P. and I are sitting in the park on a sunny September afternoon. She asks, "Where is the terrarium?" I turn and nod my head to indicate the space around us. "You're in it." A squirrel fluffs its tail and leaves a scent-marker near the end of the bench. "It's wherever I find myself in this world. Primarily up in northwest New Jersey, but it can be anywhere, really."
"I see." She does, too, and smiles. The light is dazzling. The green world waits to be caught in the beholder's eye. Then come the inevitable words. P. looks around, the ghost of her smile still lingering. "I worry about the coarsening of the public's taste. I don't think people are reading books much any more, they just have too many distractions. Most of my students have no interest in literature. It's so hard to reach them." I think to myself, when was there ever a mass audience for intellectually challenging literary work? Certainly not in my lifetime.
"What you're saying is true, but it doesn't bother me, maybe because I've been in the business so long, back to when I used to be a bookseller. Why shouldn't people read for simple pleasure? Nobody can be serious all the time. There's a great deal to be said for well-crafted entertainments. Listen -- I've got enormous respect for those professional authors who can produce a book a year. That takes skill and a lot of hard work."
"I suppose you're right. But for me, a book has to be more than just a diversion. It needs to be a real book, something wonderful I can hold in my hand, tactile, beautifully designed and produced, and also, of course, something worth reading. Not only for pleasure, but for learning, and expanding one's view of the world. A book has to be a key that unlocks the imagination."
An unwashed homeless woman with black scabs on both legs starts mumbling at us from a few feet away. Her words are indistinguishable, I can't tell if she is begging or just getting something off her chest. After a few moments, she falls silent, then wanders off to the next bench, where she starts up again with some other people.
P. begins speaking again. "I know so many people who have a story to tell, and for each one it's important, but after a while all the stories run together and sound the same. If I never read another Mideastern immigrant memoir I'll be happy. I think fiction and poetry come closer to the truth." Pigeons cluck around our feet and helicopters buzz overhead. The UN General Assembly is under way and the city is full of diplomats, politicians, and security agents. Traffic on 6th Avenue is at a standstill.
I give a little laugh. "Yeah, it's amazing how quickly a genre comes into being and gets overrun over by cliché. These books even look the same, their covers interchangeable, just like the stories themselves." And so the moment for writing that kind of book, and having it be fresh, has passed. P. looks wistfully at some girls skating by the concrete railing and says, "Here we are in the most exciting city in the world, under a cloudless sky, telling each other stories. Sometimes all it takes is having just one other person listening." I think to myself, yes, that's right, sometimes that's exactly how it is in the terrarium.