The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms. “Books?” he asked. “Are those books?” “Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner. “Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.” I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting. I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment. “You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling. “Yeah!” he said. His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her. “Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do. “You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?” “Yes!” I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see. “What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street. “Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said. “He’s not taking them all?” she asked. “Maybe not. The box is heavy.” The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous. I hugged my daughter. My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked. “He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced. While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away. In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us. I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?” “Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked. “I do,” I said. And I do. Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort's TheDigitel
1. I’ve been wondering if being a bookish kid necessarily means being out-of-the-loop on popular culture. In my life, this has certainly been the case. For example, I didn’t know who Adele was until last Christmas, when my brother and sister-in-law gave me 21, and it wasn’t until two days after the Grammys that I realized the music I’d been listening to and enjoying was by the same woman who swept all the awards. Here are a few things I don’t usually tell people: I thought The Police really were law enforcement and I understood the song “Rock Lobster” to be “Rock Monster” for years. (Even now I had to double check I was not mixing it up, again.) How can a girl growing up in hip Ann Arbor in the 1970s and '80s be so hopeless? I don’t blame books entirely. My father loved classical music and opera; my mother loved musicals and the oldies. My father is a chemistry professor and in those years often worked in the living room on Sunday afternoons, an opera on the stereo as big as a cabinet behind him. My mother’s realm was the kitchen, where she kept a small black radio by the window tuned to the oldies station. She would sometimes get a little teary when a song came on she remembered. She’d sway her hips and sing along and I was always a little bit embarrassed. She probably thinks I wasn’t listening, but I was. To this day, Sha Na Na can bring tears to my eyes. These two poles, the living room and the kitchen, defined my childhood musical world. It’s true I was very busy reading, but, unlike my younger brother, I also wasn’t adventurous enough to go out and find my own music. If I sound confident about that decision, I was not. It was a source of endless anxiety to me. In fifth grade the most popular girl in the class, Susan R., designed a popularity test. I don’t remember the other four questions, but the last one was: Who is the leader of the J. Geils Band? (You probably don’t need me to tell you it was not someone named J. Geils.) I didn’t pass, and I went home and told my mother the whole story. She was very sympathetic and suggested I go back the next day and ask Susan R. if she could tell me who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Hmmm? I loved my mother very much, but at that moment I knew I couldn’t rely on her anymore for social help. This was the era when our long summer car rides were filled with cassette tapes of Buddy Holly, Abba, and Roger Whittaker (my father, an excellent whistler, admired his whistling). I kept my window rolled up, and begged my family to do the same, lest someone hear our music as we sat at a light or pulled into a rest station. But the fact is I don’t blame my parents or books for my profound out-of-the-loopness, and I don’t mind it now. To be out-of-the-loop is to be wary, cautious, but also observant, thoughtful. To be in the loop -- possibly, I wouldn’t know, I’m working on observation here -- is to be confident, more popular, but also more swayed by the world. Presumably, if I’d really wanted to, I could have found out more about the pop music of my childhood, paid attention to the bands my friends liked, watched MTV instead of Murder, She Wrote. But I didn’t, and I have to conclude it just didn’t matter enough to me. I spent my time doing other things -- reading, practicing the piano, pretending to write books -- and it worked out in the end. To be perfectly clear: There is a way of being out-of-the-loop that is hip and cool, but that is not what I’m talking about. I was not a rebel by any standard. I was not defining my own loop. I was not rejecting the popular just because it was popular. The summer I was 17 I worked at a pool with a girl who told me she never listened to the Top 40. She spent that August suntanning a peace sign on top of her foot. That was not me. My out-of-the-loopness had more to do with obliviousness than wanting to define myself differently. In fact, that was the very thing that scared me when I was younger: The way what you liked seemed to define who you were. J. Geils? Popular. Top 40? Boring. Duran Duran? I don’t remember, but it was something, I can assure you. That’s why I wanted the car windows up. I thought people hearing the music we were listening to would know something about me, about my family, and I wanted to stay in flux for as long as possible. 