What I Know After Four Weeks

Well, we must be going somewhere…
(image by chmyphotography, via Unsplash)

(First off: yes, I know it’s been five weeks. But since I’ve only done one week of writing in the two weeks since week three, it’s week four.)

I’ve been enormously distractible in the past couple of weeks, one hyperlink after another. We hosted a huge political gathering here on Sunday, I wrote a brief play, I’ve stacked some firewood, but it feels like I haven’t done much of anything at all.

I have, of course. Jim’s family has become clearer, and his love of working in the store is more grounded. I know how his mind works, I know what he notices when he watches other people, I know how he thinks about a simple algebra problem.

This, of course, is not a story. It’s ethnography, the rich description of a person within a culture. For it to become a story, I think it needs a little more uncertainty. To fulfill the work of the novel as Peter Ho Davies puts it—a machine to make us keep reading—we need the fundamental attitude of “I hope he makes it okay.” And that requires more difficulty than we’ve seen so far. I think there’s some backfitting to be done in the next couple of weeks.

Every so often, you come across a framing of a problem that clarifies the nature of that problem. For me this past week, it came in the New Yorker’s post-award profile of the work of this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, the French memoirist Annie Ernaux. The reviewer Adam Gopnik, a fantastic writer himself, had this construction early on:

The news of a new Nobel Prize in Literature tends to divide amateur readers into two camps: those who have never heard of the author and those who have, vaguely… Annie Ernaux [is] on her way to becoming a permanent writer to those who read for the love of it, not the game of it. [emphasis mine]

What a fantastic distinction! People who read for the love of it, because they want to be immersed in the lives and circumstances of others, and people who read for the game of it, for the formal exercise of narrative structures and the novelty of exploring some intellectual frontier. I recognize this divide in my writer friends, and lived it very closely during my years in architectural education, as I struggled to see anything interesting and humane in the high design of the various moments. It’s a common enough distinction that we see it even in bartending, where people who make good drinks stand on a somewhat different shore than those who make interesting drinks. The beverage writer Jim Meehan says that mixologists serve drinks, bartenders serve patrons.

A year or so ago, the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl talked about his difficulty feeling anything for the clearly expert work of Paul Cézanne. He wrote, in a construction remarkably similar to that of Gopnik, “I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased.”

I read, and write, for the love of it. I stand with the bartenders, and proudly so.

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