Saturday, September 15, 2012

From Princeton

I recently finished Peter Hessler's River Town, which is the first of his three books on his time in China, though I read it last. In fact, I read the books in reverse order. Allow me to recommend reading them in order. They were plenty good read backwards, but I suspect the sweep of narrative would have worked better the other way. I'm sure I would have appreciated seeing the narrator grow, even as his subject shifted.

In the middle of River Town, I stopped off and re-read Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker, which I think I blogged about. For some time I've thought Lewis one of the best writers writing in English, but I now believe that Hessler is better. Lewis is more pyrotechnics, more writerly pizzazz, and more at home with the mover and the shaker. Hessler is able to sit calmly, observe, and pull narrative out of seeming nothingness, simply because he pays attention.

Of course, I'm well aware that I share much with both of them:  we're all white boys from middle America who went off to Ivy League schools and drank our fill there (I, for sure, literally, as well as figuratively), though we weren't insiders when we got there. Wikipedia tells me that Lewis was a prep school kid, which I could have guessed simply from the fact that he's from New Orleans, but Hessler is a public school kid from a university town, like me.

I think what that means is that I probably need to read something written by a non-white, non-male, non-straight and/or non-Ivy League person before I keep piling on superlatives.

However, I've started in reading Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, which is itself set in and around Princeton (takes me back) and is all about being white, male, and middle-aged. But he's really good, I swear, or at least he knows how to push my buttons.

What all of these guys have in common with each other, and with me, is no doubt that they seek to rise up and take a really abstract, high-level view of Things In General. And that's something us white Ivy League guys want to feel good at, it's what we aspire to. Most likely because we were brought up going to church and looking at God depicted as a white guy.

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