2. The only trouble with being out-of-the-loop now is the conundrum of how to parent my children through it. My daughter is just a little younger than I was at the time of The Police debacle and is also an avid reader. So far she seems to be taking after me, vaguely aware of what her friends like to listen to, but not knowing where or how they found that music. We have, however, something my mother and I did not: the Internet. My daughter comes home from school sometimes and tells me names of songs or artists she’s heard her friends discussing, and then we go to YouTube and find little glimpses to watch together. When I opened the Adele CD from my brother, my daughter knew the title “Someone Like You” but had never heard the song. My son came home from Kindergarten this fall upset because the boys in his class had announced they would only play Star Wars at recess. “What is Star Wars?” he asked. My husband and I looked at each other, then at our son. “Oh, I can tell you about Star Wars,” my husband said. And so a crash course began. Our boy was visibly relieved to have help -- we're living in Germany for the year, so things were tricky enough -- and the approach seems to have worked: He has a nice group of friends, loves school, and trades Star Wars cards like a professional. His teacher tells me he is one of the most popular kids in the class. Perhaps we went too far. Part of me wants my children to be a little out-of-the-loop, knowing it might ultimately serve them well. I think it fosters independence, maybe even creativity. I don’t believe you have to have a miserable childhood to become a creative person, but feeling uncomfortable in some part of your life is a fairly common theme in the biographies of artists and writers. Yet there is another part of me -- the maternal part, no doubt -- that wants to spare them the anxiety. Could there be such a thing as just-enough-in-the-loop? That’s what I’m aiming for. 3. My son’s birthday is coming up and all he wants is Star Wars Legos. Last week his closest friend came over to play and the two of them debated various Star Wars intricacies for an hour. Third-grade girls in Munich like to trade a kind of autograph book in which your friends answer some questions about their likes and dislikes and draw a picture of themselves. The first few times my daughter was asked to do this, she left the question, “Who is your favorite artist?” blank. Now I have seen her fill in Adele and “Someone Like You” for favorite song several times. Adele makes us all feel a little more in the loop. We don’t have a car this year in Germany, but if we did, the four of us would be happy to roll down the windows and play Adele’s albums loud. My daughter and I both like “Someone Like You,” though I can tell it embarrasses her when I play it over and over. I wonder if one day, years from now, hearing an Adele song, her eyes will tear up as she remembers her mom, hunched with her in front of the computer, searching for the popular music. Image Credit: Flickr/Darius
Two weeks ago, the presidential commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the Gulf Oil spill released its final report. Have you read it yet? Neither have I. How different from the days and weeks following the release of the 9/11 Report. Debates about how well this newest presidential report assigns or distributes blame for the disaster in the Gulf appeared briefly in the press, then disappeared. Have we already lost interest in this catastrophic oil spill, or is it possible that the report itself is to blame for our fading interest? When a tragedy on this scale strikes, a familiar pattern follows. A time of confusing and conflicting news stories is followed by a call for an independent investigation, followed by an inquiry, and then, many months later, a report. A great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, redemption—is placed in this inquiry and report-writing process. But what exactly is the role of a government report? It attempts to be the truth, but is not always complete. It presents a story, but not always the one the most people believe. Most fail to reassure because the public considers them either politically motivated or the product of bureaucratic compromise. A review of presidential reports (the first dates back to the George Washington administration and its investigation of the Whiskey Rebellion) suggests that the right balance between a punitive, backward-looking function—“How did this happen? Who is to blame?”—and a forward-looking hope for prevention—“How can we make sure this never happens again?” is important but difficult to achieve. If a commission lays blame too heavily, the report is easily dismissed as a political maneuver. When the Roberts Commission blamed Adm. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short for leaving Pearl Harbor vulnerable to air attack from Japan, the two were demoted. But many thought they were being scapegoated by President Roosevelt to cover up military mistakes, and Kimmel and Short were later exonerated. On the other hand, if a report appears not to find enough blame, it is easy to disbelieve. