There’s something so fascinating about this collection of notes Lauren Elkin wrote and then gathered into a book, No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus. It’s only about 130 pages and many of those pages are mostly white space, since Elkin starts a new page every time she begins a new day’s notes. Some pages only have a line or two of text on them. The notes are observations she made of the world around her while commuting to her teaching job from September 2014 to May 2015. She describes the passengers, the view from the bus window, interactions with fellow bus-riders, and occasional thoughts she has about her life, her feelings, and what’s happening in the world. She writes about living through the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks, as well as her experience of a miscarriage. The book begins with a two-page introduction to the book’s concept and ends with a couple longer pieces about Elkin’s project, one written in fall 2015 (six pages), and the other in March of 2021 (two pages).
I’ve been thinking about what makes all this interesting. It IS interesting, but I’m still not sure what makes it so! Elkin is a good observer and writer; the entries are engaging, sometimes funny, sometimes with thoughts that I recognize and feelings that are familiar, and that’s pleasurable. It’s possible that the book’s length has something to do with maintaining interest: maybe a book like this should be short, so as not to tire the reader. Perhaps the pleasure of reading observations about the world lessens as the pages accumulate, or there comes a point after which more observations don’t add to the value of the whole. Again, I’m not sure, although I would have happily read more notes if Elkin had included them. I can’t know at what point my interest would have flagged.
But what makes notes on a commute worthwhile reading? A review by Eliza Goodpasture at 3:AM Magazine considers the question of whether transcribing the world into text is inherently meaningful. She argues that the book benefits from appearing after the pandemic, since travel and public spaces have taken on a new significance, but also that any work will become meaningful eventually, when it finds its right context. I think this is a fascinating question to ask, and it made me think about what role context plays in a book like this and also about what kind of book Elkin has actually written.
My impulse is to resist the idea that this book needs the pandemic as a backdrop to be worthy of publication and reading. I can’t help but feel that a record of the world as experienced by one person, creating a record of what life was like at a particular time and place, just is inherently meaningful. I want to know what life was like in 2014 in Paris on the bus. I’m curious about it! I also want to think about why Elkin chose the details that she did. Why comment on this rider and not that one? Why did she find these details interesting enough to record? Who is this person — I’m curious about her!
It occurs to me that I feel the same way about many people on Twitter, and perhaps I liked this book so much because I’m the kind of person who likes Twitter and blogs, those records of a mind experiencing and processing life. Some people tweet or blog in such a way that they come to feel like companions, even though I don’t know them at all. I like what they write about themselves and want to know more. I want to see the world through their eyes and know more about who they are and what they care about. That’s what it felt like to read this book.
But I’m neglecting the longer sections of the book, the intro and concluding pieces, or perhaps I can call them essays. The book is not just (or “just”) a collection of observations; it’s framed by Elkin’s explanation of the project. Here she discusses one of her literary inspirations, Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, where he records three days spent trying to write down everything he observes. She also writes about how the terrorist attacks changed how she thinks about her fellow bus riders:
Over time, the Event weaves into the everyday. People we see on the bus may have been at the Bataclan or know someone who was; the woman in the corner may have had a miscarriage last month. Other people are an immense mystery. We cannot right-click on them and download their history. We do not know where they have been or where they’re going. But that they are going together, while companionably ignoring one another, seems of paramount importance.
I believe this is called community.
Elkin also thinks about the pandemic context in the book’s 2021 epilogue. The pandemic, she says, was one of the reasons she returned to her notes to consider whether they could be a book:
Something about being yanked out of the public sphere, and resituated, inescapably, in the private sphere, made me want to revisit this text, which is so steeped in the outside world, and to think about whether it might take a more public shape.
So Elkin herself feels that the pandemic context helps give her book meaning; perhaps she would have published it without that context, perhaps not.
I’m thinking about the purpose of this framing material and how it changes the book. In this material, Elkin herself makes meaning of her notes. Without the framing, the book would read more like other published diaries do, since they don’t typically have introductory essays and epilogues (or, rather, most diaries don’t have introductions and epilogues written by the diarist herself). Elkin also reaches toward meaning within the notes themselves. When describing teaching Perec’s book, she writes of her students:
At first they’re bogged down by all the details. They’ve never read anything like it. They’re used to stories, with plots, and characters, or textbooks. They haven’t encountered writing like this, writing of the everyday, writing without an argument, writing that suggests, that counts, that tracks.
