August 6, 2007
"Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys [foul] up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight."
Sometimes, when you can't get a quote out of your head, the only thing to do is print it out and tack it on your wall. Mark Twain once prescribed a different remedy in a great essay for the Hannibal Courier-Post called "Punch, Brothers, Punch." In it, the narrator can't get an annoying, singsong streetcar conductor's refrain out of his head. "Punch, brothers!" it goes. Punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!"
The author of our 2008 Big Read addition Tom Sawyer communicates the sheer contagious obnoxiousness of this ditty so expertly that I hesitated to quote it here, but, well, tough. Now you're stuck with it. I feel justified in quite possibly infecting you with this tiresome rhyme, since Twain's own implicit advice when you can't shake some irritating ditty or quote was to pass it along to someone else.
In my case, for several months now, the quotation obsessing me has been the one prefacing this post. I suppose I could challenge readers like you to identify it, but Google has long since taken most of the fun out of trivia questions. The line comes from William Goldman's script for All the President's Men, as delivered by the late Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee to Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein. I've always loved that line's grandiosity, its simultaneous invocation of noblest patriotism and shameless but self-aware egomania.
Now, whyever might this remind me of the Big Read? I can't imagine. But if you twist my arm, I might just have to jettison the jokey, self-deprecating air I wear like a threadbare suit and declare what the Big Read means to me personally: that is, almost everything.
For reasons that don't bear elaboration, but pretty much boil down to procrastination and stupidity, I am a childless 43-year-old man. I have one demonstrable skill, book reviewing, which has become increasingly unmarketable. My one real stake in the future is the Big Read, a daft, longshot bet on literature -- both as a force of social cohesion "in a murderous time," as the poet Stanley Kunitz once wrote, and also as a non-negotiably good thing in itself.
In other words, nothing's riding on this except the, uh, fate of American literature, the survival of reading as a cornerstone of citizenship, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys -- or, more likely, me -- [foul] it up, I'm going to get mad.
I'm sorry to unload on you like this. I'll be back on Tuesday with another dose of breezy unsolicited advice and amateur public-domain photography. But, in between how fun and challenging and occasionally overwhelming the Big Read is for the NEA and all you sainted partners out there to work on, it's worth the odd reminder that if efforts like ours fail, you can say "Goodnight" to a lot that's worth cherishing. And that, if we succeed, the NEA as an institution will get more credit than it deserves, and all you Big Read contributors and volunteers, part-timers and overtimers, may get less.
That's why, before I hyperventilate from messianic pretentiousness, my last words this morning to everybody involved in the Big Read are two that Ben Bradlee never says anywhere in All the President's Men, and that I don't say nearly enough -- thank you.