BookBark Review: Dog Years by Mark Doty

Dog Years
by Mark Doty

(Click the book cover above to visit Doty’s website about the book and see more pics of Beau and Arden)

“To choose to live with a dog is to agree to participate in a long process of interpretation, a mutual agreement though the human being holds most of the cards.” –Mark Doty

I loved this book. Truly. And let me say that I feel I don’t write good “reviews.” I more or less write my “impression” of the book, what I felt/thought about it, not about the book itself. So I’ll spare you a play by play of the story itself. If you prefer that you can find it online, or the back of the book probably. I wouldn’t know though, since I listened to it. The down loadable audiobook was superb and read by Doty himself.  Some authors fall flat in reading their own works. Doty excels.

His book is lovely and deep in its interpretation of our lives with dogs. In truth I wish I could quote the whole book to you. Read the whole book to you! But I can’t. Here’s a highlight though to help you understand…  There is an excellent scene where a man asks him what he would do if he could do anything… what he would want to do with his life given no obligations. He says he’d like a farm and take in homeless retrievers.

The man pauses and says “I don’t know…when people talk about what they want to do for animals I always wonder why that compassion isn’t offered to other people.”

My anger flared, a hot, fierce flush.  I said, “You asked me what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do.”

He nodded.  “Fair enough.”  But the damage was done, the judgment cast.  If I’d been more thoughtful and less offended, I might have said that compassion isn’t a limited quality, something we can only possess so much of and which thus must be carefully conserved.  I might have said, if I was truly being honest, that I’ve never known anyone holding this opinion to demonstrate much in the way of empathy with other people anyway; it seems that compassion for animals is an excellent predictor of one’s ability to care for one’s fellow human beings.

But the plain truth is no one should have to defend what he or she loves.  If I decide to become one of those dotty old people who live alone with six beagles, who on earth is harmed by the extremity of my affections?  There is little enough devotion in the world that we should be glad for it in whatever form it appears, and never mock it, or underestimate it.

Love, I think, is a gateway to the world, not an escape from it.

There are many dogs mentioned in the book, but there are two that take the main stage- Beau and Arden. When he speaks of his dogs, I think, “yes that’s it! That’s how I think of my dog…” I just don’t have the beautiful words and mind to pen it as Doty did- so clearly and perfectly… Here is one place where Doty speaks of Beau

“himself, yes, plain, ordinary, and perfect in that sloppy dog way—but he carried something else for me, too, which was my will to live. I had given it to him to carry for me, like some king in a fairy tale…”  

There is a lot of death in this book. But please don’t let that deter you from reading it, because there is so much life here to balance it. Shortly after the death of his partner, he ponders upon how his consciousness seems to mingle with his dogs during their walks as they wander about on both sides of the trail about him…

“…our bodies making a braided trail, but our awareness overlapping. That helps, just now, when a self seems fragile, erasable. With the two of them, I’m joined to something else, perception expanded, not just stuck there in the world in my own bereft, perishable, limited body. 

It isn’t that one wants to live for the sake of a dog exactly, but that dogs show you, why you might want to.”

Again, I say, I wish I could quote the whole book. I was repeatedly surprised by it’s depth and insight. Not that my surprise is based on any previous knowledge of Doty or his work. I have none. I picked the book at random from my local libraries downloadable audiobooks, thinking it was a typical “i heart dogs” memoir. Boy was I wrong! If you have ever loved a dog as truly as one can the you will see truth and yourself in Doty’s words. I was especially touched by his willingness to candidly talk about his experience with depression and how it included his dogs. I appreciated his honesty and examination of how some artists snobbishly seem to think depression adds to their art. That they must “suffer” etc etc. I was pleased to hear Doty say that Van Gogh probably would have willingly welcomed a medicated release from his depression, and that instead of thinking we would have had many less pieces from him had he been “cured” that instead we might have had many many more. Or perhaps Van Gogh himself might have gladly traded the art for peace of mind.

But back to the dogs… I highly recommend this book. With all dog books, you obviously know how this will end. But it definitely goes into the top 10 dog books I’ve ever read, right next to Merles Door by Ted Kerasote. I know that with all the gazillions of dog books hitting the market each year, that going back and reading one from 2007 might seem at first glance a waste of time. But I assure you, it isn’t.

Happy reading from g&w.

Rating: 5 out of 5 enthusiastic and heartfelt poetically inspired tail thumps!

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2 Responses to BookBark Review: Dog Years by Mark Doty

  1. yelodoggie says:

    I, too, loved Doty’s Dog Years. He is a remarkable writer. Don’t stop at just this book, try out his book “Firebird”, too. It’s the story of his growing up gay in AZ in the 60’s. Also beautifully written, with rich imagery.

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