I initially starting writing this as an e-mail to my friend Ben, but it got a bit long-winded and needlessly wordy to the extent that it became a blog post.
I'm not usually the type to recommend books to people. It always strikes me as insufferably presumptuous and pretentious to do so, although I'm not exactly sure why. I certainly have no problem at all when it comes to recommending albums to people (let alone vehemently decrying some of the albums they already own and cherish). Why should a book be any different?
Many of my dearest friends are bona fide "voracious readers". I would never characterize myself as such, which might explain why I find it pretentious to recommend books to people. After all, who am I -- a guy who doesn't read nearly as much as he should -- one to suggest a book to someone who reads probably twice as many as I do? I certainly enjoy the hell out of books, but I feel I sometimes suffer from a bit of attention deficit disorder when it comes to reading. I get caught up in all the other things I could be doing. I had the same problem when I got my first iPod. Here was this little device that inconceivably held thousands and thousands of songs. Initially, I found it nigh on impossible to listen to a single track in its entirety, as I was still so awed by the sheer size of the menu on offer. Think of all those songs I could be listening to!
Reading-wise, most of that changed when I married Peggy -- a woman who got excited about books and authors in much the same way that I got excited about albums and bands. Prior to dating Peg, I'd dated a few fellow music-heads (or "My Own Kind," as I probably thought at the time). Invariably, those situations never worked out for a variety of reasons, but I'd often rationalize that the demise of each of those fleeting relationships was because it had been so exhausting to date a fellow ardent music fan. The conversation -- and the subsequent bouts of feverish trivia one-upsmanship -- simply never stopped. Imagine being trapped in "High Fidelity" forever, only in this case Rob Gordon was dating Barry. Music fans are fun to hang out with -- and argue over the merits of, say, Celtic Frost's unrecognizable cover of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" or whether or not The Edge sang the lead vocal on any U2 track prior to "Van Diemen's Land" in 1987 (he did, by the way -- he sings the first verse of "Seconds" on War) -- but to get romantically involved with one was assuredly a recipe for headachey disaster. As I've mentioned before, music knowitalls can be trying company. Hell, it was a miracle I'd ever conned any woman into dating me.
So along came Peggy. She was certainly a fan of music (she has more Van Morrison albums than any single individual should be legally allowed to possess), but she was never a music head. At live shows -- or at least the ones she can be bothered to attend -- she's the girl who'd rather be having a ciggy and a cocktail back by the bar while I'd rather be busily bruising my ribcage against the front barrier. In my company, if someone makes a disparaging comment about a band I happen to like, I'm likely to get all frothy at the mouth and declare pistols at dawn. Peggy couldn't care less. She likes what she likes and wisely cannot be bothered with getting upset if someone doesn't share her musical taste. When my friends are over and zealous music debate ensues, Peggy tends to tune out, occasionally making the sort of "that's nice" comment a benevolent mother makes to her little boys when they're earnestly comparing action figures.
Get me around Peggy's crowd, meanwhile, and I often feel like a slack-jawed stooge. One of my former colleagues from TIME Magazine gave a reading from his new crime novel at a local bookstore here in the Village earlier this week, and Peg and I went to cheer him on and check it out. Afterwards, we ran into some of Peg's old publishing pals and talk turned to the book club that they were all involved in. Within moments, titles and authors and thoughtful criticism of esoteric prose became the order of the discussion and I could not possibly have been more out of my depth. I smiled and nodded at the few, fleeting names that I recognized, but pretty much felt like a dazed foreign exchange student on his first day off the plane.
I did perk up, however, when Adam Gopnik's name was invoked. Peggy had recommended Gopnik's first book, "Paris To The Moon," to me based on a particular passage wherein the venerable contributor to The New Yorker wrote a scathingly humorous screed about Barney the Dinosaur. While Gopnik was clearly a man after my own heart in that context (I'll never really sleep fitfully until Barney's creators are in the cold, cold ground), I never finished the book. I got a bit bogged down in its heady, essayist ruminations. I never felt like there was anything to sink my teeth into. But his more recent title, "Through The Children's Gate: A Home in New York" (recently out in paperback) seemed a bit more my speed.
Being (a) a native New Yorker, (b) a former resident of the Upper East Side (the neighborhood Gopnik now writes from both literally and figuratively) and (c) a parent of two small children -- much like Gopnik himself, this book seemed tailor-made to my circumstances. I saw it on that front table of Shakespeare & Co. several times, rubbing shoulders with books I'd never in a million years consider cracking the binding of. I'd usually stride right by that table and head towards the back where they kept the biographies of unsung proto-Punk bands, coffee-table books of antiquated rock posters and inane tomes of meaningless lists of deservedly forgotten albums, invariably all written and compiled by greasy-haired obsessives in ill-fitting, ironic t-shirts.
"Through The Children's Gate" sat mocking me on the grown-up's reading table for several weeks before I finally succumbed. I think I compensated for my sheepishness by also satiating my comfort zone and buying Handsome Dick Manitoba's new book, "The Punk Rock Book of Lists" (I can't make this stuff up) along with it. Manitoba's book is funny and marginally enlightening, but I finished it within the course of a day (my favorite passage therein being Mykel Board's "9 Ways That Vegetarians Are Destroying The Earth"). I sat down with Gopnik's book, wary of his sumptuously written albeit intellectually intimidating style and started to read.
I don't know what I was worried about. While it's true that Gopnik has a tendency to floridly cogitate on certain subjects, this book resonates with a warmth and humor that supersedes the impressive thickness of his prose. I have no idea how old Gopnik is, but he certainly writes like a self-assured, learned adult, even when equally intrigued/mystified/dumbfounded by the timeless quandaries of parenting as I am. Obviously, be you a Rhodes scholar or an illiterate grease-monkey, the experience of fatherhood will render you abjectly clueless on countless occasions.
In a nutshell, "Through The Children's Gate" is a collection of essays regarding Gopnik's relocation to New York City (after a lengthy spell in Paris, detailed in that first book) just prior to and in the harrowing wake of the events of September 11th, 2001. Don't be put off by that, though. The book is not a tragedy, nor does it needlessly dwell on the events of that fateful day that we've all had shoved down our collective throat in a myriad insufficient docu-dramas and State of the Union addresses ever since. In the passages that involve the event, Gopnik thoughtfully grapples with the puzzle of raising his children in an environment of unimaginable, traumatic change. How do you explain and alleviate the concerns of a nine year old who has just witnessed one of the greatest catastrophes of our lifetime?
Gopnik observes as his children immerse themselves in imaginary friends, pets, fads, music, holiday festivities, games and sports as both a means of navigating the experience and simply going through the motions of being a kid in New York City. Gopnik also finds himself caught up and questioning the practices and rituals of living as a parent and endearingly fallible adult. The book becomes less about the afore-mentioned trauma as it unfolds and more simply about the contemporary New York existence.
The chapter which prompted this post (again, initially an e-mail to my friend) is titled "The Running Fathers," and it finds Gopnik studying the motivations of middle-aged men as they jog breathlessly around the Central Park Resevoir, the Yoga-practicing women who married them and their iPod-twiddling kids who mock them, branching off into a tangent that weighs the recreation versus fitness argument of the whole so-called "Slow" movement. That sounds complex, I know, but it's beautifully woven together. I'm not sure where I stand in the argument (my gym membership lapsed ages ago), but I know Ben would get a kick out of it (him being an avid runner), as would probably any even-slightly-self-aware male over the age of thirty here in New York City.
I finished Gopnik's book during a long bus ride from Yonkers earlier in the week and am sad that it's done. I might even go back and pick up "Paris to the Moon" again. But right now, I'm ankle deep in Gary Mullholland's "Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk & Disco," which is the follow-up to the slavishly entertaining "This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk & Disco." Yes, I'm back in my comfort zone, but having strayed from the "arrested development/midlife crisis" table once, I'm sure I can do it again. Not just yet, though.