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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

For twenty-five years, reading the New York Times every day was as close as I got to religious observance. Usually by the time the coffee pot was empty, the last page had been turned.

Sometime in the dawn light it had been thrown against the apartment house door--thwap--in the blue plastic bag that found second use as the ideal urban dog waste bag. The contents of every street-corner garbage can in the city was at least half composed of knotted blue bags.

Then we moved to the sticks, and had to drive to get the paper. So we did. Every day of the week. Sometimes it was sold out, so we just drove farther until we found it. When we moved to a more civilized part of the sticks, it was again delivered, to the end of a long drive, but still before we woke. I had a small child by then, therefore I couldn't read it in the morning. And so it became the pre-bedtime ritual. As with all rituals, it served many masters: desire, need, addiction. I sort of knew what was going on in the world then; I felt the need to know. Not that the Times is everything: it has a smarmy self-congratulatory residue all over it; its idea of "balanced" journalism is to counterpose obvious truths against fringe lunatic views, just so there are opposites presented; it is clearly in thrall to its advertisers (one is never going to read an expose of fur farming or diamond mining in its pages). It made me mad as hell. But I was used to mainlining it. I had to go to the Guardian to find out what was really going on in the world--it was astonishing to read in its pages stuff, even stuff our own country was doing, that never reached the paper of record.

I don't read it anymore. The paper version is not delivered in my neighborhood (jeez, moved again), and I simply can't read it online. I haven't got the hang. The paper does not crinkle in my fingers; the sections don't look the same. My ritual has been deconsecrated.

But people still send me links, because they're still reading that paper. The one I got the other day was to Jonathan Franzen's op-ed piece about loving and technology. Or maybe it was about life's pain and the horror of blind consumerism. Then again, maybe it was about sadness and narrative. I wasn't entirely certain, by the time I got through. But I was clear on one thing: Like the bags the paper came in, the piece had been recycled (it was written as a college commencement address). A writer of his stature is simply not going to get paid once for a piece. Not when he can double- or even triple-dip.

Although it never said so directly, that is what I suspected about his recent essay in The New Yorker. It was about the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. It was also about revisiting the site upon which Robinson Crusoe was based, as a way to discuss the novel. Oh, and it was about loneliness and, tangentially, stupidity. Also about birdwatching as a way to order the world. (I didn't believe for a moment, though, that he "just went" to the island to get away and get his head straight: a writer of his stature doesn't do anything without intending, first and foremost, to write about it. What do you want to bet he'd inked the contract with the magazine well before he started looking for flights? That was the one thing--perhaps the only subject of central importance--that didn't make it into the article, though it hung over the entire thing for me.) He cycled around all manner of material. And when he was through, he double-dipped. Yes, folks, he sold the movie rights.

I am not griping here about Franzen. I do not find it a problem when writers recycle their blue bags. I never bought the idea (as you can certainly tell) that one piece of writing should contain only one idea. Instead, I know all too well that when you set out on one track, the cars sometimes get switched onto another track. That is, quite literally, life. I started in one place, then moved to another, and another, and another. (How many of us are still living in the same place we were born, much less living in the same head?) I think one thought, and it takes me to another, and another, and another. Sometimes I return to my starting point, sometimes I have no interest in going back there at all, because I've been drawn to something far more interesting.

Digressions are life. Or maybe life is digressive. Let me think about which. For now, I return to the beginning, though not the beginning of this--I'm no longer thinking about the New York Times. Writing takes you on a one-way track to elsewhere; the only problem I had with Franzen's essays, I realize now, is that he tried to tie it all back up into a single subject, which felt to me a bit like pandering. Profound ideas will not be circumscribed, even if they will cohere.

Years ago, I started writing here about one subject. But then life came along and threw a firecracker on top of my head, and blew the one idea to bits. Those are still widely scattered. Now, I've decided I like them that way. I can follow their trail, which takes me away from the place I began.