The music of the thirties and forties—swing, the rise of pure jazz, even honky-tonk—was glorious. We can’t wipe out Bing Crosby’s cloying croon, but the rise of Hank Williams, Sr., makes up for Bing. The creators of “Orange Is the New Black” knew what they were doing when they included “I Saw the Light.” It moves all listeners, regardless of belief or lack thereof. The joy and genius of Fats Waller, the growl of Big Joe Turner, the irresistible combination of Billie Holiday and Count Basie (and of Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw) are ornaments on a period of exceptional music, and diving into it was one of the great pleasures of my listening, and writing, life. These songs, these voices, and the great instrumentals still resonate with me, and that’s why each chapter title is a song from that period.
I would like to have been there.
I guess I assumed that a graduate program full of artists dedicated to seeing beyond the world’s masks would be better on the race front—that despite all my previous experience with white-majority institutions the workshop would be an exception. What can I tell you? In those days I must have needed that little fantasy, that little hope that somewhere shit might be better.
Like I said: I was young.
Wearily, moving his feet because he had nothing else to do, Christopher went on down the road, hating the trees that moved slowly against his progress, hating the dust beneath his feet, hating the sky, hating this road, all roads, everywhere. He had been walking since morning, and all day the day before that, and the day before that, and days before that, back into the numberless line of walking days that dissolved, seemingly years ago, into the place he had left, once, before he started walking.
The passengers know nothing, and, even if there is finally some understanding or feeling of unease, what can they do? They realize that they have been flying for too long, dawn is breaking. There have been no announcements, or, worse, there has been an ominous announcement that causes panic. At some point, the passengers, perhaps coming out of sleep, know.
But now, unexpectedly, and for the first time since Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met in Yalta, to divide up postwar Europe, Crimea is prominently in the news. Watching the uprising in Kiev, and then seeing Russian troops fan out across the Crimean peninsula, inspired in me a complicated response. First, and altogether selfishly, I was glad that the obscure place I had been writing about had achieved relevance. Simultaneously, I was, like most people, frightened and disturbed by the violence and chaos that gripped Ukraine and that threatened to escalate into something far worse. In fact, because I was familiar with Crimea, had visited the place, and had friends there whose safety was in jeopardy, I was especially apprehensive. But there was something else, too, which on its face may sound as self-interested as my happiness at Crimea’s newfound prominence but which is actually a feeling of wider scope: I felt frustrated that world events conspired to undermine my designs for the book.
But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you.
I’ve read MIDDLEMARCH lots of times, but it never told me what to do, and it certainly didn’t tell me what not to do. And if it did tell me not to do something, I didn’t not do it. We make our own mistakes, and learn from our own experience. But reading is part of your experience. If you love literature, literature is part of your life. It’s not an external thing.
Recommended Reading: Maria Konnikova on “flow” and first-person shooters.