The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
On Saturday, the night the lights came on, I turned mine off, rode the elevator to the ground floor of my building in Chelsea, and walked into the dark of the West Village. I had stayed in my apartment through Sandy and her aftermath, so for five days, downtown Manhattan’s standard storm week inconveniences were mine: no power, heat, or water. I counted myself lucky. My building didn’t flood. No children, old people, or dogs depended on my care. I had blankets, candles, flashlight; a bathtub full of water to keep the toilet working fine; money for cabs and food; and legs that didn’t mind the daily stairwell roundtrips to and from my 15th floor place. Having just finished a work project that consumed the previous weekends, I gave myself time off. I woke at dawn, ate supper when the sun set, and slept straight through the nights. My rest gorged on dark and quiet as if sleep were celebration, free from horns and big rigs, sirens, sidewalk screams and glare -- the gang that, most evenings, steals into my room and snaps my dreams in pieces. (From my windows, as far as I could see, the only Chelsea buildings where bulbs burned were Google headquarters and one floodlit chapel at the General Theological Seminary.) In daylight, I walked right up the middle of deserted streets, stopped to read plaques posted on historic buildings, my eyes slowly scanning back and forth from texts to bricks. I learned names of things -- corbels, lintels, eyebrow lintels -- that I had always, apparently, been too busy to see. Each day when I ventured uptown to shower at a gym, I saw life rush on as usual, and each day that experience raised an unsettling question in my mind. Which part of town was actually in the blackout? Electricity felt almost like a drug, every one of us a junkie. Jumpy people hurried in and out of brilliantly lit stores, buying things as if it were a birthright. All of us, it seemed, walked four feet off the ground, eyes focused on infinity, in the single-occupancy tunnels of perception that New Yorkers learn to build around ourselves, because we have to, so we can get where we want to go. I was as relieved as anyone when power was restored, but to my surprise, my bedside lamp triggered an immediate craving to go back down into the blackout zone, to see what powerless Manhattan looked like while it was still there to be seen. Near the top of the Village, on Greenwich Avenue, I walked southeast, drawn by a generator’s grinding buzz. A bar had set up a movie projector; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown played on the broad side of the white semi-trailer parked across the street. Then I veered southwest into the warren of townhouse brownstones, where for whole blocks, every building looked empty, but what light there was, was warm. Here and there, two or three were gathered in front rooms of parlor floors, drinking wine, smoking, smiling. Further west, a tiny handful of restaurants stood open. Lit by candles, tables glowed with the soft surprise of Easter eggs. I tried taking pictures with my iPhone: black rectangle after black rectangle, specked with firefly flecks of light. Eventually, getting cold, I tacked back north. Cops directed traffic at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, a makeshift gateway between have and have-not. At the edges of the crosswalk, red flares hissed on low tripods at foot level. Pausing there, I overheard a skinny young guy in sideways baseball cap and drop-crotch jeans talk on his cell phone -- “I don’t know where to go” -- and as I picked up my pace to pass him, a fat, limping woman, leaning on a stainless steel cane, stopped me to ask, “Where is Fourth Street?” She wore glasses, a purple flowered dress, and no coat. Even in the half-dark I could see she had bad teeth. I pointed back to where I’d come from and started to explain, when the young guy put his phone away and interrupted us. “I’m headed that way,” he told the woman. “I can show you.” Walking up Eighth Avenue, I turned for a moment to watch the skinny man take the fat lady where she needed to go. Then, with horn-blaring cars racing by, I built a tunnel around myself to get me home, and I wondered if this bright light on everything around me really always was so harsh. Photo courtesy of the author.
