Vital Signs

Thomas Wolfe

Sometimes a great book and the place in which it was read combine to cast a spell so potent and so enduring that both book and place become forever entwined in the memory of the reader.

Whenever I see a copy of War and Peace, I think not only of Pierre and Natasha but of the concrete courtyard of a shopping mall in El Cajon, California, where I read Tolstoy while taking my lunch breaks from the bookshop.  Anna Karenina whisks me away to the dusty second-floor reading room of Shakespeare and Company in Paris; The Portable Hemingway summons up a spring break, a North Florida beach, and a motel room with pink walls, worn bedding, and water that bubbled up into the shower whenever the toilet was flushed.  The Sound and the Fury transports me to a plastic chair in a Beacon Hill laundromat, the Backside of the Hill, only miles from where Faulkner’s Quentin commits suicide.  Long Day’s Journey Into Night puts me down beside a railroad track in Greensboro, North Carolina, on a hot wooden bench surrounded by glittering bits of beer bottles not much bigger than the sand on a beach.

Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River works the strongest magic in producing these dislocations of time and space.  A mere glimpse of that book sweeps away 35 years of my life and carries me like a fantastical carpet 700 miles north to Storrs, Connecticut, to the dumpy little apartment where I retreated...

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