Jonathan Safan Foer: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 14.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
>> For those of you who are here because you've been moved
by Jonathan Safran Foer, the novelist.
His first novel, <i>Everything is an Illuminated</i>,
came out in 2002 when he was just 25.
That was followed --
[ Applause ]
-- that was followed three years later
by <i>Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,</i>
[ Applause ]
two remarkable works of fiction before the age of 30.
Marie Arana summed up his achievement
in the <i>Washington Post</i> this way: "Rarely does a writer as young
as Jonathan Foer display such virtuosity and wisdom.
His prose is clever, challenging, willfully constructed
to make you read it again and again.
And reading it," she added, "you feel altered, chastened,
seared in the fire of something new."

Jonathan is a D.C. native, educated at Georgetown Day
and then Princeton, where the author Joyce Carol Oates took an interest
in his work.
That first novel, <i>Everything is Illuminated</i>,
was completed at Princeton but then languished in a drawer
for a couple years, rejected by five agents.
When Jonathan finally pulled it out and tried again,
the same manuscript thrilled several publishers and went
on to earn ecstatic reviews.
Now the world knows when Jonathan Safran Foer strings some words
together, you'll want to read them.
Please join me in welcoming Jonathan Safran Foer.
[ Applause ]
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Hello.
Hello. Wow.
So our time together is very, very brief.
We only have about 25 minutes or so, so I want to make good use of it
because I'm very excited to be here.
I did grow up in Washington, D.C. I was born here.
I left only for my adult life, and, then, only for reasons that are hard
to describe, but I'm always happy to come back.
I was anticipating a very hot and humid day
and was really disappointed by what I got,
[ Laughter ]
which is only a hot day, this is not a humid day.
I remember humidity, and this is not it.
So I wrote two novels, and then I wrote this very,
very different book.
And I think that when people approach it --
and I've seen this happen in bookstores before --
I've seen someone pull it off the shelf, look at the title,
and put it back on the shelf; or take it from the self
and read the description and put it back on the shelf.
And, you know, that's -- it's a shame not --
not only because I would like for people to read my book,
but because it speaks to a discomfort we have with this subject
and ideas that we bring to any conversation about it,
which basically boiled down to that this is divisive issue,
or that it's an issue that will inevitably lead to an argument,
or to some people feeling one thing strongly
and some people feeling something quite different strongly,
and those differences not -- not being reconcilable.
And what I found when I did the research for this book
and when I wrote it and in the year since it was published
and I've traveled across the country --
not only to major cities on the East Coast and on the West Coast,
but to areas all over the country -- to farming communities,
to inner city public schools, to quite a diverse group of readers --
I found that nobody disagrees.
If I were to pose the question, "Is it right or wrong to eat animals,"
I think most people in this room, if this room reflected America,
about 96 percent of the room would say, "Yes, it's perfectly right."
But that's actually not the important question to ask.
The important question, which I focus this book on, is it right
or wrong to raise animals in the ways that we're raising them?
To have a farm system like the one that we do
where animals are treated, as a rule, in ways that would be illegal
if they were cats or dogs?
Is it right or wrong to have a farm system that's the number one cause
of global warming, and not just by a little, but by a lot?
It's responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else
in the world put together.
Is it right or wrong to have a farm system that according
to the United Nations --
not according to the PETA or the Humane Society,
but according to the United Nations --
is one of the top two or three causes
of every significant environmental problem
on the planet locally and globally?
Is it right or wrong to have a farm system that is making us less able
to use antibiotics when we fall ill or when our children fall ill?
And the list goes on and on.
And I've found that when I ask that question --
the relevant question -- people are in agreement.
It's very hard to find an American who is indifferent
to the treatment of animals.
Ninety-six percent of Americans think
that there should be laws protecting animals from cruelty.
If you can think of anything else that 96 percent
of Americans agree on, I would love to hear it.
And whether or not you believe in global warming, whether
or not you think our environment is in any peril, you certainly believe
that the quality of the air that we breathe matters, and the quality
of the water that we drink matters.
And so we're in this odd position where we have a subject
which is clearly and definitively our most important relationship
to the environment and our most important to the animal world,
and yet we haven't found a good way to talk about it
that reflects these very American values, these very human concerns.