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a lone gunman resulted in decades of conspiracy theories. We live in a report-saturated age, the news often filled with the findings of the latest commission assembled to examine every tragedy, accident, or misdeed. In this national library of government documents, the 9/11 Report stands out, exceptional in its aim for and achievement of narrative excellence. With a novelistic opening chapter titled “We Have Some Planes” and a first sentence that doesn’t sound much like a government report—“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”—it felt like a hybrid. This led some to worry about the role art can or should play in such a work. Writing in the Threepenny Review in the spring of 2005, Dan Chiasson asked, “What is the connection between style and policy, style and cultural memory—style and truth?” He wondered if the narrative panache of the 9/11 Report would foreclose further discussion. I think time and the release of other, lesser reports shows that we discussed the 9/11 Report more than any other. The 9/11 Report’s emphasis on style was not completely without precedent, though the report it reminded me of is not well-known. When the UK investigated the largest civilian tragedy of WWII—a massive crush that occurred in an air raid shelter in East London in 1943—a lone magistrate was asked to investigate and in three weeks produced a report noted for its style and admired for its objectivity. The report stopped short of ascribing individual blame, yet like the 9/11 Report and now the report into the Gulf Oil spill, suggested the disaster could have and should have been avoided. The Bethnal Green report was suppressed until after the war, but when it was released, the writer was knighted and promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate. Our report writers aren’t eligible for such rewards, but why not? Handling the question of blame deftly requires art. Concrete finger-pointing in all but the clearest of cases leads to the charge of scapegoating, political influence, and a morass of misdirected blame. To tell a complex story well requires the tools of art and literature. Perhaps the wisest, most powerful reports contain some version of an idea expressed in the preface of the 9/11 Report, a line I admired: "We want to note," the Commission wrote, "what we have done, and not done." A compelling admission of incomplete work or an acknowledgment that our perception of blame will change over time? It might just be the room our thoughts need when all the fact-finding in the world still doesn't make sense of a tragedy. So why don’t we reward our report writers in a literary fashion? I think someone should fund a prize for “best government report issued in the previous calendar year.” If we gave an annual report prize, perhaps we would receive more artful reports, and they would, in turn, be read by more than a handful of journalists. This September will see the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and as we begin to ponder what an appropriate commemoration will look like, I hope we won’t forget this legacy of the well-written 9/11 Report. It did not answer all our questions, but it got an enormous number of people reading and thinking. By contrast, the report into the Gulf Oil spill seems to be disappearing without a trace. Future report writers, take note.
One of the first essays I ever wrote was about my room. I was in high school, and the class assignment was to write about a place that was important to us. Five hundred words was expected; I think I turned in three times that. I described everything, from the Renoir poster over my bed to the black-and-white satin musical notes mobile over my desk. I delved into the critical importance of each item on my bookshelf and dresser. I highlighted the “I’d Rather Be Dancing” bumper sticker I’d stuck on my closet door (though I didn’t end up a dancer). A major theme was my love of the color blue, how it calmed and inspired me. I remember working hard to get my description of the way the sunlight filtered through the blue curtains just right. The piece didn’t have much shape, but with hindsight I see what it revealed: I spent too much time setting up my room! By the end of high school, I did most of my homework at a large desk in my father’s office on the floor above. The rest of my time was spent at the piano or in the family room. After college, I moved to New York with no furniture. A mattress was easily acquired by dialing an 800 number (I still remember: 1-800-MATTRES, leave off the last S for savings!), and my roommate had a sofa and table, so the only thing I needed was a desk. I spent a lot of time looking for one. I was working in publishing, trying to write in the mornings and evenings, and making very little money. I thought if I had the right desk, everything would be easier. I went to estate sales, church sales, the Salvation Army. I considered one of those lap desks from the Levenger catalog, but was afraid I’d feel like an invalid. One day, complaining to my father about this lack in my life, he told me a story. He’d known a man—the father of a childhood friend—who spent his retirement building the studio of his dreams. His whole life he’d wanted to write and paint, and now he would have the time to do it. As soon as the studio was finished. This sounded fine to me. Where was it? Were they still friends of ours? Could I rent it? He designed it beautifully, my father continued; the man was a good carpenter, worked on it for years. Apparently he showed it to my father at one point. He walked him through this perfect backyard work space, but what struck my father was how the man talked on and on about all the things that weren’t quite right yet. The story appeared to be over. What happened? I asked. He died before it was finished, my father said. Never wrote a thing. I kept looking for a desk, but I can’t say I wasn’t rattled. I eventually found something I liked and could afford at a very depressing estate sale on the Upper West Side: an