Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
My friend Morry and I reached Nathan Phillips Square after sunset, long after several hundred had scattered themselves in front of Toronto’s City Hall. Somewhere among the curious and cold was Daniel Lanois. We could hear him; we could even see him projected in a dozen different places – on screens where no screens had been before, even in the reflecting pool. There was no obvious stage, but eventually we found a ramp leading up to a platform on which a few dozen had congregated. They were peering down into a pit. We did the same – and there he was, at the controls of an audio-video installation. And there he would remain until sunrise. And half the fun was finding him.
Lanois’ all-nighter was one of the hyped attractions of this year’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night free art festival held in early October at dozens of venues in and around downtown Toronto. Over the course of five years, my feelings have swung from amazement to irritation and back again. I’ve been bemused and bored. I’ve been caught up in curious crowds, and I’ve loathed the drunken hordes.
The first year was a delight. I knew nothing about Nuit Blanche. There had been some chatter about it, but it was largely word-of-mouth that drew a few hundred thousand night-owls into the streets – looking to be inspired. The high point for me was an outdoor fog installation in a leafy stretch of the University of Toronto, where I and dozens of others walked – sightless – on a meandering path drenched in fog. All other senses were heightened – the bumps of the earth beneath us, the sounds of chatter around us. Behind me, a guy telling everyone within earshot how the mushrooms he’d taken were just then kicking in.
I’ve never managed to last beyond three in the morning, and in the second year, the high point came at about 2 a.m. Exhausted, my friends and I ducked into the Music Faculty of the university, plunked ourselves down in the auditorium, and were treated to the quiet and cool sounds of a live jazz ensemble.
The following year, in front of an old downtown building known for its galleries and studio space, a small crowd had gathered for a guided tour of the building. We joined. Ten minutes into the tour, it dawned on me that this was no ordinary tour. We were, in fact, part of a performance piece – the tour guide a performance artist leading us, her audience, up and down staircases, into hidden rooms, basements and rooftop gardens. Like a general leading troops into battle, she marched on, regaling us with stories. I would have followed her anywhere.
Last year should have been the best. I knew the city inside out. I knew which areas promised inspiration. I had visiting guests and was anxious to show off the city. But the crowds from previous years had suddenly mutated into hordes. And where the leafy university area and fascinatingly dodgy outer edges of downtown had been the focus of the earlier years, now the downtown commercial strip and the financial district had suddenly become the focal point. And we were swept up, and let down, by the masses.
This year was a targeted approach. One glance at the throngs on Yonge Street, and we made for the infinitely more interesting strains of Daniel Lanois at City Hall. Curious crowds over partying hordes.
Then it was on to the newly-opened film centre, Toronto’s year-round cinematheque. In one small screening room, a handful of us filed past the empty audience seats, to the edge of the stage, where we sat, looking out into the seats. Above the seats, suspended from what appeared to be clotheslines, were sheets of varying sizes and suspended at varying heights. On each, a different looped segment of Fellini’s 8½ played. Apparently curated by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Fellini’s fragments were hypnotic.
You create your own Nuit Blanche. With so many venues, inside and out, in so many neighbourhoods, you chart your own course. And with a bit of timing and luck, moments of inspiration might just be around the next corner.
Image credit: City of Toronto
The best part of BEA by a longshot was meeting all the people I’ve been corresponding with for so long and whose blogs I’ve been reading for what seems like forever. The LBC party on Friday night was a blast. Many bloggers were there (Most of these folks have pictures and writeups from BEA up so go check them out as they most likely went to many more parties than I did): Ed, Mark of TEV, Sarah of Confessions, Pinky of her Paperhaus, Kassia of Booksquare, Bud of Chekhov’s Mistress, Wendi of the Happy Booker, Matt of The Mumpsimus, Megan of Bookdwarf, Gwenda of Shaken & Stirred, Scott of SlushPile, Lauren of Lux Lotus, Lizzie of The Old Hag, Written Nerd, Madam Mayo, and, unfortunately, Bat Segundo. (If I forgot anyone or if I mistakenly think I met you but I didn’t – hey, it was dark and I’d had a few drinks – let me know.)Some things I learned about my fellow bloggers: Ed is an intrepid gadfly, but Mr. Segundo is a menace; Megan is not as short as I had been led to believe; Gwenda and Kelly Link are the twin queens of a merry band of sci-fi fanatics; while I can say with some certainty that I will never podcast, all the coolest kids are doing it.I also met cool folks at Melville House, Coffee House, McSweeney’s, and lots of other publishers. I met Jason Bitner who put together the very cool book LaPorte, Indiana (which I wrote about a while back). I also picked up copies of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah along with lots of catalogs, all of which I left at my parents’ house in Maryland because I didn’t want to lug them back on the plane. But all in all it was great to see everybody.
On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace’s work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.
Or it’s a chilling precursor to Wallace’s suicide. On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life. He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience. These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear.
The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace’s complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine‘s best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace’s suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address.
I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning? I was curious whether Wallace’s speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend. This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about. “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see,” Wallace said in a slow, even voice. I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace’s speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd.
To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005’s Facebook page. “I’m a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few short questions,” I said in my introductory email. After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people. I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them.
What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker?
Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him. We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know. We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class. So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech.
Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker.
Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was “huh, this could be interesting.”
What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech?
Mike L.: The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.
Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing. He was a little disheveled and didn’t stand up straight when he spoke. He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us.
Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn’t in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy — it seemed like in a way he just didn’t care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn’t do anything without first thinking about it.
What was your reaction immediately after the speech? Was it clear you’d heard a better than average commencement address?
Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs. No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I’m ____’s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn’t that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story.
Megan H.: I don’t remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon. It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special.
Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was “Holy crap that was awesome.” But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I’ve ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life. The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored.
Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace’s other works?
Mike L.: There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation. We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time.
Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don’t know the context of other people’s lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I’m annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don’t know well or at all.
Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don’t plan on ever giving it up. I know it’s in book form, but that’s not the same. Mine is “original” and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.