This evening, I listened to Adam Gopnik read from his latest book, “Through the Children’s Gate” and wondered what it might be like to live his life. Atop the ranks of the self-described “creative class,” this New Yorker journalist spends his day weaving humanist theory into the recently acquired minutia of our time, railing against a life lived through screens and building up self-effacing tales of Starbucks etiquette enforcement. All of this set against the ever-popular facade of his Manhattan home, as opposed to the Paris against which his last autobiographical tome was written. A tragic life, indeed.
My friend told me that she goes to book readings more for the audience than the author, and I might have agreed with her if tonight’s writer was of lesser note. Nevertheless, the audience provided worthy competition for my increasingly wavering attention. Having arrived early at Politics and Prose, on Connecticut Avenue, I won myself the front row company of loose-gummed seniors and one bookish Asian girl. During the reading, the woman beside me provided the gentle beatbox accompaniment of the septuagenarian, a steady “ahh,” “hmm,” “u-huh” syncopated rhythm of acknowledgement that people of such age often mutter subconsciously. Another older lady to Gopnik’s left knitted away with a wide smile, and the goofy young Jewish man behind me offered knowledgeable opinion concerning the recent medical reporting in the New Yorker, all while the Asian girl scribbled away determinedly. I almost felt lazy for not multitasking, for providing my full listener’s attention.
Gopnik is one of the most memorable, outstanding essayists I’ve ever encountered. As he signed my book, I told him that when I read his piece on jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in an old magazine whilst vacationing in Melaka (the ancient capital of Malaysia), that his writing was more memorable than the town itself, which is true. In what one would normally consider an unusual setting, I found myself more focused and open to the full pleasures that great, perceptive criticism offers. He told me that he’d written the story after a prolonged period of Django obsession, adding that though he loves to play the guitar, he does so poorly. He was in fine form tonight, gleaning excellent comic yardage from the minor absurdities of technological generation gap and “Kids say the darndest things” sweetness; consistently warm and moving, yet never straying into sap.
In person, I found Gopnik to be more effeminate and homoerotic than I’d guessed. He is perhaps what comes to mind when people imagine the archetypal New York writer: small, ethnically “unmistakably Jewish,” polite, slightly dainty in tone and nimble in mannerism, and clearly fleet minded. When fielding audience questions, he provided answers before questions had been fully formed and filled in questioner’s hesitant shared thoughts, partly in a way that suggested book tour redundancy, but largely I presume because he is so sharp.
In this city, as well as that in which his book is set, I have grown accustomed to being surrounded by Jewish greatness. And in light of the detestable, if not particularly recent remaining anti-Semitism “Borat” exposed, I must say, within my own experience, it’s a wonderful, gently soulful thing. To struggle, succeed, and prosper…these are the universal aspirations of the immigrant, but never have I seen them so fully realized and thoroughly articulated as by the Jewish intellectual class to which I owe so much of my American education. And, given the many similarities I’ve encountered between Jewry and Chinese diasporic communities throughout the Asia Pacific and elsewhere, I look forward to the eventual rise of an East Asian/Western body of thought and art of comparable significance.
Where young South Asian (Desi) Western-raised creatives are already beginning to take flight, I am still to uncover an equivalent development in the East Asian anglophile diaspora. But, given the economic and cultural transition of immigrants past, I see no reason why more humanities-inclined yellow folk such as myself won’t be charging through the gates in years to come. I think it promises for some exciting new voices and cultural artifacts for an entirely 21st century ethnic sub- and fusion culture that is developing and changing by the year.