antique, Mission-style writing desk that probably should have been found by someone able to afford to have it restored. I brought it home as it was, rough and rickety, for $150 and used it for a year. When I left that apartment, I sold the desk to the next tenant because it wouldn’t have survived another move. She worked in publishing, too, and wanted to write, so it felt like the right thing to do. But I also think my father’s story had taken root. I began to suspect I was too susceptible to the idea of the “writer’s desk” and decided it might be better to do without one. Somewhere along the way, I began to work in libraries. More important, I began to get work done in libraries. I acquired a laptop, a padded case for it, and a backpack. I carried pens, a notebook or two, a legal pad, and a few books. Very soon I felt like the academic equivalent of the college student backpacking abroad—I was entirely self-sufficient! I didn’t need a private desk and the talismanic power of special objects surrounding me. All I needed was a warm cardigan (summer temperatures can be freezing) and the ability to ignore certain trivial rules (no drinking in the reading room; I’m very discreet with my coffee), and I had everything I needed to work effectively. Libraries I have loved: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; in England, the British Library and the London Library; the Charlottesville Public Library; the Miller Center at the University of Virginia; the Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania; Bobst Library at New York University; and in Connecticut, the Essex Library and the Old Lyme Library. These are the places where I worked on the stories of my first collection, Bending Heaven, and the book that became my first novel, The Report. As work spaces, they were not always ideal. The small public libraries, for example, were rarely quiet. I asked a librarian about it once and she said, “Silence is not a priority.” Personal observation suggests that middle school math tutoring is. The university research libraries have established quiet study rooms, but offenders are hard to police. I once asked a couple of undergraduates to take their bubbly conversation outside, and spent the rest of the day feeling like an old grump, which turned out to be not particularly conducive to writing. Oddballs can populate membership libraries like the British Library and the London Library. One man used to exclaim every half hour or so, “1734! Shit!” The date changed (though it was usually in the 15th or 17th centuries), as did the expletive, then he’d rub his forehead and abandon his books for a while. People like the date mutterer are colorful when you’re writing well; distractors and the reason you can’t get anything done when you’re not. But the alternative worries me more. I’ve watched friends put a great deal of time into the renovation of houses and the decoration of studies or offices, and in this realm they have triumphed. They have beautiful places to work. But a lot of time has gone into those spaces and when I look at the creative output versus the time spent on preparing them, I remember my father’s story and think, No. Better to make do, sit down, get to work. There is a passage from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety that I remembered recently. A daughter, standing in her father’s impeccably arranged shop, ruefully describes the man who never quite became the poet and scholar he meant to be. A friend of the family says, “Is it compulsory to be one of the immortals? We’re all decent godless people, Hallie. Let’s not be too hard on each other if we don’t set the world afire. There’s already been enough of that.” Hallie replies, “I know. I sound like Mom. But it does bother me that he never gets past preparing. Preparing has been his life work. He prepares, and then he cleans up.” (emphasis mine) Wise words, and ones I read over ten years ago. Yet when I went looking for the passage for this essay, I opened the book to the exact page. And it was not dog-eared! It was not my copy, but a library book. I checked the edition to make sure the spine had not been cracked to this place by some other nut worried about spending her life only preparing, but it appeared to be undamaged. How did I turn right to it after all these years? The idea must have haunted me more than I knew. But there is one more reason I work in libraries. I have a section of a poem about solitude by Jennifer Michael Hecht copied in one of my notebooks: bestial from not being seeing; staring out the window with wide, immortal eyes I’m fairly certain that would be me at home, alone. The date mutterer and the throat clearer and the woman who wears black cardigans (she must have twenty!) and the young man with a spectacularly loud space bar, they are doing me a service. I am grateful to them. God knows what they’re working on, but I see them, and I know they see me. Being seen keeps me sane. And maybe others feel the same. I’ve just watched a woman come in and sit down in the seat next to the older gentleman who so often works in my current library, the man with the portable word processor, an unusually upright bearing, and wide eyes. He is away from his seat and she has taken one of his books and is browsing through it. Could she know him? I’m hungry and would like to leave for lunch, but I feel I must wait to see this played out. If he doesn’t know her, what will he say? Will he ask for his book back? He returns and they smile at each other. He says, “Why, where have you been?” To me, that is worth not having a special pencil cup on my own desk at home.