And so I tried with this book not to simply present an argument,
not to present journalism, not to present philosophy
but to present a story that would hopefully engage people who care,
which is to say everybody, in a way that allows them to care,
that doesn't make them fear hypocrisy or fear of wagging finger,
but instead says, "Hey, there's this enormous territory in front of us,
an enormous number of choices, and we can make choices
that better reflect our values."
The choice is not between vegetarianism and being a carnivore.
The choice might be between eating meat 21 meals a week
and eating it 20 meals a week.
If all Americans reduced their meat consumption by one meal a week,
it would be the -- environmentally the equivalent
of taking five million cars off the road.
It's a very powerful statistic.
And when someone says to me, you know, I'm compelled by this story
that you're telling but I can't, myself, become a vegetarian,
I just love meat too much; or it's too important to my family
or my culture or my religion, I understand and respect
that person perfectly well.
It took me 20 years to become a vegetarian.
But when someone says I can't remove one serving of meat a week,
that starts to sound pathological, just weird.
[ Laughter ]
So I think that's the place to start, and that's the place
that my book starts, the idea that we need to eat less of this stuff
because it's killing our planet, it's doing horrific things
to animals, and it's also injuring our own bodies in ways that we know
about and in many ways that we don't yet know about.
We've really made science experiments
out of ourselves and our kids.
And one only need read the <i>New York Times</i> or <i>Washington Post</i>
or <i>U.S. Today</i> or whatever you read, to find more and more reasons
to be concerned about this subject.
So what I thought I would do is read the first, little tiny bit book,
a couple of pages, and then -- to give you a sense of what I mean
when I say that it's a story --
and then we'll open this up the remaining time
to what I wish we had much more time for, which is conversation.
"When I was young, I would often spend the weekend
at my grandmother's house.
On the way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one
of her fire-smothering hugs.
And on the way out, Sunday afternoon,
I was again taken into the air.
It wasn't until years later that I realized she was weighing me.
[ Laughter ]
My grandmother survived the war barefoot,
scavenging other people's inedibles --
rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits
that clung to bones and pits --
and so she never cared if I colored outside the lines,
as long as I cut coupons along the dashes.
In hotel buffets, while the rest of us erected Golden Calves
of breakfast, she would make sandwich upon sandwich to swaddle
in napkins and stash in her bag for lunch.
It was my grandmother who taught me that one tea bag makes as many cups
of tea as you're serving [Laughter ]
-- you just had to be very, very patient and not mind iced tea --
and that every part of the apple is edible.
Money was not the point.
Many of those coupons I clipped were for foods that she would never buy.
And health wasn't the point.
She would beg me to drink Coke.
My grandmother never set a place for herself at family dinners.
Even when there was nothing more to be done --
no soup bowls to be topped off, no pots to be stirred,
or ovens checked -- she stayed in the kitchen
like a vigilant guard, or prisoner in a tower.
As far as I could tell, the sustenance that she got
from the food she made didn't require her to eat it.
In the forests of Europe, she ate to stay alive
until the next opportunity to eat to stay alive.
In America, 50 years later, we ate what pleased us.
Our cupboards were filled with food bought on whims --
overpriced foodie food, food that we didn't need --
and when the expiration date passed, we threw it away
without smelling it; eating was carefree.
My grandmother made that life possible for us,
but she was herself unable to shake the desperation.
Food for her was not food.
It was terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation,
religion, history, and, of course, love,
as if the fruits she always offered us were picked
from the destroyed branches of our family tree.
About half an hour after my son was born, I went into the waiting room
to tell the gathered family the good news.
You said "he," so it's a boy.
What's his name?
What does he look like?
Tell us everything.
I answered their questions as quickly as I could,
then went to a corner and turned on my cell phone.
"Grandma," I said, "we have a baby."
Her only phone is in the kitchen.
She picked up after the first ring which meant she'd been sitting
at the table waiting for the call.
It was just after midnight.
Had she be clipping coupons or preparing her chicken and carrots
to freeze for someone else to eat at some future meal?
I'd never once seen or heard her cry, but tears pushed
through her voice as she asked, "How much does it weigh?"
[ Laughter ]
A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter
to a friend including a photo of my son
and some first impressions of fatherhood.
He responded simply, "Everything is possible again."
It was the perfect thing to write
because that was exactly how it felt.