Hope springs at the start of a story. That was the feeling on a recent Thursday night at the grand Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor as 1,000 flushed spectators sat fanning themselves with their programs, waiting for a live performance of The Moth, the popular first-person storytelling series out of New York City. The show was part of the annual Ann Arbor Summer Festival, which on previous days had featured performances by Esperanza Spalding, Ira Glass, and Rufus Wainwright -- each a more certain pleasure than the lineup of amateur raconteurs we’d come to see that night. But if one sensibility united everyone in the crowd it was this: We’d all come to take a chance. The first performer was a young woman named Erin who looked girlish in blue jeans and tennis sneakers. Erin’s story was about how when she was 12, her mom got pregnant with a third child. Erin described happily sharing the news with all her friends, even as she hinted that, unknown to her, this was not a pregnancy to be celebrated. One day Erin’s dad takes her out for ice cream and makes the situation plain: Her mom has been cheating; the baby isn’t her father’s; divorce is coming. Erin realizes that by trumpeting the news of a new sibling, she’s really been broadcasting her father’s shame. Erin told the audience how she vowed out of allegiance to her dad to hate this new baby and to hate her mom, but about how it turns out that that kind of hate is nearly impossible to sustain regardless of how badly one’s mom has behaved. I’ve been to a number of open-mic storytelling nights at bars up and down the East Coast. Erin’s story was funny, nicely tuned, and better delivered than most. But in other ways it was in keeping with the type of tales that seem to predominate at storytelling events -- stories that fall under the general category of “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and come wrapped at the end with an uplifting insight or hard-won truth. After Erin finished I started to think about why it is that people gravitate to the most tragic or dramatic moments of their lives when given a chance to tell a story. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that the storyteller feels an obligation to give his audience something novel -- a story we’ve never heard before -- which leads him to alight on the most singular experiences in his life. The second is that the worst moments in our lives are precisely the ones we want to be able to capture in a narrative, to master through the process of sharing them with other people. The second storyteller was a large man named Peter. He wore jeans and a beige suit jacket over an untucked button-down shirt and he had a beard and shoulder length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Peter began his story in media res, as many Moth storytellers do, describing himself riding up an escalator in Penn Station, 34th Street, to meet his mom. Peter’s explained that they were meeting to take a trip to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where Peter’s wife, who has epilepsy, has been admitted in the hope that her doctors might be able to observe her having a grand mal seizure and from those observations gain some insight into how to treat her. Peter and his mom arrive just as his wife’s parents are departing. Peter walks his father-in-law to the elevator and confides in him that he’s feeling overwhelmed by the situation and needs some help. His father-in-law replies, “She’s your wife,” and the audience gasped. The evening had its first villain. During this visit, Peter’s wife seizes, just as they’d been hoping she would. Peter watches her spasm in the hospital bed and feels simultaneously compelled to help her and relieved that they’ve finally managed to get a seizure "on tape," as it were. Peter’s description of his bifurcated feelings in that moment was one of the most moving parts of any of the stories told on stage that night. His wife receives an IV dose of Ativan. After she’s restored, Peter and his mom leave the hospital to go home. They wait on the subway platform and his mom can tell he’s still shaken by the experience. She says to him, “I know what you’re going through” (in reference to the fact that Peter’s younger sister had seizures as a child). This is exactly what Peter does not want to hear. He screams at his mom, tells her that she “doesn’t fucking know” what he is going through, because it is just him, all by himself, with no one else to help him. The outburst is so loud and extreme that Peter judged it necessary to conclude his bio in that night’s program with the line, “He loves his mom.” And indeed, such reassurance was necessary. When Peter finally finished reenacting his outburst, no one in the audience breathed. Peter took the audience’s breath away, but not in a good way, and his story demonstrated why it can be hard to pull off the-worst-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me kinds of stories. The first pitfall of these kinds of stories is this: The more sensational the content of the story, the less attention, I’ve noticed, storytellers pay to the actual craft of storytelling. If you’re telling a story about walking