Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let the Great World Spin

I certainly agree that it is "the most wonderful time of the year," but it also tends to be the busiest.  Lately, updating my blog has not been high on my priorities list, but I always find myself missing it when I've let too much time go by.  The most recent push that is bringing me to write this post is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  I first read it about a year ago per the suggestion of a good friend, and I just urged one of my other friends to pick up a copy.

For me, one of the immediately remarkable things about this book is that it was written in 2009.  If you have been following my blog, you are probably aware that I am typically at least 60 years behind and often return to pieces from the 19th century.  However, as I have stated before, I do not think books are good only if they are old and labeled "Classics."  There are still great pieces of literature being produced today, though it can be more challenging to filter through them.  I have listed five other works in my Contemporary Series and am happy to now add McCann's book to my list.

Let the Great World Spin is in the form of a series of vignettes and could perhaps be defined as a short story cycle.  It is set in New York City in 1974, centered around one day in which Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope, thousands of feet in the air.  This part of the story is a true event, and the story has been documented on film (Man on Wire) and in writing.  However, this tightrope walker is not the protagonist of McCann's book but rather an interweaving theme that peripherally appears in the lives of a variety of New Yorkers on that day.  His daring walk across the high-risers of NYC is symbolic of the emotional precipice so many of us balance in our daily lives.  But the difference with Petit, and what makes him extraordinary to all the observers in the story, is that he leaps and dances his way across.

These characters represent the melting pot of New York City, ranging from prostitutes in South Bronx to housewives on Park Avenue, and everything in between.  Their stories paint a colorful picture of the range of struggles, achievements, heartaches, and motions that can take place on one day in one city.  They remind us that we are all connected, even when we are wrapped up in our individual worlds.  Their stories are both heart-breaking and heart-warming, and they beautifully illustrate the differences even in our shared space within each of our minds, hearts, and lives.

McCann has brilliantly crafted these stories, and some of the connections are so subtle that I had to flip back through past stories to confirm them.  For this reason, I highly advise against reading this book on an e-reader, though I myself am an avid Kindle user.  There are some ways in which an e-reader will never be able to measure up to physical books, and this novel highlights those differences.  I believe your reading experience will be much richer if you continually check back on past stories and piece the vignettes together. By the end of the novel, you will find that they all function in a circle, and to appreciate them individually, you must appreciate them as a whole.

For the New York Times review of Let the Great World Spin, click the image below: