Some Thoughts on the State of Things after Re-Reading “Parker’s Back”

A piece on Christianity in contemporary fiction in last week’s New York Times Book Review mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and subsequently sent me to my bookcase. I pulled Ms O’Connor’s Complete Works from the shelf, checked the index, and marked the story with the book’s ribbon. My apartment is small enough and the books organized well enough that the entire process took less than one minute. To read it took a good deal longer, not least because I have learned to read slowly but mostly because “Parker’s Back” is a frightening story about a man whose apparently misplaced faith yields cyclical resentment and crisis. Mr Parker’s judgment is not what we generally think of as “sound.” It’s an extraordinarily dense work, covers a great deal of time and space in fewer than 20 pages.

Another option under these circumstances might have been to search Wikipedia for the story, where one would find a synopsis of the work that not long ago would have met the inadequate-for-all-but-testing standards of Cliff’s Notes, and from which one might glean a vague idea about faith and identity, class and fervor, failure and aggression – at least enough to cover oneself at a cocktail party should the conversation veer into The American South.

Choosing the second option, I would experience only the shame or pride of passing muster at a cocktail party, nothing of Ms O’Connor’s work, nothing of the possibilities, depth, or range of human belief and expression. That this second option has become the norm is not an argument between reading or not reading nor exactly an argument between knowing and not knowing.1

I sense that in the last several years, these two phenomena, the concession to brevity and the experience of knowing a subject or object thoroughly, have become, in many instances, practically interchangeable.2We have come to trust the brevity of our exchanges, to assume a glance and a longer look are equivalent, because we are so rarely asked to take the longer look, to digest the experience before reporting on it, to have the courage to form a relationship with a work, our own or someone else’s, without fear of missing out on something else. We spend increasingly more time scanning short, discrete expressions in anticipation of meaning if not relation. I think we suffer for it, too.

My choice, as it happened, will not be unusual to anyone who has in the course of their life assembled a personal library, a large or small collection of books or other analog materials whose presence in one’s home serves both as reference and affirmation of one’s identity and sociability. Unlike the material in the current climate of electronic reading, these collections share our space with us, as do our friends, family, collaborators, guests, and co-workers. Books can be passed around with ease, unbound as they are to any proprietary format or device, and in so doing grant our presence to the receiver’s home or travel or wherever they might take the book in question. I’m open to but not aware of instances where digital media — files, that is — provide the same sense of intimacy. There are, no doubt, exceptions but as I say, they’re not part of my experience.

I should add, for what it’s worth, that I am not a Luddite. I’m typing this on an iPad Mini, a device for which my fondness so far extends beyond its novelty and from which, earlier today, I streamed Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to my television. I embrace such devices for what they can do but remain skeptical about their ability to replace the tactile relationship I have with my books. I am certain that this skepticism is not unique, nor is it limited to books. I have, for example, a similar relationship with records and CDs.

Perhaps it’s a generation gap but I doubt it. I know younger people, aged 25-30, give or take, who prefer vinyl or CDs to MP3s, theatrical moviegoing or DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to streaming. They’re picking up, I think, on the culture surrounding these activities and formats, which is essentially social and in-hand, and perhaps more importantly, has a history from which they can learn and grow and to which they can contribute.

Additionally, too much convenience and too many choices can be paralyzing. Sometimes the extra effort it takes to find a rare or elusive work in order to share it in person makes the experience more memorable or valuable. This is not to say none of us have benefitted from contemporary electronic correspondence, exchange, or collaboration. It is, however, to suggest that these latter relationships and their outcomes will likely remain fixed on their speed and superficial variety until such time as they resolve in a physical proximity.

In any event, “Parker’s Back” is a wonderful story and worth a read. If you don’t have Ms O’Connor’s stories handy, you can read it at Doral Academy Preparatory High School’s site.


  1. I don’t think there’s any particular harm in not knowing Ms O’Connor’s work nor do I think there’s any particular harm in cocktail parties. I do, however, think there’s a distinction worth making between knowing something because one believes it is worth knowing thoroughly and knowing about something in order to get over in a social situation.

  2. In fact, of course, they are not: the stages of a thoroughgoing learning process could be described as something like introduction, acquaintance, apprehension, understanding, and synthesis. Gleaning, I think, precludes most of these steps.

