History’s fascinating quagmire

Note: The shape of our lives these days is such that I still haven’t had a lot of time or the energy to cook up anything fresh for you. This too shall pass, I’ve been promised, and I promise in turn that there will be more current posts soon. But for now, here’s one of the many posts I have written earlier and for whatever reason — too many ideas going, didn’t like the flow, wasn’t that posts “time”, etc. — never published. I’ve tied up the loose ends but I left words like “yesterday” in place, even though in this case yesterday was months ago. I do this in order to preserve the original post’s raison d’être, if that makes sense. As a sort of epilogue up front, this was as great a read as I thought it would be.

 

The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

— Harry S. Truman

About five years ago on a trip back to Angela’s hometown of St. Louis, someone told me about a book he was reading called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It was one New Yorker’s telling of the year of nights he spent standing in an alley off of Gold Street and Fulton in Lower Manhattan observing the behavior of rats. It sounded crazy interesting to me, and when we found ourselves killing a little extra time in a small independent bookshop before our flight home, the book found me and I bought it.

It turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. It was not just about the guy’s experience standing in the alley. That’s just the thread that holds it all together. He weaves into his tale the history of the alley, indeed of the rounded hill that still partially (and almost invisibly) exists beneath the tall buildings there and was called Gold Hill before there were streets. He rides along with pest control professionals and records their anectodes and wisdom about New York’s rat problem. All the while I read it, I kept thinking, this guy surely must have come across Joseph Mitchell’s “Rats on the Waterfront” article, and indeed, in the extensive and entertaining notes section, which I read all of despite my long-standing agreement with myself that notes sections are optional and usually not worth trudging through, he mentions Mitchell’s essay.

The book marked a decisive turn in my reading life. I had for years been reading novels, centered around Helprin and Barth, as I’ve told you before. In the few years before reading the rat book, I had begun to feel restless. I started reading ancient works of history, such as Herodotus and Thucydides and the writings of the Desert Fathers. (I also bought Virgil and even Gibbons, just didn’t get around to them.)

I found I enjoyed reading history, something I did not really know about myself. Then I ran into Mitchell, who as you know has become my literary hero. When I read Rats, I found a living author who had picked up something akin to the ball that had been dropped when Mitchell stopped writing — like John McPhee only with more caffeine in him — and it was my impression that he wasn’t even really a writer-type, that he was a plain-talking New Yorker who had a gift for inquiry and expression, and just happened to write a book. Until today, I had even forgotten his name even though his book still occupies an honored place on my bookshelf.

'Vaguely interesting nonfiction about all kinds of subjects' -- the perfect read. Book image (probably) copyright Anchor/Doubleday.

Rats ratified the alteration in course my reading had been making. From then on I looked for books like that, where a topic — any old topic — became the focus of a journey through time and culture and science and “collective memory” (you’ve heard me use that phrase before, yup). Actually, that’s what was so great about the book. It was supposedly about rats, but it touched on the whole world.

One day a coworker of mine saw the book Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House by Sarah Messer, lying on my desk. He picked it up, flipped it over, and said, “Is this one of those NPR books?”

“NPR books?”

“Yeah, you know — vaguely interesting non-fiction about all kinds of subjects written by liberals.”

He had described my new reading jag precisely.

Yesterday on BLDGBLOG, I became captivated, as I often do, by Geoff Manaugh’s reflections on some books he’d been reading. One was a book about the Meadowlands, a patch of polluted New Jersey swampland east of Manhattan, a wilderness between the world’s largest skyline and the suburbs beyond, criss-crossed by highways and dotted with the occasional warehouse or motel. The rubble from some of London’s bombed-out buildings from World War II lie here just below the mucky soil, believe it or not, as do a vast heap of other interesting stories. When Manaugh named the author, Robert Sullivan, it tickled my memory, and I had a hunch. To my delight I discovered that sure enough, Robert Sullivan was the same author who had written Rats.
 
The crazy part, or part of the crazy part, is that Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City was written way back in 1999. At the time I read Rats (ca. 2006) I hadn’t realized Sullivan had written anything previously. I don’t now remember where I had gotten that impression. The other part of the crazy part is that between the writing of Meadowlands and Rats, Sullivan came out to my neck of the woods and wrote a book (A Whale Hunt) about the efforts of a local First Nations tribe to embark on a traditional whale hunt, a quest I remember because of the news coverage and controversy the project garnered.

I’m pretty excited to learn that Sullivan is fully in the game as a writer (has been all along), and as you can see, I’ve got some reading to do. As my old friend Walkin’ Dave once said, “so many books, so few chairs.” 

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