What percentage had attended college: 95 (me) / 98 (her) What percentage worked in publishing: 20 (me) / 40 (her) What percentage would recognize the name ‘Adam Gopnik’: 95 (both) What percentage was non-white: 4 (both)We didn’t recognize anyone in the audience, though a guy in front of us – he was in his early thirties in a leather jacket, glasses, pants with snaps – said he’d spotted Mona Simpson, but ‘she’s an asshole.’ A projection screen hung above the stage with the event’s title, ‘Beyond Words,’ in a tall, white rendition of the New Yorker’s title font. Lights dimmed, David Remnick came out, a man who might pass for an anorexic Harold Ramis, and read the night’s finest passage, from E.B. White’s masterpiece, Here is New York. The screen showed a picture by Joel Meyerowitz, shot from Brooklyn, of the Twin Towers; this picture morphed into another as each author took the stage, a different sky in the slide but the same landscape.
The readers were fine, neither great nor awful, but given the cause for their communion, fine. The selections stranded perfect and poor, from Woody Allen’s fast-paced, hilarious reading of Damon Runyon’s and Jimmy Cannon’s stories, to Don DeLillo’s somber but strangely ineffective choice of ‘Report from the Besieged City’ by Zbigniew Herbert. Paul Muldoon moved everyone with Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ and John Ashbery actually read well, from selections of Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Koch, and Louis MacNeice. I wish he had read Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ but requests weren’t taken.
The evening was at its strangest when I watched Don DeLillo without listening as he stood at the Eastern podium in front of a slide of downtown, with its sky like waves of stone, so much like his ominous cloud in White Noise. A quote from that book:
Toxic event, chemical cloud. When the words become faint, the cadence itself was still discernible, a recurring sequence in the distance. It seems that danger assigns to public voices the responsibility of a rhythm, as if in metrical units there is a coherence we can use to balance whatever senseless and furious event is about to come rushing around our heads.