your dog it’s plainly obvious that you’re going to need to spin it well in order to keep anyone’s interest. But when the content of your story is on its face interesting, it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is "lay it out there" and people will be gripped, which isn’t true at all. There were several fine moments in Peter’s story, but overall the content ran roughshod over the form. The last minute of Peter’s story was a muddle, alternately despairing (“I’m alone”) and enlightened (“I’m not alone, because I’ll always have my wife”) which suggested to me that he had not gotten his hands around exactly what it is that makes his relationship with his wife interesting as a story to share with other people, rather than just as a profound fact of his own life. The second pitfall is even more damning: Intensely personal stories have a tendency to crowd out the audience. I said that at the end of Peter’s eruption no one in the crowd breathed. That wasn’t because he’d taken our breaths away with the artistry of his performance; it was because he’d sucked up all the oxygen in the room. The best storytellers meet their audiences halfway, engaging them, pushing them, and calibrating their emotions while also leaving room for listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences into the act of listening. But I guarantee you that no one in the audience was thinking about his own marriage when Peter finished his story. He’d monopolized the emotional energy in the room, which made it hard to think about anything but him. (I’d add that the emotional imbalance between Peter and the audience was also evident in what he screamed at his mom: “You have no idea what I’m going through” is probably the single worst premise, from an operational point of view, that a story can have.) After Peter there were three more stories, including one that also fell into the WTTEHTM category (about how, while volunteering at a suicide hotline, the storyteller listened over the phone as a girl killed herself). The best was by Eli, a woman in her early 30s who told the story of her three-year project to animate a documentary about how domestic violence affects homeless women. Her delivery was plain and natural and contrasted with the performances of the other four storytellers that night, all of whom presented more like actors, which is a fine thing if you are indeed acting but which confuses the listening experience when the whole premise of the evening is that you’re there to hear real people telling real stories. As my friend and I walked out of the theater into the late-evening swelter, it wouldn’t be fair to say that I was disappointed by the night’s returns. After all, I’ve encountered enough stories in my life to know how rare a great one is. Still, I was unsettled. I thought about Peter’s performance and I realized that a failed story gets under my skin because it reminds me of our more endemic human weaknesses: Our failures to understand ourselves, to inhabit other people’s perspectives, to make sense of the worst things that happen to us in life. In this sense, first-person stories are usually illuminating even if often they’re not well-told. Image Credit: Flickr/JacobEnos
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All over Book Expo America, the country's largest book industry trade show, were signs of the major trends in publishing and bookselling. Environmentalism was the order of the day, and everywhere I went there were signs of the industry "going green." At the American Booksellers Association's annual Day of Education, Ed Begley Jr. gave the keynote address on how he's shaped his and his family's life around notions of conservation, and how independent businesses, particularly indie bookstores, carry on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, followed this with a luncheon address that stressed the independent bookselling community's importance as a bastion of intellectual and political freedom. This set the stage nicely for ABA's major new initiative.Hours later, the ABA made the long-awaited announcement that Book Sense is no more. It has been replaced by IndieBound, a hipper, younger brand that will attempt to involve independent businesses of every ilk - from independent bookstores to independent dry cleaners to... well, you get the point. I think most everyone would agree that Book Sense had served its purpose and needed reinvigoration. Whereas Book Sense hoped to present a unified front of indies in the face of competition from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, IndieBound represents an effort to return to the idea of the neighborhood bookstore and the importance of shopping locally. While the initiative definitely has its share of skeptics (I don't particularly see how it will help bookstores compete in the online marketplace), it is an infinitely better brand than Book Sense. If the locavore movement can gain traction, maybe this can, as well.Having BEA in LA was something of a mixed blessing. While it was nice to sleep in my own bed at the end of the night, the stress of everyday life added to the stress of being in 24/7 mingle mode can be a bit much. I did my