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.
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.