We could retell our stories and make them better, more representative
or aspirational, or we could choose to tell different stories.
The world itself had another chance."
And I'm going to finish the reading part with a one-page story
that my grandmother told me, and this --
I took dictation, these are her words.
It's a shame that I'm not an actor because if I were able
to capture her accent, I think you would understand the story
that much better, but it doesn't take a great leap of empathy.
So as I said, this is my grandmother: "We weren't rich,
but we always had enough.
Thursdays we baked bread and rolls and they lasted the whole week.
Friday we had pancakes.
On Shabbat we always had a chicken and soup with noodles.
You would go to the butcher and ask for a little more fat;
the fattiest piece was the best piece.
It wasn't like now.
We didn't have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese.
We didn't have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough.
The things that you have here and take for granted.
But we were happy.
We didn't know any better, and we took what we had for granted, too.
Then it all changed.
During the war, it was hell on earth, and I had nothing.
I left my family, you know.
I was always running, day and night,
because the Germans were always right behind me.
If you stopped, you died.
And there was never enough food.
I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I'm not just talking
about being skin and bones; I had sores all over my body,
and it became difficult even to move.
I wasn't too good to eat from a garbage can.
I ate the parts that others wouldn't eat.
I took whatever I could find, and I ate things
that I wouldn't tell you about.
Even at the worst times, there were good people, too.
Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs
with any potatoes I was able to steal.
I walked miles and miles like that because you never knew
when you would be lucky again.
The worst it got was near the end.
A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know
if I could make it another day.
A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition,
and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.
"He saved your life," I said.
"Oh, I didn't eat it," she said.
"You didn't eat it?"
"It was pork.
I wouldn't eat pork."
[ Laughter ]
"Why," I asked, although, of course, I knew why.
And she said, "What do you mean why?"
And I said, "What?
Because it wasn't kosher?"
And she said, "Of course."
And I said, "But not even to save your life?"
And she said, "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."
And that was really the guiding principle of this book,
and I don't take the principle to be one should be kosher.
I take the moral of this story to be that we have to act on our values,
or at least there are certain values that we have to act on
or we run the risk of -- of losing something about ourselves
that is very much worth saving.
We run the risk of actually not being ourselves anymore.
And so I spent about three years learning about animal agriculture
in the United States, not the philosophical question
of is it right or wrong to eat meat; not, would it have been right
to eat meat 50 years ago, you know, on the kinds of farms that were all
across America, but in 2010, when 99 percent of the meat
that we eat comes from factory farms, where animals are raised
in very great concentrations, usually in very little space,
almost always in windowless sheds,
the environmental destruction is built into the business plan
or it certainly seems to be,
it's the most environmental destructive thing we do as humans,
and the animal cruelty is part of the system, and that --
what I wanted to figure out, is taking into account
that meat smells good and tastes good --
I am that kind of vegetarian who believes that meat tastes good
and smells good -- and taking into account the fact
that meat can serve very important cultural functions;
that it can bring us closer to our families sometimes;
that it can make certain rituals feel more whole; taking all of that
into account, what is the value of meat
because it is not infinitely valuable.
There are certain things that matter more to me, and I think matter more
to all of us, and one of those things is my ability
to tell my child stories unflinchingly without glossing over,
without lying to him, especially stories that are as primary
as where our food comes from, stories that, knowingly or not,
we tell many times a day.
So I think that's an entrance into what this book is.
And with the remaining time, I'd be happy to try to answer any
of your questions about this or about my other books or anything.
[ Applause ]
[ Inaudible ]
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: So she was asking about my second book,
<i>Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close</i>, and if it was going
to be turned into a movie.
And then she said some nice things about the book which I can't repeat
because it'll sound like I'm saying them about my own book.
[ Laughter ]
Somebody's working on it, and theoretically it will be made
into a movie, but a lot of things will theoretically happen
and never seem to happen.
I would say if we were to compare the odds
of Iran getting a nuclear bomb and my film being made --
my book being made into a film, I would say they're about even.
[ Laughter ]
Which would you prefer?
[ Laughter ]
Even if you hated my book, it's still --
[ Laughter ]
>> Well, it's interesting that you bring that book
up because it's obviously a very difficult subject to write about,
especially for people who lived in New York, experienced that,
and to write about it from the perspective of a child --
as a child -- is, you know, a brave choice, put it that way.
