The Breakfast Table

In Case of a Water Landing, Grab Your New Yorker

Dear Faraway Husband,

No dreams about sea life, if I remember right. But I did wake up with a head cold and lay in bed blaming myself for catching it, somehow. I do have the Denver Post here and am enjoying its strangeness. I’ve never really read it before, but whenever I’m away from home–maybe with the exception of being in New York City–the local newspapers always seems sweetly odd, sort of half-baked and hokey. There’s something vaguely homemade about them. You know how I am. I complain about the Washington Post when I’m home, and when I’m away, I miss it terribly.

Yesterday, on the four-hour flight, I read this week’s New Yorker cover to cover. I’m not sure I ever told you this but I’m a bit superstitious about bringing The New Yorker with me on longish plane flights. Of course there’s the simplicity of traveling with only one publication, and finally getting the chance to read The New Yorker entirely, which never happens otherwise, but in my case, my reasons are a little more neurotic. About 10 years ago I was on a really scary flight from D.C. to Syracuse. We were flying through a hideous storm, bumping around, people screaming, and at one point I looked down on my lap and saw my copy of Vanity Fair (I think Kathleen Turner was on the cover) and I became sure in that instant that I was going to die and sure that my last reading experience, the very last thing digested by my mind, would be the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

There’s something reassuring and calming and steady about The New Yorker. It has a solidity and caution. And while it’s a bit more hurried than it used to be, the articles are still pretty long and subtle.

Last week’s issue has a very long piece by Bill Buford, as a matter of fact, on the country-blues-folk singer Lucinda Williams. You love her, don’t you? Between Ishmael and Queegueg, me and Liam, and your media column, I’m not sure when you’ll ever get the time to read this profile, but if you do, I think you’ll enjoy it. The piece meanders here and there, has a wonderfully confident meandering awkwardness. Buford wrestles with his own ideas about who Williams is and why she writes such sad songs. Part of our connection to an artist is our secret desire or belief that their work is autobiographical. We want Lucinda Williams to have fallen in love all those times, to have had her heart broken over and over again. Of course, it’s one of the first things one learns in school–to not confuse the author with her narrator, blah, blah, blah–but it’s also true that a work’s effectiveness requires a kind of projection and sympathy. If you sit around telling yourself that a songwriter is just making it all up, then the devouring of art becomes just a gassy cerebral experience. It becomes simply a game, an intellectual feat. And why would you want to listen to a blues song that did that?

Oh, I’ve got to run!