Inspiration: David Byrne

The band became a more abstract entity, a community. And while individual band members might shine and take virtuosic turns, their identities became submerged within the group. It might seem paradoxical, but the more integral everyone was, the more everyone gave up some individuality and surrendered to the music. It was a living, breathing model of a more ideal society, an ephemeral utopia that everyone, even the audience, felt was being manifested in front of them, if only for a brief period.

– David Byrne, How Music Works, pp 48-49.

Notes on the Anniversary of 9/11

1.

Every year I set out to write something about my experience of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9.11.01, and every year I find that whatever I’ve written is inadequate. I have thought in years past that it was a matter of skill: were I a better writer, I’d come closer to the mark. I’ve come to understand, however, that the issue is not so much one of skill as it is a matter of memory. Each year it is harder to recall the immediate effect of hearing the planes’ impact explosions,1 the fact of confronting an unbelievable chain of events, the awful placidity of my office’s view uptown.

2.

As it was for many of us who were in Lower Manhattan on that day, the experience was traumatic. I know 9/11 was traumatic for many people who were not here that day as well, but I find it difficult to disallow the distinction between those of us who watched it firsthand and those of us who watched the ghastly footage looped on television. We remain different, thousands and thousands of us, because we were there, an area which extends roughly 2.5 miles north to 14th Street and the width of Manhattan. The people I’ve spoken to who were at or near the Pentagon have reported a similar distinction.

I cannot address the victims of the attack or their surviving loved ones. I cannot imagine the isolation and violation they have felt, to say nothing of the shock and despair, the irretrievable loss.

3.

The people I know or have met who escaped the Towers before they collapsed are, to a person, hounded by a sense of uniqueness, separated from the rest of us by the stairwells, fire exits, and street-level escape routes through which they singly yet en masse brought themselves safely into the 21st Century.

4.

I can recall the absences of persons unknown to me except for our daily, simultaneous commute downtown from Queens. They were suddenly gone, and noticeably so because we were all getting on with our lives by accounting for everything and everyone that was suddenly missing. It was, and remains, an impossible calculation.

5.

There is, as far as I can tell, no aspect of our culture that has been untouched by 9/11. I cannot help but think that the widespread, accelerated retreat into thoughtless comfort and convenience2 is a direct result of the attacks and, in the long run, perhaps more important than the immediate problems we have faced and will continue to face. Those of us who have suffered directly as a result of the attack will eventually all be gone and our suffering with us. The economic fallout, the wars, and the constant, nagging state of alert, on the other hand, will continue for years to come. It occurs to me on this anniversary that these latter phenomena, as opposed to simple assault, death and ruin, are what the attackers had in mind.


  1. Did I hear both planes hit their respective targets? I think I did but the timeline has loosened in the last 11 years and I am no longer sure. Further, does it matter?

  2. The sense of entitlement to home ownership is one example of this rush to comfort; the popularity of retread art and entertainment, not to be confused with Clinton- or Reagan/Bush-era nostalgia, is another.

On the Upcoming Presidential Election

Uncharacteristically, I wrote the following as a Facebook comment on a post by someone I do not know. It seemed to bear repeating, if only for my own edification, so I’ve decided to post it here as well:

Ms. K—————, et al. above: I’m rarely moved to remark in spaces such as this but your comments brought the following to mind: It is ignorant and no doubt beneath your usual intelligence and sensitivity to apply any economic condition to a President’s inauguration.

The trickle-down failure was devised by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Enron and the first Dotcom bubble were fostered under Clinton; the real estate bubble, Halliburton, the banking collapse, and Madoff’s heyday flourished during George W. Bush’s terms. President Obama is the first to assume the office in a state of near-total economic collapse on all fronts since FDR.

Should a more qualified candidate appear, I have little doubt my vote would go to him or her but in the meantime appeals to xenophobia, distrust of womanhood, and catering to ideas of self-centeredness instead of community leave me unimpressed.

I think our vote should be determined not by what we perceive as our similarity to a candidate but rather by whether or not the candidate’s plans will benefit more or fewer people. In the current campaign, the answer is clear enough to me: Obama has a broader, more inclusive, more informed, more decisive, more engaged team and strategy than his opponent. So I will vote for him even though he also represents interests and policies I might not favor.

Additionally, it might be worth having a look here to see what has, as a matter of record, been accomplished in the course of President Obama’s first term.