The bedtime story. Like that first purloined cigarette, it starts innocently enough, but the hooks are in place. It is, I believe, an accursedly neurochemical habit triggered by enabling parents, Caps for Sale, and Margaret Wise Brown. Or you might just have stumbled across it by your lonesome, on a night too restless for sleep. William Steig and Jacqueline Woodson. It all unraveled from there. Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, the Russians. (Your forearms ached and the flashlight failed; welcome, then, the further enabling e-book.) You became promiscuous. You could and would bring any book to bed.
Cherry-picking happens to everyone in these circumstances. It’s not your fault. It, too, is neurochemical, all endocannabinoids and endogenous opioids. Enter Vintage Shorts, another enabler, doling out the prime goods, feeding a bottomless hunger. Friend, at 99¢ each — “Extra! Extra! Hari Kunzru! Original story! 99¢!” — can a better deal be struck? Each Short is a plum chapter from a book, although in some cases it is an original vignette. They are perfect for the train, the elevator, or waiting on line. The bathroom, of course. They are destined to become bedmates. Not that they put you to sleep, but they are designed expertly to bridge the gap between an over-mediated day and the inner screens of dreamtime. Mostly. Sometimes they aid and abet insomnia by getting you rattled. (That’s to be expected from the ever fine, always grim Ryszard Kapuściński, but Madhur Jaffrey? Shame on you.) And if you have to reread sections time and time again, lost from memory as you drop off, poor baby.
The books are also invitations to literary festivity — that is, if you have ever received a 30,000-word invitation. But most of the titles are pegged to the ten- to thirty-minute reading range, and they run from stand-alone sections of longer works to original manuscripts. Vintage started the series two years ago. I have a list of over eighty titles, including eOriginals from Leonard Cohen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Maeve Binchy, Carrie Brown, Eli Saslow, and Clifford Jackman, and nuggets from Langston Hughes, Neil Sheehan, Nam Le, and someone by the name of Climate Central (the chapter “Where Climate Is Heading” from Global Weirdness). Lots of Big Names have gone unmentioned here. Not so many unknowns in this sampling; not so many invitations likely to be refused.
As January fades into February this year, the eleven new Shorts invite wanderlust. (This coming May, they will offer a new fictional short story every day, as they did last May.) Bear with me as I reveal the new list (a list is a list): Madhur Jaffrey writes of an older Delhi, Edwidge Danticat of Haitian Carnival, Pico Iyer of China 1985, Layne Mosler of Buenos Aires, Peter Ackroyd of wartime London, Orhan Pamuk of his childhood Bosphorus, Adam Gopnik on New York’s autumn, Ryszard Kapuściński on Ghana 1959, M.F.K. Fisher on Marseille when she was a frequenter, Maeve Binchy on her bailiwick of small-town Ireland. Anjan Sundaram contributes a fresh and original piece of war reporting from the Central African Republic.
If a list like that dangerously approaches a mere catalog of admirable names and associated locales, the good news is that the near-dozen offerings cohere: If a committee chose them, it was a committee of one, or a committee in well-oiled syncopation. As travel pieces, each is like thumbing through a skillful atlas — fine lined, chromatic, informing — pure pleasure to simply look at (or, in this case, read). As nonfiction stories, each works some numinousness on the fabric of time/space, mostly by tearing it, a wormhole you are welcome to enter.
Jaffrey gives us the hell of Partition but also a kitchen illumination on the ethnic cooking in Delhi. “It as not so much the ingredients — the ingredients we used at home were not all that different, though we did use less chili powder — as the hand that put these ingredients together . . . That hand had a different rhythm, a different energy from my mother’s, and from our own Hindu cooks from Himalayan villages. It produced a Muslim result.”
Gopnik is sharp on the concord of trust that enables New Yorkers to curb their Hobbesian impulses: the suspension of ill will amid the feuilletons of indignation. Or the paranoia of leaving the apartment, where every exit “threatens to become and encounter, and every encounter threatens to become an entanglement.” There’s Pamuk riding on the deep, dark waters of the Bosphorus, dazzled by the summer palaces and waterside mansions of the Ottoman pashas, all filigree, woodwork, enclosed overhanging balconies, and anathema to the new republic. And here, as in much of this collection, the Cold War. Or the year his family was living on Chickens Can’t Fly Alley, with a view of the strait: “The biggest Russian warships passed through the Bosphorus after midnight, under cover of darkness.”
Danticat embraced by Carnival in Haiti: “The scene grows surreal . . . with zombies and apes greeting each other, white colonists kissing Arawak Indians, a lion sharing a bottle of juice with a baby alligator, and slaves shaking hands with ghosts and devils,” animating “a priest’s mystic vision of hell.” In Sundaram, there is the village of Gaga gone mad by civil war; in Fisher, there is Marseille — insolite, in French: obscure, cloaked, seclusive, unknowable, but she manages.
In Kapuściński, in the heady days after Nkruma has come to power in Ghana, the minister of education tells him, “Reading is my passion . . . I cannot eat without reading. I have to have a book lying open in front of me.” Or lying next to you in bed.