Jonathan Safran Foer might be a jerk, but I kind of still love him

An interesting discussion broke out on Twitter yesterday — as interesting discussions are wont to do — between the wonderful Andi of Estella’s Revenge and yours truly. After I noticed the list of attendees for this year’s National Book Festival had been posted, I gleefully announced my excitement over the prospect of seeing Jonathan Safran Foer, an author I’ve respected and admired for years.

Er, well, that’s basically what I said.

(If you want a history of the whole #pantyworthy thing, stop by The Book Lady’s Blog
Rebecca’s the originator. And it was too apt to not include.)

Anywho, friends, I sent out my gleeful tweet and started pondering the ways in which I would get close enough to touch Jonathan Safran Foer’s little writing fingers (is that creepy? Am I weird?) when Andi hit me back.

And this got me thinking. What do I see in Foer? I know many folks share Andi’s thoughts and I’ve certainly read enough interviews/reviews to know many think he’s pedantic, irreverent, conceited. Arrogant. Haughty. And so on.

Usually when someone is generally accepted to be a pretentious jerk, I run so far and fast from their work, you’d think I was headed to a Starbucks offering unlimited pumpkin spice lattes. But Foer? No. Not my Foer.

. . .  And why?

In the summer of 2006, I read Foer’s two novels to date: Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I might not have read them both that summer, but I read them in a very short time period while I was commuting to Washington, D.C., where I had an internship with a city newspaper.

My typing fingers were very busy that summer as I researched articles, made phone calls, interviewed locals and wrote, wrote, wrote. It was exhilarating. It was terrifying. At 20 years old, I felt like I was doing something. Going somewhere. Each morning as I left the commuter bus from Southern Maryland and stepped foot on K Street, I felt like a real, serious member of the world. I didn’t think journalism was for me — ironic, considering I’m now an editor and columnist at a newspaper — but I loved it all the same. In between the times I was so nervous about screwing things up, I feared I was having a panic attack.

As I made my daily trek from the suburbs to downtown D.C., I had plenty of time on the bus to do as I pleased — which, when I wasn’t napping, meant reading. It’s hard for me to now remember a world in which I didn’t blog about books, but for a while? Well, I read like a maniac — but never recorded a thing. The details of so many books I read during that time — four or five books a week — have softened, faded and dulled. I can’t tell you the plots, characters or settings. And I can barely recall what I read unless someone asks me about a specific book.

Foer’s novels, though, have remained whole, intact in my memory: souvenirs from my summer adventure. Everything Is Illuminated was a book I devoured over two days. It drew me in from page one, depositing me in a foreign world with a foreign narrator and enveloping me in this whacky, difficult quest. The flashbacks were disorienting; the language could be confusing. Sometimes? Well, honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going on.

But I fell in love. With the book. With the author.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, told from the perspective of a young New Yorker whose father died on Sept. 11, was in a completely different vein — but I loved it just the same. Some of the passages and images included, especially of the “Falling Man,” have haunted me. They hover just behind my eyelids before I fall asleep. It was such an emotional read, a book that has stuck with me. It was also the first novel I’d read that addressed Sept. 11, a subject which was still rough and raw — especially for people I knew, people who lived and worked and played in D.C. It seemed like every local community and town lost people in the Pentagon attacks; several of those we lost attended my high school.

It was hard.

So I did love the books. And, you know, I think he’s cute. (And I know he’s married and I’m all kinds of in love, too, so don’t worry about me waving Foer’s novels around and tryin’ to be a homewrecker.) But what is it that keeps me coming back to them, that makes me remember them with a sense of awe — and even reverence?

Well, it had to be the time period.

When I think of Everything Is Illuminated — actually think about the book — I picture myself propped up in a comfy seat, bent slightly over the creased novel I’d just taken from my work bag. I’m sweaty from walking down the street to catch the bus, the stickiness and nastiness of summer in Washington clinging to my dewy skin. I’m young, relieved to be done with the work day; I’m struggling to move forward, still nursing a broken heart. I reach deep into the novel to take me away, and it’s not long before I’m crying. The first novel to make me cry in public.

Remembering Foer’s books makes me remember that time in my life — a difficult time, but an exciting one. Young, still in college, with a whole lifetime before me — well, it makes me nostalgic. There’s no other way to put it.

Now, I’m not exactly washed up. At nearly 25, I have a job I enjoy, a great family, a handsome and ridiculously awesome boyfriend. I get to write and read for a living. I run this blog, my pretty baby, which has brought so many wonderful people into my life.

But looking back to that summer, well . . . it just makes me feel whimsical. For what was and what I knew would eventually be. I made new friends, new contacts — I worked in a real office. I had my own work number. I was in the city and worked near the White House. It was the year I came of age, if you will. And Foer’s books were a definitive part of that.

Now, whether the guy is actually a pretentious twit? Well, I’ll let you know come September. Don’t let me down, Jonathan. Please don’t let me down.

