Because Other People Do it Better (Writing about New York Edition): Adam Gopnik

Very Highbrow New York

In my personal statements for certain schools, I’m asked to list authors who’ve influenced me – and even though I’m afraid of the admissions people reading my list and then reading my writing sample and saying, “Well here’s a shameless imitator,” I have to be honest. Influences are influences, and of the many essayists I read and love (David Sedaris, Betsy Lerner, Joan Didion, Joseph Epstein, et. al.), Adam Gopnik stands out above the rest. 

I don’t know why – well, I do know why: his essays, obviously, and the very particular literary life he’s carved out for himself and his family. He writes eloquently, wonderingly, about things that interest me: life in Paris (he lived there from 1995-2000), life in New York, food, parenthood, and the various characters he meets or sometimes just observes.

In New York, I first read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, required reading material for brooding student writers, some of who, rather than attend class, spend their days in the food, self help and biography/memoir sections of independent bookstores. I’d like to say he helped me get through that tough time, and in a way he did, though his magic was more subconscious. I think I read the essay, realized it was non-fiction and thought, “Hm. He’s writing about this incident which is true, and pretty funny, and completely ordinary except for the fact that he noticed it, wrote it, and it is now published in The New Yorker.” I didn’t know it then, but a seed had been planted: nonfiction has a market. I am a consumer of nonfiction. Lo, I am a writer of nonfiction. But mostly, Anne Tyler and her sentimental novels about Baltimore carried me through that dark time.

Fast forward two years later, when I, after attending class at Berkeley, strolled down Telegraph avenue to what would become one of my most frequent haunts: Moe’s Used Books. It seems counter-intuitive to head straight for the new books in a used bookstore, but I trusted Moe’s curators. I always found stuff I was willing to pay full price for on their display tables, not because I feared it would be sold out, but because seeing a good book is like seeing a delicious slice of coconut cake in the window at Balthazar Bakery. You must seize it while the appetite (and you) are there, otherwise, who knows: the desire passes or you forget and the book is never read.

It was at Moe’s that I bought my first Adam Gopnik book, Paris to the Moon, a collection of essays he wrote about living in Paris, from 1995 to 2000. He and his wife always had this dream about living in Paris, so one year they were like, “Let’s do it.” And they did. It was very inspiring and I’m still wondering when I’ll get around to saying, “Let’s do it,” and move my ass to London.

Now, having just revisited New York I strolled into Moe’s cousin, the Strand on Broadway near NYU. First, an aside: How many similarities and smells does lower Broadway share with Telegraph Ave.,? Too many. Both are kind of run down, congested, and filled with dingy cafes, holes in the wall and bums. Even sans subway, Telegraph often appeared to have steam rising from its surface. New Yorkers and Berkeleyans alike will glare at me for comparing the two: they are like night and day, yin and yang, East Coast vs. West Coast! But I stand by my words – on these bustling avenues three thousand miles apart I was alone and not alone. I learned to read on these streets, thanks to two massive bookstores that catered first to hungry literary hearts like mine.

Anyway, I picked up two of Gopnik’s newer collections: Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, and The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food; and the Balthazar cookbook. I couldn’t resist. But sadly, the recipe for the divine coconut cake was nowhere to be found.

For those of you who know my M.O. with books I buy, I am happy to report that I’m halfway Through the Children’s Gate. He writes splendidly about New York, drawing my attention to things I wish I’d taken the time to notice (I was too busy eating coconut cake). He is, I think, the only essayist to write about chess, Thanksgiving, child-rearing, baseball, September 11, Harry Potter and public proposals in one essay and make it all seem natural, coherent and…did I mention natural? He does exactly right what any writer ought to do: make you feel like you were there. And if that weren’t enough, he brings in several points, none of which were apparent to you because sadly, you don’t think that much but when you read his words you go, “Oh my God, of course. Of course. That’s the whole point; it’s what I’ve been missing this whole time but now I will never look at it the same way again.” And what I wanted to write about New York while in New York but never got around doing, well, I flipped to the first essay in the book and saw that he’d already done it for me, and much better. But still, it doesn’t mean I won’t give it a shot, so stay tuned.

Anyway, Monday night blather over. I’ll leave you with something good to read.

Some context: Gopnik writes about life, especially raising children, in New York after September 11th. 

“As for living within ambiguities and seeing two things at once while you do, well, children do it all the time. Olivia, at three, always cried when she entered a New York cab, ‘I want to see New York! I want to see New York!,’ meaning that she wanted to look at the schematic map of Manhattan posted on the back of the front seat, and she’d stare at it while the city sped along beside her. [Through the Children’s Gate] is like that map, like that moment: a picture of a place that remains intrinsically elsewhere, out the window. New York is always somewhere else, across the river, or on the back of the front seat, someplace else, while the wind of the city just beyond our reach rushes in the windows. We keep coming home to New York to try and look for it again.

“Through it all that first feeling, on a night more than forty years ago (when Gopnik first saw New York as a young boy), remains my major feeling: I am so pleased to be here that I can hardly believe I am. What New York represents, perfectly and consistently, in literature and life alike, is the idea of Hope. Hope for a new life, for something big to happen, hope for a better life or a bigger apartment. When I leave Paris, I think, I was there. When I leave New York, I still think: Where was I? I was there of course, and I still couldn’t grasp it all. I love Paris, but I believe in New York and its trinity of values: plurality, verticality, possibility. These are stories of happiness in shadow: the shadow of a darkening time and the shadow of human mortality both. I feel the shadows, we all do, and cringe maybe even more than most. But I try to remember that darkness is a subject, too, and need not always be too sad a one. Shadows are all we have to show us the shapes that light can make.”

That last line, the same can be said about unemployment and productivity. 

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