A Sense of Direction, 2
Back in June, inspired by a short review in the New Yorker, I read the opening portion of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, the part available as a free download. However, I decided not to continue. In late August, the New Yorker review still echoing in my head, I downloaded the book in full and began reading again.
Here’s the review:
Lewis-Kraus moved from San Francisco to Berlin and then set out on a series of pilgrimages: Camino de Santiago, in Spain; Shikoku, in Japan; and Uman, in Ukraine. He makes the three treks–Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish, respectively–as a secularist, hunting for clarity while nursing his blistered feet. … Perhaps by design, the writing–beautiful and often very funny–frequently mimics the setting: during the Berlin segment it’s restless, and, on the circular route of Shikoku, sometimes lacks direction. But on the Camino Lewis-Kraus weaves a story that his both searching and purposeful, one that forces the reader, like the pilgrim, to value the journey as much as the destination.
I was 90 pages in when I wrote a post on the book. About 20 pages later, with our trip to Nantucket coming up, I put it aside in favor of James Sullivan’s Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry, which I had written about in July. The rivalry is that between the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard high school football teams. I anticipated that reading it would give me a deeper insight into year-round Nantucket life. But early in our stay on Nantucket, Sullivan wasn’t holding my interest. With the Democratic convention underway, I decided the time had come to read volume four of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.
Our first day home from Nantucket, at which point I was three-fourth’s of the way through the Caro book, Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller A Wanted Man came out. I couldn’t resist, finishing it two days later.
I have since been making up for my infidelity by working my way back through the books I started. On completing A Wanted Man, I returned to The Passage of Power, a thriller in its own right, and quickly completed it. The football book was more of a challenge, until I realized I didn’t have to keep track of all its characters. High school kids would come and go, only to return in stories twenty years later in new roles as fathers and uncles of the current crop of players, or as teachers, assistant coaches, and coaches. The biographical details of all these people didn’t matter so much. The larger point was the fabric being woven of the lives of the two islands’ year-round residents, the difficulty of making a living there, or bringing a spouse back from afar to settle and raise a family. I got the glimpse into the richness of island life that I was hoping for, and I was happy to keep reading.
That left the pilgrimage book, which I still resisted, turning instead to Christoph Wolff’s study of Mozart’s last four years, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788–1791. On completing that, I turned back at last to A Sense of Direction. It was slow going for a while. Lewis-Kraus spends a lot of time alone with his thoughts. I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be alone with his thoughts.
A continuing theme is Lewis-Kraus’s relationship with his father, a rabbi (as is his mother) who left the family years earlier in favor of a boyfriend. I knew the author turns 30 during the course of the book, but only near the end found out how old his father is. Roughly my age. A couple of years younger. This was one of the oddities of reading the book, realizing as I did that I was of his father’s generation rather than his own. Not that people half my age don’t have interesting thoughts. (Joel, you know I always love to hear your thoughts.) But I had an on-going sense that I was on the wrong side of the book’s thematic generational divide.
The third pilgrimage, to Uman, is undertaken by Lewis-Kraus jointly with his brother and father, joining the thousands of Hasidic Jews who celebrate Rosh Hashana there each year in a tradition begun by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov two centuries ago. The book builds toward this opportunity for Lewis-Kraus to reconcile with his father, and I didn’t want to miss it, which is why I picked up the book again and kept going. However, to my surprise, and notwithstanding the comment in the New Yorker review that the portion of the book on the Shikoku pilgrimage lacks direction, I enjoyed that the most. It is the one in which Lewis-Kraus is companionless, and at his most reflective.
Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. And just two weeks ago, his second book appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Both books appear to be worthy additions to my reading list, with the second a perfect complement to my recently finished Mozart book.)
The short section that begins with the Elie quote was a good one, as Lewis-Kraus reflects on the notion of choice. Here’s a bit of his follow up:
Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life. And no experience is any more or less direct than any other one. But the point of view Elie offers is worth considering, more for its assumptions than its shoddy lament. Being self-conscious about an experience means, to Elie, standing at a remove from it. This remove is created by the fact that we all know, at any given time, that there is an associated cost, that we could be doing something else. Being self-conscious means recognizing that whatever we are doing is something we have, for the most part, chosen to do … Anything we have chosen to do invites the specters of all that we haven’t chosen–this is the real misery of choice … .
This goes on for a while, with a reference to David Foster Wallace thrown in for good measure. Maybe not the ultimate in profundity, but within the context of the book, it works.
And in that context, a traveling context, it struck a chord. For we have chosen in recent years to end our summers with a trip to Nantucket, and I have come to recognize that the principal cost of this decision is exactly what Lewis-Kraus highlights: that we could be doing something else, and aren’t. All those places we hope to visit some day? When we’re in Nantucket, they’re not getting visited.
Yet we continue to make this choice. Which ties in with other themes of Lewis-Kraus’s book: pilgrims versus tourists, authentic experiences, that sort of thing. By returning each year, we imagine ourselves participating, albeit in a tiny way, in the life of the island. We’re not, you know, mere tourists. But what are we? Not residents, clearly. Not like the people in Sullivan’s book about Nantucket football. Nor like Jack Welch (whose tweet on the Friday job numbers almost prompted a post in which I was going to argue that the island isn’t big enough for the two of us). We’re just passing through. Nonetheless, with each return visit, we build the illusion that Nantucket is an alternative home base, and we choose to pay the cost for this illusion by not going elsewhere.
I finished the book yesterday morning. Slow going at times, like Lewis-Kraus’s walks, but I’m glad I did.