19 thoughts on “Jonathan Safran Foer might be a jerk, but I kind of still love him

  1. I love how you highlighted your Twitter discussion about Jonathan Safran Foer, Meg! I have Everything is Illuminated, but I’ve not read it. I’m really curious to see what side I fall on. I do hope to meet you at the National Book Festival. I didn’t know they posted the attendees yet. Must go and check out the list now.


  2. While I wasn’t impressed with the whole Eating Animals (the interviews I saw him give on that book were disturbingly naive and officious), I do enjoy Foer’s fiction. I’ve only read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close but I thought it was great… and I just read it last year, so I’m not make any time period excuses! I just thought it was a wonderful, clever novel.

    I do think his wife is the better writer though, even if Foer is a looker… 😉


  3. Wow … I am missing some very hot discussions on Twitter. 😉 I’ve only read one of Foer’s books: Everything Is Illuminated. I had mixed feelings about it, so I haven’t been in a hurry to read his other work, but I do admire his talent.


  4. LOL, I love this, Meg! And I’m soooo not upset that you included our Twitter conversation. I completely understand your position here, as I have some years of my life that seem to have made my reading more vivid and alive because of what was swirling around in my private life. On the flipside, there are books which have been colored much darker because of not-so-positive things going on at the time I was reading them.

    Aside from the fact that I wanted to throw Everything is Illuminated, I still have a copy of it on my shelves somewhere because I’d like to come back to it sometime. I also want to *try* Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

    I’ll keep you updated if my initial opinion of Foer changes. And he is a total cutie patootie.


  5. Have to admit, I haven’t read any of his books! However, if I ever got to meet one of my ultimate favs, I don’t know how much I would even mind a snooty personality. I fell in love with their words, their stories, their fictional worlds – not their real-life personalities. I hope your meeting is everything you imagine 🙂


  6. This is a great post!! I’ve never read anything by him but your post definitely makes me want to! I have never cried in public while reading a book… wonder if that will happen. I try VERY hard not to, lol! I love when books take us back to memories of a time in our past!


  7. I loved Everything is Illuminated. I have yet to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (I should remember to add it to my birthday wishlist). Even though I do not remember all the details of Everything is Illuminated, I will always remember the profound impact reading the book had on me.

    I’ll hope along with you that Foer turns out to be anything but pretentious. I don’t think it would keep me from enjoying his other books, but it certainly doesn’t help.

    And may I add that I enjoyed this post so much? It was lovely. And I hope that once I am “grown up” I will have a similar author/book to look back on with such memories of being a student attached to it.


  8. I honestly didn’t know that he was viewed in such a harsh manner. I loved Extremely Loud and it has stayed with me all these years. Meg, you are truly a gifted and talented writer. I do believe that somehow Jonathan will read this post and want to meet you!


  9. Kudos to you for being able to read on Metro buses…I was barely able to get through the Express when I was in DC for college. So many distractions from the characters who so oft present themselves within the WMATA system.

    I am happy to report that my fridge found a nice home in NW DC. I’m also happy to see that you are a fellow BA in English! I just graduated from Catholic University with my degree. As you can see, I’m putting it to mediocre use.

    Thanks for reading the blog. I will look forward to following your updates!


  10. I wish the same as Staci! Just imagine your face when you see him and shake hands. I could die.

    P.S I laughed at the computers on those days. Thank God for Apple.


  11. I’ve not read (or even heard of) this author, probably because I’m ancient! But I love this post, Meg, because it reminds me of the way books can take us back to different time periods in our lives. Like the power of scent which recalls moments and memories, books too can symbolize an era in our development. Hmmm..I believe I feel a blog post coming on! Thanks for the inspiration 🙂


  12. lolz. i listened to both of these books on my commute and have to tell you that i have leanings toward the ‘pretentious twit’ camp. CLOSE made me crazy. seriously. i was going nuts listening to that book. i know there were all kinds of metaphors and depth…but it was L-O-S-T on me because his writing is too gimmicky for moi. hahaha. and i did try to read one of his wife’s books…but it was too high brow for me. i guess i’m just a trashy novel type of girl.


    • I haven’t read any of his books, but my boyfriend so vehemently dislikes them that I almost have to just take his word for it. And part of it is bc of exactly what you (Nat) said…they’re gimmicky and contrived. Tell me what purpose putting one word on a page serves, or concluding with a flip book. TELL ME!

      But you know, everyone has their own experiences with books and clearly, Meg, this one reached you in some way it did NOT reach him.


  13. i’m sorry, i just can’t stop giggling at “pantyworthy”. haha.

    ahhh i’m immature. whatever.

    adding “everything is illuminated” to my reading list!

    i mean, if you think he’s panty-worthy, his
    novels are definitely worth checking
    out, right??


    p.s. thanks for the birthday wishes, meg!


  14. I read “Everything Close…” and thought it was OK.

    But, it makes sense that if we are drawn to certain people in real life, that the same would happen towards authors! I hope that you have a great experience come September :-).


  15. Pingback: Reading and roasting at the National Book Festival ’10 « write meg!

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