We’ve been given marching orders, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
In between classes I duck into the library to appraise the situation. It’s bad. The building has succumbed to decay. A stone’s throw from where I sleep, the library—aka the Sifriya (ספרייה) because everything here has a Hebrew name, as well as an abbreviation: The Sif—stinks with no fans or functional windows. Forget about that glorious mountain breeze endemic to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the room smells like 50-year-old carpet, like tube socks, lake scum, fallen pines. But the fug and must are a comfort. This is the smell of my childhood. I am no longer a child and yet still I’m here, working at camp. A psychology for another day: my choices steeped in nostalgia, arrested development, a pressing hunger for vicarious joys. But the practical answer is teaching has become an affordable way to bring my kids here for the summer. I’m an adjunct. Over the years, I’ve come to view this month upstate as my own rustic residency: I teach by day and write at night. It may be no Yaddo, but time moves at a slower place, allowing for deeper concentration without the pull of city life or the buzz of social media.
In 1934, the Saturday Review of Literature published an ad on how to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. The ad is remarkable for its relationship to reading, democracy, and elitism. On the one hand, the ad dismisses critics who fret over the difficulty of the novel and presents it as a challenge that is rewarding to every reader. Yet the ad also makes it a point to link Ulysses with Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, and other critic-approved evocations of high culture. The implication is that reading is how every democrat can become an aristocrat. Today, this view of reading has created a whole subculture: Book People. These are the people carrying PBS tote bags, who listen to NPR every morning, who say the word “problematic” a thousand times a day, intermixed with exhortations to check out their podcast. You know, Book People.
“It’s very different from the sciences, where as a kid you have a sense, it may not be very precise, but that people try to cure cancer,” he continues. He wants to give students a sense of the kind of economics that cures: that cures inequality, that identifies and fixes bad schools.
Yet Musso’s is thriving, and was recently featured favorably in one of Rao’s first reviews; she praised its “impossibly charming dining room,” and called the cocktails and steaks “unfailing” and the wedge salads “dignified.” By most accounts, the food—which was slipping a decade and more ago—is better than ever, and the restaurant has posted consistent double-digit revenue growth in recent years, according to Mark Echeverria, the chief operating officer in the fourth generation of family ownership.
Why? “I think Musso’s is in a time warp that appeals to our occasionally wanting to just strip away the new, the shiny, and the uncertain to simply eat and relax,” Barbara Fairchild, the former editor of Bon Appétit and a longtime Angeleno, wrote me in a recent email. “You don’t come to Musso’s to prove a point. You just come to enjoy yourself.”
Today, Caesar’s has an old European feel, with black-and-white tiles and a shiny mahogany bar. The servers’ crisp white shirts poke out from beneath black waistcoats and ties. Historic photographs of Tijuana decorate the walls, heavy beams cross a dark wood ceiling and the lighting is dim, giving the restaurant an intimate vibe.
Ordering the ensalada Caesar’s is like pressing the play button to an elaborate show. Caesar salad isn’t just a recipe: it’s a piece of choreography; a slow dance between creamy dressing and romaine lettuce.
Despite its connotations of denture-friendly fare and penny-pinching, early dinner is the most decadent meal there is. You’re familiar with dinner and a movie? Well, how about dinner and a movie and a bath and a book and sex and rearranging your whole spice drawer if you feel like it?
Note the absence of a subtitle. This book is not for those who need to know in advance what a book is about. The readers who will love this book — count me among them — delight in walking on paths that branch without a defined destination. They are not perturbed by offshoots that others might call digressions but instead feel themselves to be held in trustworthy hands that will not leave them stranded.
Figuring does not lend itself to summary; to do so would be an injustice to author Maria Popova’s themes and methods that are inextricably linked throughout the book. I can, however, say simply that Popova’s central concern is the question of how humans make meaning. Popova writes that “[m]eaning is not what we find but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.” The lives, the seeds, the principles are what inform this unusual and original book.