My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I started taking the train to work, I was really excited about how much reading I was going to get done. I happily imagined a future in which I’ve read every book I’d ever wanted to read — and all thanks to the LA Metro! People would talk about the classics and I’d airily reply, “Why, yes, I’ve read it.” I’d get a forward asking me to check all of the books I’d read, and I’d be able to check all 100 books on the list. I would be so well-read!
Well, the reality wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it to be. I do still read a heck of a lot, but it’s what I’m reading that was unexpected.
I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books, and I also don’t have a lot of time to go to the library. As a result, I ended up borrowing books from friends here and there, borrowing lots of children’s lit from my sister, who’s a teacher, and the kids at my church. Mostly, though, I ended up reading books that have been sitting on my shelf that I never got around to reading.
Most of those books were on the shelf for a reason. I hadn’t had any sort of burning desire to read them in the past. Most of them were okay. But none of them were too terribly well-written or compelling. It was a nice way to pass the time, but that was about it. It was getting so that I’d almost forgotten that I’d ever been moved by anything I’d read in a book.
Then, one day, I thought I’d hit rock bottom. There was a book on my shelf that I’d read part of the way through, but that I couldn’t really remember at all. It was given to me as a gift from a friend. She asked me to let her borrow it after I was done, and I never lent it to her because I never finished it.
It was a collection of essays by Arthur Miller. I figured I must not remember it because it wasn’t that interesting, but I wanted to get it under my literary belt, so I chucked it into my bag and headed for the train. And then I opened it to this:
Nobody can know Brooklyn, because Brooklyn is the world, and besides it is filled with cemeteries, and who can say he knows those people?
That is the first sentence of Echoes Down the Corridor. I read it and was instantly transported to Brooklyn. And then back in time to the Brooklyn of Miller’s own childhood. I devoured the essay greedily, savoring his descriptions of the colorful characters of the Midwood section. I could hear the children shouting in the streets, the housewives gossiping in line at the grocery store, the honking of horns. He doesn’t describe any of these noises, and yet, somehow, they automatically popped into my mind as he described his neighbors and relatives. That is the power of Miller. He’s conjures.
As soon as I was done with the first essay (“Brooklyn is a lot of villages. And this was one of them.” *SIGH*), I dove breathlessly into the next one. And then the next one.
Something about his writing grabbed hold of me. About halfway through the book, I realized what it was. It was good writing.
In all of the books I’d been reading since I started taking the train, I’d read a lot of interesting stories and fascinating histories. But I hadn’t enjoyed reading really good writing for so long that I didn’t even realize that I was yearning for it. As I read on the train for those three days, I drank deeply of Miller’s words — a veritable nectar to my parched literary soul.
Miller touches on subjects from his childhood to politics to personal anecdotes — Miller lived about as full a life as anyone could hope for. He wrote about the arts and world events and even his own plays. I’d laugh out loud at one essay and then turn a page and be in tears. Whether laughing or crying, I was always thinking. I was thinking about the myriad topics that Miller chose to write about and how such a varied collection of works could come together into such a cohesive volume.
What brings them together is Miller’s life. These are his experiences, his thoughts. What holds them together is his poetic prose. Arthur Miller lived for these words, and he made these words live for him.
After I finished the book, I was a little depressed for a while. Reading writing that good made me despair a bit of ever aspiring to similar heights of genius. Who am I to try and write when works like Miller’s already exist — and go unread on people’s bookshelves for ten years?
But that, to me, is the ultimate beauty of this collection. Despite feeling sharply my inferiority to Miller’s genius , I couldn’t resist the desire to write. Miller had inspired me. And that is the greatest gift that a writer can give: inspiration.
I may never write as prolifically or as insightfully or as beautifully as Miller. But it’s to his credit that he has made me want to try.