Ben Ryder Howe is a former editor for the Paris Review. He bought a Korean deli. Then he wrote a book about it. It’s called My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store. Molly Fischer wrote a smart review of it in the New York Observer and discusses the question (accusation?) of whether he bought the deli so he could write the book. “Who does Mr. Howe think he is kidding,” Fischer writes. “Of course he was always going to write this. When your family rule book is Strunk and White, everything is material.”
Philip Connors wrote an essay for Issue 4 of n+1 called “My Life and Times in American Journalism” about September 11 and the Wall Street Journal which ranks as one of the best things I’ve read about that day. (I wish it were online; it’s not.) He left his job as a copy editor at the WSJ to work as a fire-lookout (and freelance writer). He wrote a book about it. Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout comes out next month (I’m looking forward to this).
On our first date, I told my now-boyfriend about the carpentry job, about leaving the newspaper where I worked to build shelves and walls instead. “Are you just doing this so you can write about it?” he asked (accused?). Brazen, I thought, and tried not to get defensive; we were almost strangers, after all. I stammered (and likely slurred; we were six beers deep at least at that point) and answered, honestly at that point, no, no, no. That’s not the case at all. Consciously, at that point, it was true. And now…
In My Korean Deli, Howe talks about the unreality of his Paris Review life. And, as Fischer notes in her review, “Selling tall-boys and snack cakes may or may not be risky, but its reality is indisputable.” And Michael Pollan in his book A Place of My Own writes of building a little office outpost writing hut in his Connecticut backyard: “It reminded me just how much of reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote for abstraction.” And when I think about the table saw and the chisel and the pry bar and making slabs of wood into things that work, there’s something more real and maybe more meaningful seeming, and certainly more lasting, than, say, writing a book review. (Which is not to say which one I prefer to do.)
A million questions get raised here. But what this has me wondering today: are we hungrier for reality now? Did journalists and writers in all the time before the Internet flee their jobs, starved for something more genuine? Or is this pattern repeating more now because interaction with “the flesh of the world” is becoming harder and harder to come by?