The narrative structure of the book itself is interesting, though, too.
It in terms also in the way that you incorporated, you know,
a flip book in it and the other parts of it.
I guess as someone who is very much growing up in the nuclear age,
how do you see the book itself evolving?
You know, as you move back to fiction,
do you expect to use more images to create websites or videos,
to write something that you know will be read in more
than just the printed page?
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, you know,
you said that it was an unusual or risky choice to begin with,
to have a child as the narrator of that book.
The book has September 11 as a backdrop, and this --
the young boy lost his father on that day.
And Ron Charles, who I think is probably not
in the audience right now but who's a really wonderful book reviewer
for the <i>Washington Post,</i> wrote in his review of my book that that day,
and by extension the book, made children of all of us.
I happen to remember that line, and I remember very,
very few lines of reviews.
And I think that he was right, that there was a way
in which it reawakened a kind of vulnerability in us,
also a sense of wonder or astonishment, a sense of being small
in the face of things that are very big, and,
of course, a child's anxiety.
It's interesting because the topic
of eating animals does the exact reverse.
It makes adults of all of us in the sense that we are very willing
to accept things that we know in our hearts just aren't right in a way --
in ways that kids don't do.
If anyone's had the experience of trying to explain to a kid
where meat comes from, you know, it often involves a kind
of a pleasant version of an unpleasant story,
and even then I think they're good at sniffing out what's wrong
with the story that's being told to them.
Now, as for the form of the book, you know,
I don't think that books need images at all.
My favorite books don't have images.
That book is filled with images and it has a very maximal style in part
because I wanted the form to reflect the content.
You know, Oscar, the hero, has this very flamboyant,
maximal imagination.
He refers to his imagination as being like beavers.
He says, "You know, beavers chop down trees not only to build dams
but because if they weren't constantly filing their teeth
down on trees, their teeth would grow
into their own skulls and they would die."
And he said, "My imagination is like that.
Like it has to be active otherwise I'd be left to contemplate,
you know, this tragic reality of my life."
And I wanted the book to have that same kind
of manic quality or hysterical quality.
And that was why I did it.
The fiction I'm working on now doesn't include any kind of images.
As we move forward and books are going to be read on screens,
which seems inevitable, for better or for worse, it would be hard
for literature to resist the temptation to become more visual.
You know, the newspapers have, you could say,
fallen prey to that temptation.
If you look at the <i>New York Times Online</i>, there's embedded video,
there's embedded sound, and we expect that of a newspaper.
The question is, will readers expect the same thing of novels
when they're on that vehicle.
It's like, you know, if you were -- it's imagine being --
pushing a wheelbarrow on the Autobahn
and all the cars beeping behind you, saying, like,
speed up or get off the road.
I think that writers are going
to feel those honking horns behind them, and the challenge will be
to remember what's good about books, which is that they're slow
and that they're inefficient and that they're a single task endeavor
and that they're inefficient and they're not going anywhere.
You know, so much of life,
there's this increased emphasis on efficiency.
Can we do three things instead of two at a time?
Can I make it somewhat quicker?
Can my food come to me quicker?
Can I get my job done more quickly?
Can I spend less time with my family?
You know, this is where we are.
And books are the antidote to that, but it's going
to be increasingly difficult to stand
against all of this efficiency.
So readers will have a part to play, writers will have a part to play,
publishers will have a part to play.
And, you know, another reason I'm grateful to be here today is
because festivals like this are one of the great, like, the saving grace
of literature, you know, reminding us that we're a huge community,
that we're a diverse community, and that this is at least a good a way
to spend time as updating your Facebook page.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]

>> Excuse me.
Can I --
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Hi.
>> Hi.
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm like a stroke victim or something.
[ Laughter ]
>> I'm a middle school teacher, and in April I did <i>Eating Animals</i>
as a discussion group with eighth graders, and it was fantastic.
They got the book, they loved the book, it --
my discussion group could have gone on all afternoon.
But in the 30 days between when I announced the title
and the actual discussion, I was paranoid that some parent was going
to call and say, "You've read the book, right?
You know that there's stuff
in here that's not appropriate for a 13-year-old."
And I wasn't sure if I could argue that.
