I was sitting on the roof of my girlfriend’s apartment, eating a pastry and absorbing a crisp patch of May sun when a thought flowed through my head in precise, striking prose. The words were beautiful, but they were not my own:
“We are in California, living in Berkeley, and the sky out here is bigger than anything we have ever seen.”
The words came from Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” a book I had been reading that was set in Berkeley. The daylight felt different in the wake of these words. I looked up at the sky and felt their sentiment as if my own hand had written them. But I hadn’t thought them up, I had heard them spoken by a voice — the impersonal voice my brain gives to the narrators of novels. Aided by location and circumstance, his image of an open sky of possibility had broken the inky shackles of its pages and found a new home in my memory.
This sort of thing happens to me often. I cannot walk from Wheeler Hall to Sather Gate without seeing a modern version of the “long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSMs, YAFs, VDCs, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue” that Thomas Pynchon described so perfectly in the Berkeley section of “The Crying of Lot 49” half a century ago. And, strolling through the produce section, I hear the echoes of strange questions like “Who killed the Pork Chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” that Allen Ginsberg first asked in his iconic Berkeley-penned poem “A Supermarket in California.”
The rich literary history of this city weaves so dense a web around me that I sometimes wonder if I’m experiencing my surroundings directly or simply rereading someone else’s thoughts. Remembered words fit me like sunshades, tinting everything I see and giving me the feeling of being pleasantly possessed by the vision of another — of living in my own Berkeley and the Berkeley of my literary heroes simultaneously.
But not everything I read and remember produces such a nice effect. If everything was pure poetry, we wouldn’t need a newspaper.
Walking down Telegraph Avenue after an extended news binge, I feel the world changing around me, but in a much less magical way. Where my interaction with creative literature was exciting and intoxicating, this effect is sobering. Unlike lines of poetry, fragments of hard-boiled journalism and investigative nonfiction aggressively strip away layers from the city, providing both clarity and discomfort. Brain full of quotes from Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” I do not look up at the sky or notice its openness. Instead I stare through the sidewalk, thinking of an unfair housing system that so often is nothing but a direct line to homelessness. And an editorial on Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement leaves me anxious for the future of the nation and the life behind each window I pass.
We remember what we read and, whether we realize it or not, it plays a crucial role in constructing our worlds for us. Too often I’ve caught myself viewing my surroundings with someone else’s eyes, accepting too fully the opinions of this poet or that journalist and completely failing to focus my own thoughts. If Gertrude Stein says “there is no there” in Oakland, then it might as well be true in Berkeley. If Pynchon’s main character feels “unsure, a stranger, wanting to feel relevant but knowing how much of a search among alternate universes it would take,” then surely I am in good company here.
But this is not the way I want to think. I want to read about my city, but I don’t want to live in someone else’s words. I want to compare my experiences productively with the experiences of others.
The only way I can think to achieve this is to read as broadly as possible. To let in as many voices as I can, and to participate actively in their debate. Like stress-testing the materials before building a bridge, I want to allow my worldview to be attacked and tested before I stand on it firmly.
Sometimes these conflicting voices blend into a cacophony and the city seems blurred behind the fog of its own descriptions. The trick, I think, is to embrace this dissonance as a fact of life. To think of conflict between worldviews not as crossfire, but as the sound of musicians each playing their own scales before the symphony begins.
It is in the clashing of these voices that I expect to find my own.
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].