One of the first books I remember reading was one I discovered in my school library as a first or second grader: Gene Zion’s Dear Garbage Man, a 1957 tale of a sanitation worker who’s having second thoughts about whether to dispose of the junk he encounters on his route. He graces the truck’s grille with a horseshoe-shaped flower display; he ties sofas and mirrors and baby carriages to the top of the truck instead of shoving them into its “chewer-upper.”
A short-lived detritus-redistribution scheme ensues, until the garbage man ultimately decides to get with the program and let junk be junk. I don’t remember exactly what I loved about the story, but I must have concluded that being a garbage man was a fun job---traveling through city streets, driving a big truck, meeting different people, picking up bits of their lives. I do know that after reading the book, I informed my father that I’d decided what I wanted to be when I grew up.
My father, a man not exactly quick to laughter, a man who stepped off a Greek merchant marine ship in Stockton, California, in the early 60s and then made a momentous decision not to get back on, laughed. All this time after coming to this country, all this hard work, and my son, he wants to be...a garbage man! (You have to say this in the beleaguered, heavily accented voice of the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the few things in that movie that isn’t an outright cartoon about Greek-Americans.) He traded on that story for a while at family get-togethers, much to my embarrassment.
I suppose now I trade on it too. But what’s the point I want to make when I share it? The punchline usually is: Here’s a kid who for a moment dreamed of a career of menial labor, and made the amusing mistake of sharing that dream with a man who left his home country so his children could avoid doing exactly that. Whatever affection I might’ve felt for Zion’s character dissipated quick---in the same way he concluded that junk needed to be junk, I got in line and came to hold perfectly conventional upper-lower-middle-class opinions about garbage men (i.e., respectable and necessary labor, but nothing to aspire to). When we’re kids, we have flexible brains---we can look at something new with genuine curiosity, without whatever experience and social norms and biases we bring to it. As an adult, it takes a little more work.
The Dear Garbage Man story came to mind as I’ve been reading articles about the connections neuroscientists make between reading and empathy---a subject I’ve gotten a little fixated since writing about the matter for the Washington Post. Reading allows us to encounter other people, we’re told; it exposes us to experiences we wouldn’t otherwise understand, or which we fear. But does a reader automatically make that leap into others’ differences? Or do we just apply our assurances to whatever story we encounter, however different its characters might be? Perhaps the empathy literary fiction is supposed to stoke in us only goes in the direction of those who seem the most familiar to us, to those we’re already inclined to feel empathy with. (Which can change as we change. Every essay you’ll read about rereading novels make this point, about how a Jo person in childhood can become an Amy person as a grownup, though God knows why you’d do that.)
We can read a lot but still read poorly. In the Hedgehog Review, Mark Edmundson recently wrote: “All too often we read even literary texts for the message. Is the author on our side? Does his ideology line up with our own? Is the writer a good dues paying citizen of the progressive present? The urge to read for simple political content takes the one resource that might help us emerge from our current difficulties and turns it into part of the problem. It is also a form of reading for people who don’t really like reading, and want to short-circuit it with posturing and posing. It’s not real reading at all.” If reading a book helps us develop empathy, how empathetic are we if we decide what we’re going to take from a book before we’ve even cracked it open, or read it as if we haven’t bothered to?
I wrote about Philippa K. Chong’s study of book critics, Inside the Critics’ Circle, for On the Seawall. I reviewed Ming Jen’s Little Gods for USA Today and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valleyfor the Los Angeles Times. Since I last newslettered, I helped select some of the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards, which will be announced in March. I chaired the NBCC’s autobiography committee this past year, and I spoke about the finalists with Five Books. (My opinions are my own, not the NBCC’s.)
Elizabeth Wurtzel left behind some last notes on love before she died last month. Lauren Oyler finds a note of hysteria in Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Agnes Callard questions our attention-seeking social-media economy. Diane Cole revisits Mark Twain’s visit to the Holy Land. Colin Dickey considers the palindrome.