I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
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.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you’d prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) “400,000 people downloaded the report within hours” of its release.
Much as The 9/11 Commission Report made big headlines for its non-fiction National Book Award nomination, the nomination of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Vol. 1 for best biography by the National Book Critics Circle (though I’m told the book is deserving of this honor) will likely steal the spotlight in terms of news coverage of the prize. There seems to be a subtext to those fiction finalists, though. In contrast to the NBA brouhaha, the critics’ finalists for fiction aren’t likely to cause much of a stir. In fact, the list of nominees, topped by Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, looks very much like the set of books that most “critics” were hoping for when they decried the NBA finalists and their obscurity. The AP’s book guy Hillel Italie also notes the switch that the NBA and the NBCC have made this year: “Critics are known for championing the obscure, but this year’s list was filled with prominent names and titles, especially compared with last fall’s National Book Awards, a supposedly more glamorous affair.” I’m wondering if the NBCC is trying to prove a point here. Here are all the finalists:Fiction:The Plot Against America by Philip RothGilead by Marilynne RobinsonThe Dew Breaker by Edwidge DanticatThe Line of Beauty by Alan HollinghurstCloud Atlas by David MitchellNon-fiction:Arc of Justice by Kevin BoyleBlue Blood by Edward ConlonThe Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCullochThe Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. ShiplerBlood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. TysonBiography:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob DylanAlexander Hamilton by Ron ChernowWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen GreenblattQueen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John GuyDe Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn SwanPoetry:The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 by Adrienne RichDanger on Peaks by Gary SnyderCocktails by D.A. PowellThe Orchard by Brigit Pegeen KellyInterglacial by James RichardsonCriticism:Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003 by Richard HowardThe Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James WoodSontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig SeligmanWhere You’re at: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip Hop Planet by Patrick NeateStrangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb A lifetime achievement award will be given to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., the founder of Algonquin Books. The winners will be announced March 18.
If there is an award season for the book industry, it’s probably right around now. The Booker will be announced in a couple of days, the Nobel Prize was just announced, and now the finalists for the National Book Award have been announced. (The Pulitzer doesn’t happen until the spring, though.) The big news this year is that the 9/11 Commission Report has been nominated in the non-fiction category. It’s an unprecedented development, and I can’t help but think that a message is being sent. And it is a rather clever way of getting publicity for the award. It also, however, reflects the important place in history that 9/11 will hold. On the fiction side, the nominees are an interesting bunch, all of the women and none of them big, well-known names. Below you can find the nominees for the fiction and non-fiction categories, and some excerpts or whatever else I could find.FictionMadeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum — profileFlorida by Christine Schutt — interviewIdeas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber — excerptThe News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck — excerptOur Kind: A Novel in Stories by Kate Walbert — excerptNon-FictionArc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle — reviewWashington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer — excerptLife on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman — excerpt (this is a good one)Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt — excerpt9/11 Commission Report — read it here