Friday, April 23, 2010

An Aussie and An Irishman Walk Into a Library...

In an article on the current state of electronic publishing, The New Yorker quoted Steve Jobs (circa 2008) as saying, "People don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year."

Far be it from me to argue with iJobs, but those statistics would seem to suggest that 60 percent of Americans read more than one book a year. How, precisely, does that translate into nobody reading?

Maybe I'm biased because I'm famous (well, at least with my husband) for once picking out a paperback at Borders and literally giving it a hug, so certain was I that I would love the contents within. Perhaps my perspective is further skewed because readers tend to attract other readers, and among some of my acquaintances, I come across as nearly illiterate. Or maybe, gasp, iJobs doesn't know everything.

If he had traveled to Chicago this week, he would have been hard-pressed to find a seat in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library, where hundreds gathered on a Wednesday night to meet the Irish author Colm Toibin. Toibin's novel, "Brooklyn," was selected for the city's One Book One Chicago program; his appearance was the culmination of months of events, performances and discussion clubs.

I first became aware of Toibin (pronounced COL-lum toe-BEAN; it's like Irish is a separate language) with the publication of his book "The Master" a few years ago. If he's not exactly a rock star of the literary world, he's like a well-respected indie band. "The Master" was a genius bit of work--a fictional account of a certain period in the life of Henry James--while "Brooklyn" is a quieter, more intimate affair. It tells the story of Eilis (EYE-lish), who emigrates to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1950s and was born, in part, out of Toibin's own feelings of homesickness when first traveling abroad. "You find yourself waking up and missing home," he said, "missing things you don't even like."

Homesickness is a subject I know well. I moved to Chicago (albeit from the relatively close environs of Ohio) in 1992, not knowing a single soul. Eilis at least has the advantage of a kindly priest who finds her employment and a boarding house filled with her fellow Irish immigrants. But she misses her family, nonetheless, and likely always will, in the same way that I miss never being able to meet my mom for lunch. "Home changes," Toibin noted. People adjust to their new surroundings. And yet he has the sense that "everyone in America comes out of a single individual arriving--and that haunts the country."

This isn't something we talk about much in America--homesickness. People uprooted from home and family. And not just those who cross oceans and borders in search of greater opportunity, but those, like me, who find themselves displaced within their home country. We take as a given--fairly pride ourselves on--our mobility and the dispersion of families from East to West Coast and all points in between. We have email and Skype and Facebook to compensate, but this hardly seems a fair trade for Saturday afternoons around the barbecue with siblings and parents and nieces and nephews. Yet it runs counter to the American mythology of the independent spirit, the pioneer, the frontiersman, to suggest that rootlessness and restlessness has a cost.

The next evening, the same auditorium hosted author Peter Carey, a two-time winner of Britain's Booker Prize, as part of the Writers on the Record program, hosted by Victoria Lautman. (Winning the Booker twice is liking winner the Oscar four times. Carey's the Katherine Hepburn of novelists, with a fraction of the fame or name recognition. One of those Booker's was for "Oscar and Lucinda," which happens to be the book I once hugged.) Carey has lived in New York for 20 years but originally hails from the backwaters of Australia, which he's never managed to shake. Or perhaps it's that Australia won't let him go; the country recently honored Carey with his own postage stamp, a fact Lautman lingered on just a tad too long.

Though I doubt the library purposely conceived of these separate author events as a one-two punch, they played well off of each other. This is the second time I've seen Carey. Where Toibin is the consummate storyteller (the gift of Irish gab is more than just a cliche), Carey is less polished, less overtly charming, but loads of fun in that off-the-cuff Aussie way. What they had in common--apart from their delightful accents--was using their outsider status to explore layers of American culture from a unique perspective. Turning their gaze on us forces us to turn our gaze on ourselves.

Carey was in town to plug his newest book (just out this week), "Parrot and Olivier in America." I haven't read it yet (did I mention, just out this week) but in short, the book is a fictionalized, imagined account of Alexis de Toqueville's tour of the New World. "I'm living here, I've got American children," Carey explained of his decision to tackle this particular subject matter. In deToqueville, he discoverd somebody who "really got America and American democracy." In reading through de Toqueville's seminal writings, Carey also found the present existing in the past, particularly in de Toqueville's concern over the dumbing down of American culture.

What I found perhaps most striking was Carey's comment that "the extremely radical notion of America is easy to lose sight of." True. We take our democracy utterly for granted--witness low voter turn-outs--when at one point, the idea of country without a king or queen at its head, was unthinkable. How on earth would a bunch of shopkeepers and farmers manage to rule themselves? We, who are lucky enough to have been born in the U.S., often forget how astounding our country appears to outsiders.

But we're not particularly unique in that regard. Carey noted that in his youth he was completely ignorant of Aussie writers, unaware that Australian literature existed. In similar fashion, Toibin stated, "I wouldn't have dreamt of reading an Irish book." Instead he was drawn to Hemingway and Richard Ford and Tobias Wolfe--only to discover that his idols were, in fact, reading James Joyce. We perhaps best appreciate our culture at a distance; too close and all we see are the warts.

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps Carey had also read The New Yorker item, because the decline in reading was also on his mind. (Or perhaps the decline in reading is always top of mind with people who make a living writing.) He likened it to global warming, as a potentially "life-threatening" condition. What he really meant was that we're all the poorer for an inability to inhabit other points of views than our own (to see Brooklyn through an Irishman's eyes, for example), for an unwillingness to explore others' experiences and imaginations, whether in novels or the other media we consume. And that, ultimately, is the more disturbing trend.


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