best to partake of the many parties around town, but eventually I ran out of gas. Edan made it to the Skylight Bookstore party, where she ran into Pinky, some cool people from McNally Robinson in NYC (including Jessica from the Written Nerd), Kelly Link and the folks from Small Beer Press. While she was mixing it up there, I went to the Disney Books dinner at Patina. The guest list included some of the major authors in children's and young adult books today: Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Kevin Carroll, Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable, as I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn't have strong opinions on every kids' book published in the last five years, but after a while (and, let's face it, a few drinks) I felt more and more at ease. You might think a kids' book dinner thrown by Disney would be tame. You would be wrong. I didn't go to every dinner at BEA, but I feel safe in saying this was among the raunchiest. Robert Kennedy told a joke about sexual congress between a leprechaun and a penguin. 'Nuff said. I laughed throughout dinner and learned a pretty good amount about the authors as well. The evening ended with me convincing a group of booksellers that it would be a good idea to forgo a cab and take the metro to their hotel. The metro only runs until midnight here in LA, and I was warned several times that if we missed the train and ended up stranded in scenic downtown LA, then I would have sold my last book, so to speak. Thankfully for me, we caught the last train out of downtown and everybody lived to see the trade show the next day.The BEA trade show floor, like most large conferences, can be overwhelming without a plan. Mine was fairly simple - spend Friday in panels and meetings, visiting a couple of priority booths in my spare time, then use Saturday (and Sunday, if absolutely necessary) to see the rest of the show. After attending a meeting on the future of the IndieBound webstore, I ducked in to hear Thomas Friedman's keynote address. He read from his forthcoming book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. While I waited for him to take the stage, I chatted with my neighbor about a Thursday panel I had missed about the future of the e-book. She told me I hadn't missed much, but that Adobe, Palm, Microsoft, and the others had finally agreed on a single format, making it much easier to compete with the Amazon. Friedman's address focused again on environmentalism and America's need to lead the way to finding clean, sustainable sources of energy.After a day of meetings, planned or otherwise (I ran into Nam Le and did a bit of catching up) and a couple of cocktail parties (drinks with Alec Baldwin in support of his book about divorce (Stephen Baldwin was there!), followed by the Ecco Press/Book Soup party at Palihouse, where I drank a sickly sweet champaign cocktail), I was back at BEA early Saturday morning to hit the booths. I put in appearance at McSweeney's, which was easily the least conspicuous booth there. Just Eli Horowitz and Andrew Leland sitting behind a card table. I made the rounds of the major publishers, guided for a brief bit by Mark Sarvas, who happened to be walking the floor with Jim Ruland of Vermin on the Mount. We hit the Grey Wolf Press booth, where I picked up a copy of a new story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern.Rather than laboriously describe each booth and every galley I got (I got too many), I'll just touch on the highlights. It seemed I had something nice to say about every book that Da Capo brought with them - I had positively reviewed Des Wilson's Ghosts at the Table for Publishers Weekly, I had been a long-time vocal advocate of Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and I've been dying to read David Browne's biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, of which I snagged a copy. I had a great time talking to Gavin and Jedediah at Small Beer Press, and walked away with a copy of John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Early on Thursday morning, I'd run into Amy and Janet, two women from Athens, GA who are opening a bookstore there called Avid. They introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane from Two Dollar Radio, a really cool small press publishing bold, innovative fiction by Rudolph Wurlitzer, Amy Koppelman, and others. I did my usual bit of groveling at the feet of the New York Review of Books, where I thanked them for introducing me to J.F. Powers. They were sweethearts and gave me a pin. At the Tin House booth, I talked up Jim Krusoe's upcoming event at Vroman's, which resulted in me snagging a couple of books, including Krusoe's new Girl Factory and a novel by Adam Braver called November 22, 1963. And finally, as the day wore on and my feet swelled to twice their original size, I spotted somebody in the FSG booth pulling ARCs of Robert Bolano's 2666 out of a box. I grabbed one. It's 912 pages long, weighs several pounds, and looks better than 90% of the paperbacks published this year. On Saturday night, I slept.For a complete rundown of BEA from the bookseller's perspective, check out the Vroman's Bookstore blog.
It’s summertime in Harper Lee’s hometown, the inspiration for the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Summertime at midnight, and light from the dome atop the proud courthouse beams high above the storefronts facing the downtown square. Summertime, and two blocks away a string of lights runs from the front porch of Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe to a lamppost near the street, emitting a soft glow over 400 or so people gathered in the sweltering heat to celebrate the arrival of Miss Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It’s summertime, and the literary event of the year is right here in Monroeville, Ala. To Kill a Mockingbird introduced me to a world I already knew. Other books I’d read as a child lured me away from the soulless and repressive place I lived in. I imagined floating off to a magical land full of mythical creatures or maybe a slightly less spectacular world where a cool, resourceful detective inspects the scene of a crime in search of clues. Nothing worth writing about happened in a small town like mine, or so I believed. I wasn’t old enough to understand the politics of race or anything regarding rape when I first crossed paths with the Finches, the Radleys, and the rest of Maycomb, Ala. To be honest, I wasn’t quite clear on the meaning of the word chiffarobe, nor did I altogether grasp how to bust one up. Those lessons came later. Still, I was taught a good book shouldn’t instruct so much as inspire. I took to Scout immediately because she could say anything, without bowing to authority or status quo. As in Maycomb, young people in my hometown dwelled near the bottom of the barrel as far as art, music, and books were concerned. I shared Scout’s frustration with her fellow classmates and teachers like Miss Caroline who “seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.” Scout spoke my tongue, sized up my home turf, yet somehow bent the familiar toward a richly imaginative -- not to mention comical -- purpose. And so, for the release of Miss Lee’s long-lost novel, I lit out on a literary pilgrimage. Upon arriving in Monroeville, I checked in at the Mockingbird Inn & Suites, which exuded the quaint appeal of your standard suburban strip mall. I asked the clerk behind the counter for her thoughts on the new book. “I’m embarrassed to admit I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time,” she explained. Her co-worker, thumbing through a filing cabinet, leaned over and barked, “I’m not gonna read it -- I don’t read fiction books!” I snagged a schedule of events for the following day’s affairs about town before cutting out. A marathon reading inside the courthouse kicked off at nine. What grabbed my attention, more than anything else, was the midnight release at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe. On the way to the square, located in what several street signs assured me was a “historic” downtown area, a freshly coated billboard displayed the Go Set a Watchman cover with “Thank you, Miss Lee! Welcome Visitors” scribbled across the top. Although the square is no longer a hub of commercial activity, the old courthouse -- now converted into a museum -- retains the majestic beauty moviegoers will recall from the 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a bespectacled Atticus, decked out in white seersucker, lingering on the courthouse lawn. (Should the dubious reader roll his eyes here, so be it.) My endless quest for the ideal independent bookstore borders on an unhealthy, Ahab-level obsession. I turned up as a forklift unloaded three shrink-wrapped pallets stacked with boxes. Inside the phone rang without end as I browsed the shelves. By noon, Spencer Madrie and his staff, which includes his mother, counted 7,500 orders. “As soon as all this is over, I’ll get a cup of coffee and find a cozy corner to read it,” he told me. “We have 5,000 books to ship out. I’m holding out on reading it until I mail a book to every customer.” Each copy contains a certificate of authenticity and a seal with the store logo embossed on the front flyleaf. I checked my bank account before settling up. The countdown to midnight exceeded all expectations. News trucks from Birmingham, Mobile, Pensacola, as well as major outlets like CNN, jockeyed for curb space along West Claiborne Street. Reporters flanked the throng of Lee enthusiasts, requesting interviews. Mr. Madrie, dressed in his Sunday best and seeming genuinely surprised at the sizable turnout, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming. Roughly half were out-of-towners looking to score a copy of a book that’s available online or at every airport in the English-speaking world. Meanwhile, alongside the shop, a tent and chairs offered relief from the soul-crushing humidity. An Atticus impersonator, flown in from Baltimore, posed for selfies. (To hell with you, dismissive reader, and your smug skepticism! It was him, after all!) Champagne corks popped, plates of finger foods were passed around, a squad of little leaguers, still suited up in game jerseys, chased one another through a maze of pesky adults. No wine-and-cheese reception, this was a free-for-all blowout for book-lovers of every stripe. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Madrie and his exceptional bookstore when I say the true hosts on this occasion were the people of Monroeville. I sensed no resentment toward myself and the other strangers-come-lately who’d crashed their party. What’s more, I was treated like one of them. A mother and daughter kept me in polite company as I stood in line. The daughter was hell-bent on reading the entire novel on no sleep. Her mother and I chatted about the negative reviews printed in The New York Times. “Being from Monroeville, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “There’s been so much back-and-forth about whether or not the book should be published. Now it’s time for everyone to read it and decide for themselves.” Go Set a Watchman stunned reviewers by constructing an alternate universe where the beloved moral giant of American literature appears as a racist jerk. From these dashed off impressions, you’d assume Atticus Finch is the character central to the plot. The starting point for this strain of critical myopia begins with the Mockingbird film and the decisive role Gregory Peck played in editing the final cut. According to Charles J. Shields’s biography of Lee, At the time, the film was considered politically liberal because of the attention paid in the screenplay to social justice. Looking back, however, Peck’s insistence that Atticus’s character occupy more of the film’s center injects a heavy dose of white patriarchal values. In a word, Atticus, an educated white male, appears to be the most important person in the film. Everyone else defers to him, humors him, reacts to him, or disagrees with him. As one critic recently noted, the elimination of Scout’s voice-over from most of the film means that the viewer doesn’t see small-town southern society from the perspective of a young female growing up in it. Never forget, aspiring Scout impersonators, Lee’s treatment of the story, unlike the cinematic version, is told from the point-of-view of a young girl. By the same token, Go Set a Watchman catches up with our scrappy heroine as a 26-year-old exile, returning to the scene of her childhood. It comes as no surprise that Lee’s second novel doesn’t quite measure up to the achievement of her debut. An ill-formed draft submitted to publishers at J.B. Lippincott in 1957, Watchman underwent a major overhaul after her editor, Tay Hohoff, recommended rewriting it from the perspective of a child. Two years and untold revisions later, Lippincott finally accepted the manuscript -- this time bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird. What makes the book a fascinating read, nonetheless, is getting to know Scout as an adult. For those of us who take the liberty of reading Mockingbird as an origin story, Watchman points her toward a destination in life. She stares out a window on a moving train in the opening scene. Her homecoming takes place after living in New York for five years. Sparks fly when a city girl feels pressured to settle down in Maycomb County. Except for the fact Scout’s dropped her nickname, in certain ways, she’s the same “juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary” we’ve come to know and love. Jean Louise Finch still thumbs her nose at her prudish Aunt Alexandra, and “when confronted with an easy way out, [she] always took the hard way.” At a glance, even less has changed in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” Atticus, we are told, “was seventy-two last month, but Jean Louise always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties -- she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older.” The same stagnant air hovers over Jean Louise’s ex-boyfriend, Hank Clinton, whose world stopped turning back in high school. She keeps him at arm’s length, even though he clearly aims to marry her: “She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit he could not guess at, but he knew she was the one for him. He would protect her; he would marry her.” His intentions are both noble and condescending. Fortunately, Jean Louise brushes him off in a memorable scene after a late-night swim: “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.” For every strike against Maycomb, there are homespun moments such as the rapport she shares with the owner of an ice cream shop: “Mr. Cunningham, a man of uncompromising rectitude, had given her a pint free of charge for having guessed his name yesterday, one of the tiny things she adored about Maycomb: people remembered their promises.” But Atticus and Hank, it turns out, are hiding a continuity-shucking secret. The tipping point comes after Jean Louise discovers they are members of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Torn between staying and going, she condemns their actions in what is perhaps the most striking passage in the novel. Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party. After seeking guidance from her long-winded uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, Jean Louise barges in her father’s office for a final showdown. With the calm demeanor of a seasoned country lawyer, Atticus delivers a chilling argument in favor of white supremacy and scolds his daughter for “talk[ing] like the NAACP.” I won’t spoil what happens, but let me just say the closing chapter leaves readers to debate the value of origins, and whether or not Jean Louise succeeds in escaping Maycomb. To be fair, her home turf can’t simply be dismissed as a wasteland because her native soil, somehow, nurtured the independent woman we admire. And yet, tales of success told in small towns across the country are so often stories of sons and daughters who have cut those ties and left. In either case, Go Set a Watchman taps into a classic myth that crosses every stage of American literature, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison: the story of American migration. I overslept the next morning after a late night at the bookstore. My thoughts turned to Atticus as I peered over the balcony where Scout, Jem, and Dill joined Maycomb’s black citizens for Tom Robinson’s trial. Below me, an integrated audience met in the courtroom for a marathon reading of Go Set a Watchman, proof that life stops for no one. I spotted a billboard off the highway advertising Monroeville as “The Literary Capital of Alabama” as I drove north. It’s been many years since I left my hometown with dreams of living closer to the center of literary culture. As I sat down to write about my summer trip to Monroeville, Ala., I couldn’t help wondering if I didn’t exchange wealth for poverty. Image Credit: John Rea.
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