vertiginous. adjective :: causing or likely to cause a feeling of dizziness especially because of great height
elision. noun :: the act or an instance of omitting something : omission
hew. intransitive verb :: to conform, adhere — often used in the phrase hew to the line
parochial. adjective :: confined or restricted as if within the borders of a parish : limited in range or scope (as to a narrow area or region) : provincial, narrow
obviate. transitive verb :: to make (something) no longer necessary : to prevent or avoid (something)
Sure it's a crummy commercial, but still.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
— Emily Dickinson
For a while there I was afraid I'd never get to post another one of these. His spelling and punctuation haven't improved, but he's still “a thinker.”
I'm late to this summer kerfuffle vis-à-vis the literary merit of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, since I've developed a recent allergy to the "thinkpieces about thinkpieces" subgenre of opinion writing (or was it always thus? Have I just awoken from a long nap inside a pumpkin?). Although I do love a kerfuffle.
Indeed, we might ask the snobs, What’s the big deal? Can’t we all just agree that it’s great she spent all this time writing a big enjoyable book and move on? No, we cannot, say the stalwarts. Francine Prose, who took on the high-school canon—Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury—in a controversial Harper’s essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” argued that holding up weak books as examples of excellence promotes mediocrity and turns young readers off forever. With The Goldfinch she felt duty-bound in the same way. “Everyone was saying this is such a great book and the language was so amazing. I felt I had to make quite a case against it,” she says. It gave her some satisfaction, she reports, that after her Goldfinch review came out she received one e-mail telling her that the book was a masterpiece and she had missed the point, and about 200 from readers thanking her for telling them that they were not alone. Similarly, Stein, who struggles to keep strong literary voices alive and robust, sees a book like The Goldfinch standing in the way. “What worries me is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction—realistic fiction, old or new—is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”
So many words on so many words. I read The Goldfinch over a dark, feverish week last winter, absorbed by the characters and slightly bored by the story, and I forgot about it the minute I set it out on the stoop as a gift to a passing stranger, like the plucky Christian joy spreader I am. But I'm also the kind of dum-dum who reads "serious fiction" and "realistic fiction," in addition to cozy fiction and breezy fiction and sometimes even terrible fiction, and somehow manages to comprehend that it doesn't all have to be one thing. The fact that fiction is and can and should be so many things is the reason I love to read. Donna Tartt provided me with hours of entertainment and owed me nothing more. I did not need to commit The Goldfinch to memory or tattoo it on my toenails. It did not have to save my life. No book, and no writer, should be expected to do that.
So why would these critics assume that a person who picks up 1 or 2 books a year exists in such a brain vacuum that a single negative experience will literally drive them to abandon the business of reading FOREVER? This is akin to me telling myself in 2002, Jesus Christ, Self, I hated that fucking movie The Hours so much I will never in my entire life watch another movie because clearly every movie is The Hours. Does anyone think moviegoers are that stupid? Au contraire, mon petit fromage. This bellyaching seems to be the domain of critics who don't have much faith in the actual readers of actual books—and while I'm not saying The Goldfinch is for everybody (is any book for everybody?), if every book those biannual readers choose needs to pass some Paris Review-sanctioned suitability test, I'm not sure I have much faith in the future of fiction.
I just read somewhere that “poignant” best describes an emotional reaction to an experience that is both happy and sad (whereas my friend Merriam-Webster defines it as “pungent,” or “piercing,” or just plain sad). Happy is watching a shell sneeze itself right off a brick curb and sad is the little camp song it sings at the end.
For the past few years I've suspected I might be suffering from mild depression, since I've lost interest in so many things I used to love passionately and would rather head back to the heartland to spend time with friends and family than run off on some wild European adventure, or prefer to sit in my cozy little matchbox studio and read a book rather than fork over $100 to sit at the back of the mezzanine in some dark and lonely theater.
I hesitated to label this state “depression,” however, since that word seemed too big for a generally small feeling, and at no time did I actually feel that sad about any of it. I didn't withdraw from the world, I only stepped back from the parts that no longer seemed to fit. It felt like the temperature had changed somehow, permanently, and I couldn't understand what it was or why things that used to thrill me—including the reasons I packed up my life eight years ago to move here—no longer held any appeal.
Then yesterday I read Atul Gawande's Being Mortal and realized I'm not depressed at all, I'm just old.
What's more, our driving motivations in life, instead of remaining constant, change hugely over time and in ways that don't quite fit Maslow's classic hierarchy. In young adulthood, people seek a life of growth and self-fulfillment, just as Maslow suggested. Growing up involves opening outward. We search out new experiences, wider social connections, and ways of putting our stamp on the world. When people reach the latter half of adulthood, however, their priorities change markedly. Most reduce the amount of time and effort they spend pursuing achievement and social networks. They narrow in. Given the choice, young people prefer meeting new people to spending time with, say, a sibling; old people prefer the opposite. Studies find that as people grow older they interact with fewer people and concentrate more on spending time with family and established friends. They focus on being rather than doing and on the present more than the future.
The book deals primarily with how we as a culture deal (or not) with aging and death, and this section was only one of many that struck me as so true and so obvious that I don't even mind admitting—in front of god and the Internet and everybody—that I really have reached middle age.
Unrelated yet apropos to the overall mise-en-scène:
+ p.s.: read the book. It's vital.
1. The very first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is listen to Garrison Keillor's daily Writer's Almanac podcast. He lists birthdays of famous people and notable events in history that occurred on said day (this a.m. was devoted almost entirely to the surrender of General Cornwallis to George Washington in 1781) and follows that up with an unrelated yet seasonally appropriate poem. I'm not gonna lie, this can be a lot to absorb at six o'clock in the morning, but Garrison Keillor always manages to sound like he's speaking from the bottom of a well or the back of a cave, which is soothing and terrifying in equal measure, so at the end you're pretty grateful just to be able to get out of bed and get the hell on with your day.
2. This morning I also listened to a Taylor Swift song. I can't remember why. Since I started listening to more music on my phone during the day, I've been drawn to many uncool artists from the past, like Sting and Matchbox Twenty and the Dave Matthews Band and Dido, but since I'm employing “tech” as the gateway to this lite FM mediocrity, I'm still able to feel “hip” and “with it," which seems to be what life in your forties is all about.
3. The best thing I listened to all week was this Nerdist podcast with Dax Shepard (who I could not possibly love more) and the best thing I watched was the first episode of Foo Fighters Sonic Highways on HBO, where they recorded a song in Chicago at the studio of legendary producer Steve Albini. I coincidentally visited Chicago just last weekend, and saw some friends and an opera and had an amazing dinner at Blackbird, and looking forward to moving back to Chicago is now my favorite hobby.
4. I also watched Grosse Pointe Blank last night, which more and more I'm convinced is a perfect movie. There are maybe a couple of false notes with the two G-men played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman, but tone-, character-, setting-, and dialogue-wise, it's just a completely realized, self-contained world. It's also very human without being at all sentimental, which would make it a good twofer with Young Adult in a Maladjusted Midwestern Malaise film festival.
5. Yesterday I volunteered to work a water station during a 10-mile training run for the marathoners in my group. We were situated at Engineer's Gate, at East 90th and Fifth Avenue, which is where they'll enter Central Park during the marathon. It was bright and cool and breezy and I was there with another woman from my group, and as the runners came through in sweaty, beaming waves, a severely handicapped man with a walker stumbled past us, moving at a glacial pace. After we watched him go by, this woman, Carol, looked over at me and shook her head and said, “What did you complain about today?”
& cf. Elaine Stritch quoting her late husband in the documentary Shoot Me: “Everybody's got a sack of rocks.”