corps, he traveled the Everglades and he worked in Antarctica, among other things.
“Each of those experiences put me into contact with different parts of life,” he said. “It showed me the human and the inhuman elements of what it is that we try to connect with.”
Travel books, Messick said, have a tradition of colonization.
“The white man travels into the unknown and imagines it to be an unknown place, imagines it to be uninhabited, imagines it to be wild, to be somehow other,” he said.
Those books, Messick said, were his favorite in his early 20s. He said at that time he thought the greatest thing a person could do is have globe-trotting adventures. As he’s aged, he said he’s re-examined his relationship to travel, especially through the lens of what travel means to other people.
Messick said that he is trying to engage with and be aware of how his actions interconnect with global changes. He said that travel perpetuates a kind of greed — that it’s lost some of its romance as he’s come to understand how it damages the planet.
“Staying home really is a more ethical choice,” he said. “Learning where you are is a much better way of connecting.”
Those are some of the concepts Messick wrangles with in “Compass Lines.”
“I’m not sure that I have enough answers in there for there to be truth,” he said. “But at its core, it’s a work of witness. It’s witnessing what I’ve experienced, it’s trying to make sense of that.”
Messick said he responds differently each time he’s asked what the book is about. He said it’s more than just a book about travel, that it’s not just for people who want to read about adventure or memoir, that it’s not just about ethics. He said that it’s funny, and that it’s real, and that he’s surprised how widely people have connected with it.
Messick said that he wants readers to grapple with “the uncertainty of where we are now.”
“We’re living in a world that’s built on another place,” he said. “Not just an idea of wilderness but also built on another humanity, one that’s been silenced — an indigenous reality.”
Messick said that he wants to encounter that other place ethically, to understand that he isn’t just visiting “a cool place.”
“Doing that helps bring kindness into the world and I think it’s necessary for a better future for everyone,” he said.
He said that the stories in “Compass Lines” convey that message, and that it’s also fun and interesting. He said that the breadth of the stories inside will engage all sorts of readers.
“Compass Lines” has been in the works for more than a decade, Messick said. Parts began as a master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while others are more recent. He described it as a line of questioning that has matured as he’s gotten older.
The book was easiest to write when his routine was interrupted and he was uncomfortable — like when he was traveling, he said. He described visits to coffee shops or drives to Anchorage that would do more for his creative energy than hours at his home desk.
A particular challenge was in the final revision stages, Messick said. It required “a kind of truth telling and truth knowing that doesn’t come easy to me.”
He said his wife, an English teacher herself who served as his editor, could identify the moments where he wasn’t being “as true to myself as I thought I was.”
With the book now in the hands of readers in the community and the public, Messick said feelings of nervousness or imposter syndrome are largely replaced with excitement about the conversations that are now possible.
“It’s not a theoretical conversation I want to have, it’s actually a conversation that work I’ve done is helping to guide,” he said. “Toward hopefully a more thoughtful place about what comes next in Alaska.”
Messick pointed to a Facebook post by Homer author Tom Kizzia, who compared “Compass Lines” to a book he released under the same publisher, Porphyry Press, last year.
“If my ghost town history was a look back in time, these essays by a traveler in search of home are very much a look forward,” Kizzia wrote.
For Messick, that’s exactly the space he wants to explore.
“What does future Alaska look like? What kind of ethics and values and definitions of this place can my generation — I’m in my late 30s now — bring to Alaska?” he said.
Messick said bringing “Compass Lines” to KPC is important to him because the college holds an important role in the community as a place to engage with knowledge and ideas. He said it would also be significant because of the presence of the late Dr. Alan Boraas, who Messick said played a big role in shaping his thoughts and whose view of the world is present in the book.
Today, there will be refreshments, and Messick will read from “Compass Lines.” He said he wants people to share the space and connect with the text and with one another.
The Book Release Party, part of the Kenai Peninsula Showcase, will be held in the Kenai Peninsula College Commons today at 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit “Kenai Peninsula College Showcase” on Facebook.
For more information about Compass Lines, visit John Messick’s website at johnlmessick.com or publisher Porphyry Press at porphyry.press/compass-lines. The book is being sold locally at River City Books and the Kenai Peninsula College Bookstore.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at email@example.com.