A girl in college once told me she thought that people who liked the same bands could probably be friends. Her sentiment struck me as terribly naïve, but it’s taken me two decades to question my own assumption that people who like the same books share a sensibility.
Last week my wife and I went to see the formidable Barbara Ehrenreich speak at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. You might know Ehrenreich from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her much-celebrated and controversial book about the ordeals of blue-collar workers, but I love her for Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, in which she stomps all over our country’s favorite panacea. In short, Ehrenreich’s a bad-ass. Which is why I was so surprised by the kind of people who made up her audience.
We arrived half an hour early, so we got to listen as a group of women gradually began gathering in the pew behind us. I couldn’t tell whether it was a reading group, all I know is that they ranged from their 30s to their 60s, and that they didn’t all know each other. I soon wondered if they knew Ehrenreich’s writing.
It started with a woman explaining to her companion what made Nickel and Dimed so good. “It was… I don’t know, very real,” she struggled. “It was about real things and real people.”
“It’s called nonfiction,” my wife muttered between her teeth.
A fellow member of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants piped in: “That sign that says Living with a Wild God looks funny as a backdrop for the talk.”
“That’s the title of her new book,” her neighbor helpfully explained.
Another woman began reading aloud from the book:
Sometime in my thirteenth year, but a little before I actually achieved that age, things began to assemble themselves into what I called ‘the situation.’
“The situ-a-tion!” She screeched. “Hilarious! So perfect!” She laughed as if this were a morsel from Bridget Jones’s Diary. She continued:
By this I did not mean anything peculiar to myself—from the conditions of my family to the historical moment—but things more generally shared by humankind: ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters, swirlings and shrinkings, yearning and terror. All followed by death.
She could hardly finish the sentence because she was laughing so hard. “This is so me!” She gasped.
“I know,” her friend agreed, tittering. “We could’ve written this.”
I suppose that’s technically true in the same way that given enough time one hundred monkeys with one hundred typewriters might manage to write a scene from Hamlet.
Mercifully, Ehrenreich finally showed up, which finally quieted the Red Hat Steel Magnolias. Well, a bit. They then began to show support for Ehrenreich’s statements with loud uh-huhs and yeses like they were at a Baptist service. I guess they refrained from throwing in an amen out of respect for the Jewish temple.
Ehrenreich discussed her new book, which details a mystical experience she had as a teenager (she is now in her early 70s). I can’t do justice to her eloquence and curt humor, but essentially she said her focus on social justice and her innate skepticism prevented her from considering this episode until about ten years ago. She spoke about her atheism, throwing barbs at Christopher Hitchens, and complained about the inflexibility of materialism and the ingenuousness of the religious. At one point she asked for help in recalling a reference.
“I can’t remember if it’s Greek or Roman,” she said. “But as a ships sails by the coast a voice is heard…”
“Sirens!” The women behind us started shouting. “Sirens! SIRENS!”
“… and the voice said ‘the great god Pan is dead’,” Ehrenreich continued, completely silencing the amateur mythologists behind us.
And silent they remained. At the end of the talk, Ehrenreich invited questions from the audience, and no one from the group behind us spoke up. The people who did (mostly men) seemed more interested in telling the author about themselves than in asking genuine questions about her book.
The first person who spoke was a palsied man who berated Ehrenreich for taking so long to realize that she’d had a religious experience, cited a few authorities such as William James, and then read a poem written on a scrap of paper about epiphanies stemming from drinking. It was hard to tell whether he was being humorous because he looked so angry.
Second in line was a woman who said she had three questions (eliciting a loud groan from my wife). “Did you have an imaginary friend as a child? And do you know about Jung’s two personalities? Did you learn anything from Jung’s mystical experience?” She received three negative answers and stomped off angrily.
An earnest man who was raised a vodouist described his own spiritual epiphany at length and said he was writing a book. It would have been nice if he had saved all the details for the people going to see him speak.
He was followed by an obsequious man who thanked Ehrenreich a few times (for her work, for her bravery, for the lecture, etc.) before he finally got around to asking her to describe what she saw in her mystical experience. “I’m a visual artist,” he added, suggesting that what she wrote was not enough for his particular needs.
The last genius wanted to know how the book was being received. “I can’t really say,” Ehrenreich answered. “It’s only been out two days.”
Q & A finally over, the audience was invited to get their books signed. I can only hope they’ll read them.