There is sometimes a story in the smallest thing, in the long unraveling scratch of a needle on vinyl, for instance, a sound once so common that we learned to hear right past it, brushing it off as a kind of audial lint, nothing to be bothered by—until we got the idea of clean digital sound and started wondering how we had managed to enjoy our music as much as we had, all that fur on our pleasure. I’ll go ahead and say, then, piling a mountain of association onto this near-nothing of a base, that it was just that sound, that scratch, that reached me here, in my state, my funk, not to save me—nothing quite so dramatic—but certainly to wake me up to something. Not a big event, as these things go, but on the other hand I have thought of the moment with a tightening sense of connection, so it must mean something, especially since any taste of connection like that has been lacking for a while. I don’t know how far back to go. Is this to be my election piece, my cri de cœur, my confession of writerly disaffection? It just may be, but if it is, I’ll try not to load the meanings on too thickly up front. My point is just that there was a bit of a sound, but that as soon as I heard it I got that verifying pulse of alertness I’m always hoping for, and I knew when the feeling ebbed back that it was in fact something bigger.
To try to explain, set out context, I’ll need to push against that strong countering voice (“Stop clearing your throat! Stop piling up those boring lists and explanations!”) and narrate to scale—local, domestic—trying to restore the mood of that particular afternoon as I drove to pick up my daughter. My usual late-fall grimness—I certainly had it that day, the feeling that something was skewed in my basic relation to things, that the world I occupy—my version of life—had little or nothing to do with the world on the other side of my windshield. Just witness all those people blowing by me in their SUVs, bleating their business into cell phones. Who were they? I’d been asking it for years, but now I felt more torque in the question. Were they the ones who blotted the little ballot balloons with their wrongheaded ink? Was it their fault? So yes, my sense of the outer world was certainly a part of it. But at the same time—connected to this—I felt the clog of a personal murkiness. The anxious fear that I can’t get said what I need to, that I’m no longer clear about where we’re going, and that even if I did know, my words would do no good at all. Not just my words, but words in general. I can’t help it: when I get into these moods, no matter how I tilt my head, the whole proposition looks dicey. Everything pushes at me: the scatter and distraction of dailyness, the glut of our things, the fact that so few people seem to heed the things I care for. Not just books, but the whole inward-tending way of things. On these darker days I’m absolutely convinced that the idiotic shimmer has taken over, crowding everything else aside to the bright slick thump of some studio-generated piece of feel-good music.
This afternoon, then, my mood is dark and drained, infected by all this spleen, but also by the sudden inability to get my words right on the page, to feel that bright line of connection between thought and expression pulling the self and the world back into balance. Trying to write about my sense of the culture post-election, I’ve felt reduced to numb, angry generalizations, and, as always happens, the difficulty of getting it right feels like the new permanent condition. On my way to pick up my daughter from school, inserted in the mindless dreamflow of Rt. 128, I flip through my CD case for a sound that might break against all this blandness. Music, my drug, can still work a spell on me at highway speeds—something about the velocity and all that landscape slipping past meshes with the listening state, our looking turning into a kind of thought.
And what I settle on finally—figuring out my mood more through rejection (“no, no, no”) than choice—is a mix-CD that a brotherly friend once burned for me, a bouquet of certified heart-breakers, folkie classics, songs I know I can, often enough, burrow my way into. And this time the music, the sequence, does work. By the time I pull up the long school drive and park in my usual spot, I’m in a state, with all my recent frustration and melancholy folded together—the election, my loss of connection, the writing morass, my sense that there are hungry new generations gnawing at our heels—and this state, created and fed by the music, keeps extending itself, somehow growing together with the November darkness that is closing down so swiftly, until finally all things inner and outer seem like part of one plaintive thing. And this, no denying, is the true bottom-line picture of the world . . .
But always, of course—we forget—there has to be the moment of the turn, the shift, when even the cleanest sustained note wears out. This afternoon, in my car, in the dark, it comes in the deep quiet that follows the fading out of the song I was listening to—and right after, when I hear that tiny scritching sound. I know my sentimental friend and I recognize the tune, the old British war-time classic “We’ll Meet Again”—its crackly period-piece sadness obviously transferred to CD from vinyl. And right here, with that first bit of audial rustle, I am transfixed, overtaken, almost as if that tiny rasp, that staticky burr, is the forgotten thing I’ve been in search of all along, and it hits me, if not quite with Proustian force, then still hard, jolting me up, giving me the end of something that can be pulled in or followed. And there at the other end—I know this right away, before I even name it—is a very particular time and place. Ann Arbor, thirty-some years ago, with everything in composite: all the little rooms I lived in, upstairs, all the inevitable slanted ceilings, jammed windows, battered wooden fire-escapes, and I have such a strong feeling of those places, their look and stale rankness, everything, my clothes, my posters, my notebooks and piles of papers, my books, and my music, the source of it all, that first little stereo I owned that used to manufacture just this hiss I am hearing. And here, in the sound of the ongoing hiss, in the hours and hours of music, morning, afternoon and night, the tone-arm spiraling down slowly after the last cut of whatever record I have on, then flinging back like a salute to start again—inside all of this, in a jumble, I get the expanding sensation of everything else that was crowded around, not just me, my room, my situation, but also my world, the times themselves, all that feeling we breathed and assumed, the us and the them, the cause, so boldly marked—Nixon and the pigs here, the people there—all of it together bringing back the future we were pointing at, without even knowing it, when we collected on the street or at long tables in Mark’s Coffee Shop or on the Diag, when we knew without question that we were right and that we were next—the same feeling that incredibly, unthinkably, disappeared, stunning us all, leaving us sucker-punched and forced to figure out how to do whatever had to be done alone, without that solidarity. All those dreamers waking up, everything inexplicably turning, changing, but not before leaving its traces—in the fine-grained details of atmosphere, in the songs, and for me, so I now discover, in the crackle I absorbed without noticing it, those endless few years when I lay on my bed, eyes closed, playing, over and over, my amplified scenarios of the life to come.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)