A web magazine of essay, opinion, literature, culture, and politics, published by the New York State Writers Institute based at the University at Albany.
- Editor: Paul Grondahl
- Executive Editor: William Kennedy
- Managing Editor: Michael Huber
- Contributing Editors: Cassie Andrusz Ho-Ching and Edward Schwarzschild
Trolley, Spring 2019
Pamela Paul visited the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany in April to talk about her memoir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.
Bob is her "book of books," a journal of every book Paul read (or started reading) since high school. It's been her constant companion for three decades, a coffee-stained and frayed love letter to books that entered her life at different stages, from nerdy teen to day job as perhaps the world's most influential book reviewer, editor of The New York Times Book Review.
Pamela Paul and Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl at the University at Albany. (Patrick Dodson / UAlbany)
"As a book lover it’s the dream job," said Paul, who still refers to books as magical things.
So what is this hold books have on us?
Not all of us, I should say. One in four Americans haven’t read a book in the past year. For the other 75%, it may be that reading satisfies some primal need for safe harbor in turbulent times. "When the dominant culture goes low, the saviors of our senses go high," writes Timothy Egan in a recent New York Times column, "The Comeback of the Century: Why the book endures, even in an era of disposable digital culture."
For our third edition of Trolley, we asked readers to tell us a story about their favorite book.
Readers responded. The 20 contributors represent a cross-section of the ages and audiences that fill seats at Writers Institute events: community members, authors, University at Albany professors, staff, and students. They shared stories of iconic writers and poets -- Tolstoy, Orwell, Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes -- as well as more recent writers whose words make a lasting connection.
Some Trolley writers describe not just the emotional impact, but the physical feel of books they held decades ago. Pamela Paul describes this tender and visceral attraction in My Life with Bob:
“My sort wants the book in its entirety. We need to touch it, to examine the weight of its paper and the way text is laid out on the page. People like me open books and inhale the binding, favoring the scents of certain glues over others, breathing them in like incense even as the chemicals poison our brains. We consume them.”
We hope you enjoy these stories about some of our favorite reads. Thank you for visiting.
-- Michael Huber
NYS Writers Institute, May 20, 2019
For this third column, I have chosen to feature a wide-ranging interview with one of my favorite writers and literary rebels, Grace Paley (1922-2007), who was also the inaugural New York State Author from 1986-1988.
This interview from 1989 is also an appropriate choice for this issue about changing America and changing readers because it was conducted by Tom Smith, the legendary former director of the NYS Writers Institute who served from 1984 until his untimely death in 1994. Read more.
The New York Times praised Paley as “a celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives.”
"The reason 1984 sticks with me so much is because it creates a world born purely out of the pursuit of power. What makes Ingsoc truly evil is that its leadership openly embraces power for its own sake. For them, there is no grand design for the betterment of humanity or even the benefit of the ruling elite."
"It started consuming me after college and when I was in the army. I was devouring everybody on the shelf, and even into the sixties I would have thirty or forty books out of the library and I wanted to read them all. ”
"My love of literature, poetry in particular, pulled me through one of the most painful events of my life. Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson provided me with an insight about how subtly and sometimes suddenly life transitions to death, and how we as humans work through that transition."
"People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”
"My copy is a beat-up paperback, thin enough to fit in the back pocket of my jeans...
I know how it begins. The mystical words "If you build it, he will come" arrive early -- page 1, third paragraph. And I know how it ends: the subdued euphoria when the son meets his long-dead father, magically transformed into a sturdy 25-year old professional baseball player."
"I grew up in England and studied English literature during the depressed and skeptical English 1970s. I think – hope – my literary and emotional compass has widened since then, but for good or bad my deepest bias as a reader is toward books that, if by no means exclusively English, maintain an old-world distrust of ennobling sentiments and idealistic fantasy."
"The point is readers felt that they knew Holden Caulfield intimately, they "got" him. He wasn't a teenage stalwart, he was a teenage train wreck, but a train wreck who somehow exuded hope. And he has this great vocabulary. He was the first fictional character I'd encountered that seemed absolutely true, and it resonated."
"Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we're someone else, disrupting the delusion that we're permanent and at the center of the universe. Suddenly (we're saved!) other people are real again, and we're fond of them.”
"What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
"On one of those forays, I see myself in memories eye spinning a book rack for a possible candidate and coming across a cover with a god-like being rising up in watery cascades of glory, up, up, and up! In grand letters over this rising being, The Colossus of Maroussi announced itself.
“Ah,” I thought, “a possibility.”
"Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts."
"You know how when you’re a kid your parents encourage you to eat a balanced, nutritious diet so you’ll grow healthy bones and teeth? Carrots to help you see in the dark, that sort of thing? I swear, I grew my brain cells on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I didn’t read it. I swallowed it whole. I devoured and absorbed it."
"Victor Hugo said he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the Greek word ΆΝÁΓΚΗ. But what does this word mean? He defines it as fatality: the kind of ominous fate as if our destiny were chosen for us and slated for demise. It may be a common theme in his novel, but as far as my outlook on the world, I don’t buy that."
"It was the first time I ever received a gift from a friend. It was the first time I cried while reading a book. It was the first book I read with a Mexican-American protagonist. It was the first book I read with a gay protagonist. It was the first time I felt a sense of relief since college."
"Life is not what one lived, but what One remembers and how One remembers it in order to recount it.”
Gabriel García Márquez
"There were mysterious—almost creepy—creatures and spirits as well as symbols I could not read, which I later learned were from one of the three Japanese alphabets. Not only that, but a character named Yubaba that was supposed to be the main antagonist was not actually all that evil."
"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
George R.R. Martin