A few months ago, I posted a brief paragraph announcing the happy news that Lorrie Moore had a new story, “The Juniper Tree,” in The New Yorker. Ms. Moore certainly has other fans than me; almost every day someone finds this web site on a search for either her or her work (about which I think I’ve only posted once).
Late last week, I scooped off my shelf Moore’s story collection “Like Life,” which I’d bought at a sale in Wisconsin (where she writes and teaches, incidentally) earlier in the year. It was late and I would be asleep soon, but I started in on a story called “Places to Look for Your Mind.” Like with most of Moore’s fiction, within two pages I felt like I’d known the characters for a year. After 10 pages, several. And by the story’s end, I’d formed feelings for them so strong that what pained and humored them pained and humored me. Their world was comical and sad. Like life.
I don’t know how Lorrie Moore does it. It appears, on the page, effortless. I tell myself: This story shouldn’t necessarily be anything special. A couple, Millie and Hane, host a visitor, a young English guy who knows their daughter from a study abroad program. We’re only with them a few days. We only meet the daughter via phone calls (she’s traveling). Nothing momentous happens. And yet: I feel like I could tell you about this family for days and days and days.
“Places to Look for Your Mind” is 24 pages long. A few days after I read the story (I read it again the next night, out loud over the phone to my girlfriend), I was thinking about my experience with it vs. other books. For instance earlier in the year I finished William Gaddis’s 956-page novel “The Recognitions,” which was challenging and complex and brilliant. And yet my relationship with the Moore story, and with its characters, was richer than my relationship with a nearly 1,000-page novel.
It is random pull-a-book-off-the-shelf experiences like this one that make me feel grateful for being able to live life as a reader. I’m grateful, too, to the writers who spend their time at their desks writing their stories. I don’t know. There’s no real practical reason why a woman named Lorrie Moore would spend her time creating Millie and Hane, Ariel and John, then send them out for me to find. If anything, it’s impractical for her to do so. But she did, and now I feel larger – filled with more compassion, more sympathy – than I did last week. That’s what reading gives us.
Postscript: Another thing reading gives us: connections to people we never meet. This afternoon I learned the sad news of the death of a gentleman named J.B. Sclisizzi, an online literary acquaintance with whom I exchanged a few emails during the past year. I’d written him about William Vollmann’s “Rising Up and Rising Down,” which I was considering buying and which I knew he was in the midst of reading. (We were both members of a literary listserv.) About such a major literary purchase, he reported to me: No regrets. After I bought the seven-volume set and it arrived, I sent Brent (as he called himself) a note to say thanks for his response and that I joined him in the volume’s ownership. He wrote me: “congrats on finding a copy (now, of course, you’ll have to read it …).” I’ll be thinking of Brent as I do.