There definitely are maybe words or, you know --
and I'm wondering if you're considering going the Pollen route
or Schlosser route and making a young readers' version of this book?
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: I haven't given it a lot of thought.
I'm glad that your eighth graders were so invigorated by it,
and I'm actually not surprised because high school students
and college students engage
with this subject very differently than older people do.
Eighteen percent of American college students describe themselves
as vegetarian.
There are more vegetarians on American college campuses
than there are Catholics, and I'm not --
[ Laughter ]
I'm not talking about in Berkeley or in New York City --
in the entire United States.
This is something that everybody cares about.
You know, free-range and cage-free eggs are the fastest growing sector
of the food industry in America --
not in Washington, D.C., in all of America.
And it's a food that doesn't taste better and isn't better for you,
but people are buying in droves
because of these values that we all share.
I mean, I was in a wonderful position writing this book
because I never felt like I had to persuade anyone of anything.
I never felt like I had to change anyone's mind or values,
only present information that is -- I mean, people sometimes cast this
as a moral argument, if --
if what we mean by morality is that we shouldn't put pregnant animals
in cages so small they can't turn around,
then we've really lowered the bar for morality.
So --

[ Applause ]
-- so I take every opportunity I can to talk
to high school and college students.
And I would say if there are parents who are concerned about some
of the material in the book, I don't blame them and you should just take
that material out and share the rest of the book with them.
There are parts that are very difficult to read, either because --
not because of my imagination but because of the imagination
of the factory farm industry.
It's why I wrote this book as nonfiction rather than a novel
because I wanted everyone
to know whose imagination was -- was at play.
>> Hi, thank you, for being here.
I guess it feels so overwhelming sometimes, like, food in general
in this country, we have Senate bill maybe next week that Cargill
and ConAgra support that's about food safety, and, like,
I see those companies as the root of the problem kind of.
And that's the best legislation we have on the table.
I was wondering since you're in D.C. and the Capitol's right behind us,
if you've given any thought to the government's role in the problem --
well, obviously the problem, but also the solution,
or whether you think it's just an individual kind
of choices that will rise up?
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, we don't need the choice.
I mean, there's a lot of emphasis in our country put on choice
as if it's always a good thing, as if it put us in closer touch
with our constitution or something.
We don't need the choice.
We don't demand the choice to have children's toys painted
with lead paint; we expect our government
to protect us from that choice.
And we don't need the choice to have Chilean sea bass available.
We don't need the choice to have salmonella-infected chicken.
You know, there is a three-quarters of a billion egg recall recently
that most people are probably aware of, and that's scary.
Eight percent of all the chicken in all
of our supermarkets is infected with salmonella.
Between 40 and 70 is infected with E. Coli.
We're told to cook food at extremely high temperatures
until there's absolutely no doubt that anything that was wicked
in it has been cooked through.
We're told to scrub down our counters with soap,
some people even say with bleach, to wash our hands vigorously.
We should not be in this position.
Our parents and grandparents weren't in this position.
The government should be protecting our food safety.
We shouldn't have available food that requires us to cook it
at incredibly high temperatures and wash down all surfaces afterwards.
[ Applause ]
So unfortunately the U.S.D.A. wears two hats.
One is to endorse American farming and support American industry,
and the other is to protect consumers.
In a country in which 99 percent of our food comes from factory farms,
where health risks are built into the business model,
environmental destruction's built into the business model,
they're incompatible positions, so we need something else,
we need someone who's protecting us.
And maybe it was nice to think that when the new government came
into office, new things would happen,
but nothing new has happened.
>> Hi, Jonathan.
I'm a fellow vegan, so thanks --
thank you for all you're doing for animals.
I appreciate it.
And I was wondering how much backlash you've gotten
from the meat industry from this book?
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, in a way,
this is the most interesting fact about the publication of the book.
She asked how much backlash there has been from the meat industry.
Not only has there been no backlash, there's been no response at all.
So my book has 80 pages of endnotes.
Each page has, I don't know, 20 endnotes.
So we're talking about a lot of facts in the book.
Not a single fact has been called into question.
And it's not the case that the book just disappeared, you know,
it was like a best seller, I got to talk about it on TV.
It's not that they just were willing for it
to be ignored and it was ignored.
