Nantucket Essays

Becoming a Reader

by Robert P. Barsanti


In 1978, I believed in my Red Sox. The summer had peaked, dived, and peaked again. The Red Sox lead the American League East by fourteen games, then trailed, then won eight in a row to tie the Yankees on the final day of the season. I loved Bill Lee and knew that he was right about the “Gerbil,” Don Zimmer. But there they were at Fenway Park on a brilliant September afternoon.

In seventh grade, I spent my time in pennies. I don’t remember spending much time in English or Social Studies examining and critiquing Mike Torres or Jim Rice, but the game must have been on our minds. At the end of school, I biked home in time to watch the Red Sox claw back into the game. From a collapsing sofa, I watched Jerry Remy hit a sure triple into Lou Pinella’s glove. Then Yaz faced the Goose.

In one world, Yaz check swung and popped up to Craig Nettles, ending the oddest and vertiginous of Red Sox seasons. In another world, he doubled off the wall and drove in the winning runs. The Sox then went on to take the Dodgers in five and remove the curse twenty-five years sooner than expected. Don Zimmer lived on in fame, never coached the Yankees, and doesn’t have to bring a wallet to any bar he enters.

That world exists, unfortunately, in my brain. Our shared reality, the one that Vegas cashes its bets on and seem to exist in newspapers, had the Yankees winning and the Red Sox fuming over another quiet October. But Our shared reality didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t make sense that Bucky Dent hit that home run and that Yaz did not. The story shouldn’t have ended that way.

I became a reader because Dent hit that home run. In the world of books, unlike the world of baseball, things happen for a reason. The best written books hum along well-planned rails until they finally pull into the station. James Bond will emerge unscathed by the last chapter, and he will guide his Bentley back to see M and debrief. Travis McGee will be back on the Busted Flush. Even the final moments of Albus Dumbledore serve the engine of literary logic. The train never slips the tracks, instead it hums along on its own internal logic until the last page turns. Lou Pinella never makes that grab in J.K. Rowling’s work.

Baseball, careers, and our bank accounts never quite work out the way we want them to. Worse, we can never know why our dream failed and reality washed it over. And we wouldn’t believe the reason anyway. Yaz can tell us that he didn’t mean to hit the ball, but we can’t believe that. An employer can look at us and tell us that “we weren’t going to be a good fit, really,” but we can’t believe that either. We have to believe there is another reason. We have to believe that the answer is just hidden from us. As Mulder would point out, “The Truth is out there” and “I want to believe.”

Fiction, God bless its crooked little heart, gives us reasons to believe. They may hide like rabbits or lap against the shore like an incoming tide, but they are there. You can parse them, pull them apart, and reframe them into some cultural dynamic, but they are there. At a time when the criminals have beach houses and the innocent are injected, there is comfort into slipping into a world where the tragedies serve a purpose.

The Nantucket Book Festival comes to the island this weekend. The tents and tables will be set up at the Atheneum, readings will be scheduled here, there and everywhere, and beer will be served with signatures out at Cisco. Unlike the other festivals, not many will be writing big checks at cocktail parties. I don’t believe many authors are reading at “Member’s Only” gatherings and very few people will be stopping George Pelecanos for a selfie.

Of course, once there was a time when books and novels were much brighter in the entertainment firmament. Novelists got million dollar book deals, were interviewed on the Tonight Show, and could see themselves in cardboard in any town. The literary world has lurched past the time of James Michener and Robert B. Parker and has settled into the corner of the Barnes and Noble where they don’t sell Legos, cards, or coffee. I don’t know if the world pushed the book away or if Facebook and Twitter broke our concentration so often that we just gave up.

The writers haven’t given up. More books were published last year than in any other year; however, most of them were self-published. Almost every self-published author went through the annoyance of mailing off novels into slush piles and never hearing of them again. So, without the polish and the prestige of a major publishing house, these writers did it themselves online. And they will be seated in the garden on Saturday.

They (and I) have dreams of selling their novel and buying a summer house with the proceeds, but that seat at the table comes at the end of the process. Just as I know Yaz didn’t hit the home run, I know some agent is going to pick up my novel and start making lunch dates. The modern writer stays at home and toils on a story that maybe only his friends and family are going to read. And maybe the reader doesn’t matter anymore. You must, as Hemingway says, be prepared to work always without applause. The pleasure in reading doesn’t come only to the reader but also to the writer.  In fact, the writer, in his own sensible world, may get most of the fun. When you sit down every night and slip into Westeros and get transported away from Ramen Pride and red bordered envelopes.

We are patent clerks and mail attendants and school teachers that dream of lives outside of the ones that we currently live. Writers get to do that. Writers get to create aquariums full of bright swimming fish, and then we get to kill them. More to the point, we get to create another life for ourselves where things happen for a reason, even if that reason is petty and small. Our novels are the only place where good deeds go unpunished.


Articles by Date from 2012