This passage seems like a good description of Elkin’s own book, a clue to understanding her project. This next passage, also about Perec, might possibly describe her book too:
that book strikes me as less a means of writing for someone, and more a means of making sense of the world. Like: things are out of control. Slow down. Count the buses. Pattern the world.
The diary might have helped Elkin record and make sense of the world, but, at the same time, it’s offered to the reader as a record of a person thinking about note-taking and diary-writing and pondering the value of these activities. This is a diary, but it is also a book about diaries. Taken as a whole, it’s a book that thinks about the value and meaning of observation, writing, audience, and context. This reflective element turns it into another kind of project entirely, not merely (“merely”) transcribing the world into text, but thinking about what that means.
As for whether the notes would make a good book on their own, I think they might. I would enjoy that book. But that’s not really the book we have, and I think the book we have is marvelous.
Publishing This Week
Only one new book out this week caught my eye. One that’s translated by Jhumpa Lahiri! All quotations below are from the publisher.
Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (Europa Editions): “Pietro and Teresa's love affair is tempestuous and passionate. After yet another terrible argument, she gets an idea: they should tell each other something they've never told another person, something they're too ashamed to tell anyone.” Sounds like a bad idea, tbh.
New on the TBR
New books acquired: all of these came from the very, very dangerous Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale (happening until November 15th):
Objects in This Mirror by Brian Dillon (Sternberg Press, 2011): I loved Brian Dillon’s book Essayism and so am collecting more of his work. This is “a collection of essays on contemporary art, literature, landscape, aesthetics, and cultural history.”
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole (Random House, 2016): I’ve read this already, but I read an egalley and fel tlike this is a book I’d prefer to own in print. This book has “more than fifty pieces on politics, photography, travel, history, and literature.”
Aug 9 - Fog by Kathryn Scanlan (MCD, 2019): “A stark, elegiac account of unexpected pleasures and the progress of seasons.”
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (NYRB, originally published in 1966): “After years of study in Europe, the young narrator of Season of Migration to the North returns to his village along the Nile in the Sudan. It is the 1960s, and he is eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country.”
Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag (Picador, originally published in 1978 and 1988): I’m hoping to begin reading Susan Sontag soon — she’s a major gap in my nonfiction reading: “Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatized disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote a sequel to Illness as Metaphor, extending the argument of the earlier book to the AIDS pandemic.”
Approaching Eye Level by Vivian Gornick (Picador, originally published in 1996): It’s a crime that Vivian Gornick’s Wikipedia page is this short. I’m ready to read anything she writes. This book contains “Seminal essays on loneliness, living in New York, friendship, feminism, and writing.”
Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Giménez Smith (Graywolf, 2019): “Carmen Giménez Smith dares to demand renewal for a world made unrecognizable. Be Recorder offers readers a blazing way forward into an as yet unmade world.”
What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché (Penguin, 2020): “a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others.”
Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own).
Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson (Johns Hopkins University Press, originally published in 1947): “this acknowledged classic of American literary criticism explores the influences--especially Shakespearean ones--on Melville's writing of Moby-Dick.”
Golden Apple of the Sun (Mack Books, 2021) and Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time (University of Chicago Press, 2021) by Teju Cole: two new Teju Cole books! The first one looks like a book of photographs accompanied by a long essay, and the second one is a collection of essays, a “book that meditates on what it means to sustain our humanity--and witness the humanity of others--in a time of darkness.”
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard (Hill & Wang, originally published in 1979): I’m finally reading Roland Barthes!
The Cormac Report
Last weekend, Cormac and I went to see a local — meaning High School — production of the musical Bright Star. Cormac loved it. We talked over all the details of the characters and plot and then we bought the sound track and listened to it over and over. He loved the acting, the music, the dancing, the set design, everything. This is the first time we’ve gone to see any kind of show since the pandemic started, and it was so good to be back in an audience again.
He’s a theater kid, it turns out! Theater kid, meaning the kind who likes to see shows, not necessarily the kind who is in them. I think Cormac would be a great actor — he’s extremely dramatic and expressive at home — but he says he’s not interested. He gets shy when we’re out in public, and the idea scares him. That’s fine, although maybe someone will get him to try it at some point and he’ll see that he can do it. Who knows.
Rick and I decided it’s time to take him somewhere outside our town, so we now have tickets for The Lion King on Broadway in January. I think that experience will blow his mind.
Have a good week everyone!