Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Wherein I prove that I'm not frightened of MacArthur fellows.

It's an established fact that Adichie once lived in the same house as Chinua Achebe -- though not at the same time. It was a mere coincidence, said Adichie; in the small Nigerian academic community, these sorts of things were bound to happen. Achebe had moved out, and Adichie's family moved in. At the time, she didn't realize who Achebe was: she was not yet ten and was more excited to have a balcony and a staircase than to soak in whatever writerly vibes inhabit a place after an author has left it. Maybe it's like a light left on in the attic. Or mold that grows on the inside of walls. In any case, Adichie didn't realize the significance, she said, until the publication of her first book, when her editor apparently was flabbergasted by the news. I imagine the exchange as going:

"I used to live in Chinua Achebe's house."
"He had terrible choice in wallpaper."

I wonder how much children grasp the concept of a book as a physical entity, as a fetish object. Thinking back to my own childhood, books were merely the place where stories resided. Nowadays, I see books as having heft and weight and white space and clever cover designs. The words inside--who cares about those anymore?

At the Adichie reading, I encountered into my "signing buddy," Matt, whom I see regularly at the Philadelphia Free Library Events (also the photographer of Adichie and me above). He's like the book dealers I used to see at readings elsewhere, coming to readings with backpacks laden down with ARCs and dust jackets tenderly wrapped in acid-free plastic covers. But instead of simply getting a signature to bump up the resale value, Matt has the authors inscribe the books to his children, Caleb, Brigid, and now Colleen. That evening, Caleb had come with Matt, hanging on his father's arm and being shy. He was halfway through the sixth Harry Potter book, in preparation for the movie later this summer. He had listened intently for the last hour and a half and looked forward to getting some ice cream afterwards. His opinion on Adichie: "She was all right." When he grows up, he and his sisters are going to have an impressive library, courtesy of his father: all these carefully protected books; stories that jump out at them; their names in black marker on the inside, as if to say This was especially written for you.

I can't think of a better inheritance.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading: Joseph O'Neill

According to Joseph O'Neill, the first organized team sport to be played in the United States was not football, or baseball, or soccer, and polo. It was, in fact, cricket, that strange sport familiar to most Americans only as what those good-looking British chaps played in all those Merchant-Ivory films. In fact, as O'Neill pointed out, Philadelphia itself was known as somewhat of a hub for cricketeers, and he, himself, has played (for the Staten Island team) on Philly cricket pitches, the least of which is located on the unfortunately named Dick Avenue.

So even though O'Neill's novel Netherland became somewhat of a cause célèbre when President Obama revealed on the BBC that he was reading it, O'Neill seemed quite self-effacing, declining to speak further on what might be the hippest endorsement since Oprah Winfrey's Bookclub called it a day. Instead, he was content to talk about cricket for the uninitiated, all but inviting the audience to come cheer him on. (You see, there's this ball, and this bat, and two teams, and something called a wicket...)

But he did point out an fascinating point on the issue of celebrity and the president: for ordinary folk, meeting the president can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Something you commemorate by taking copious pictures, writing effusive diary entries, and vowing never to wash your hand again. But for the President, it's possibly the most forgettable moment in his day. So perhaps, O'Neill hopes, reading novels is a way for the President to reconnect with the people in a more sustained way than a handshake and a quick shuffling of Secret Service agents. The novel becomes a means of re-entry, rather than escape.

And if that fails, there's always a game of cricket.