It did -- it did enter the consciousness,
if only in a limited way, for some amount of time.
But, you know, if I wrote a book about you,
and I said -- what's your name?
>> Heather.
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: Heather.
If I said, "Heather is a bad person.
We should all spend less time with Heather.
Heather is destructive in these ways.
She's cruel in these ways.
We should withdraw our friendship and support of Heather,"
you would say, "Hey, wait a minute, that's not right, you know,
you're not telling the whole story.
Some of what you said is simply untrue.
Some of what you said could be looked at in another way.
Let me make the argument for Heather."
No one has stood up and made the argument for factory farming.
I'm not talking about eating meat, I'm talking about factory farming.
Every reading I go to, I say, if somebody wants to stand up
and make the defense of factory farming, I would love to hear it now
because I looked for three and a half years and I couldn't find it,
even among factory farmers, and I did speak to a number of them.
I'm not talking about a defense that it tastes good
or that it can sometimes seem cheap, but a really cogent defense
that would stand the test
of a reasonable conversation, and I haven't found it.
And it's actually disappointed me that there has been no backlash
because I would love to engage them in this conversation.
The reason there's been no backlash is the most telling fact of all
in a book that's filled with facts, which is the meat industry knows
that if the conversation is expanded, if people think
about this, they're going to be discouraged from eating it.
It is not the case that knowledge leads you to want to eat more of it.
You know, anyone who follows the newspaper, right,
knows that there has not been an article in <i>New York Times</i>
or <i>Washington Post</i> in the last three years
that says this industry is less environmentally destructive
than we thought; there's not been an article
that says it is treating animals less badly than we've thought;
and there's not been an article
that says this food is safer than we thought.
All news, all information, all conversation, all thought points
in the same direction, which is this is more destructive, unhealthy,
and cruel than we had thought.
And so if I were them, I would be taking exactly the same tact,
which is, let's just hope people are so ignorant or so willing
to forget what they know that they'll put aside the values
that they have in the interest of what?
Not in the interest of the Thanksgiving turkey,
that's not what we're talking about, or the Christmas ham.
We're talking about a McDonald's hamburger, Chicken McNuggets.
That's what's at stake.
That's what is responsible for this industry that we have.
And that's what we have to withdraw our support from.
It think --

[ Applause ]
-- it's time for one more questions.
Sorry to the others.
>> Hi. I'm sorry to go a bit off subject, but I just want to talk
about <i>Everything's Illuminated</i> because I think that's one
of the best pieces of literature that I've read in quite some time,
and I was personally moved by it.
And I have a question.
What made you personally want to actually write about it,
and what do you think that we can learn from such a story
as that as you've written?
>> Jonathan Safran Foer: So she asked two questions:
What made me want to write<i> Everything is Illuminated</i>?
And what do I think we can learn from it?
I don't think we can learn anything from it.
I don't think novels are written to be learned from in that way.
I think the kind of education that happens
in a novel is very unpredictable and very subtle and has to do not
with what kind of politics we should have,
but who we might be more similar to than we'd thought.
You know, my first experience
as a published author was I did a radio show and it was call-in show,
and someone -- someone -- the first caller, in fact, said,
"I want to thank you for writing this book
because you told my family story.
And I'd never seen it or heard it in that way."
And so in my mind, I'm imagining the caller on the other end,
and I thought, oh, it's a 20-something Jewish guy,
glasses, brown hair, [inaudible].
And he said, "As a 65-year-old black man living in Trenton,"
[ Laughter ]
and my reaction is basically like yours, I kind of chuckled
and I was surprised, and I've thought a lot about that since then,
and shame on me for being surprised, and shame on us for laughing
because it suggests that the things we feel most deeply
or our family stories are somehow told
through the circumstances of our lives.
Like the fact that I was 25 and he was 65 should matter in terms
of what we felt most deeply or what our family stories boil down to,
or that he was a black person and I was white person,
or that I was Jewish and he was not.
You know, literature is the antidote to that idea,
the idea that we are closer to people
or we will better understand people who lives --
who live lives that are ours.
And there aren't very many antidotes in the world left to that which is
such -- makes it such a shame that the arts aren't a bigger part
of how we relate to the people that most desperately need to relate to.
You know, if you think about our military presence in the Middle East
or our militaristic presence, we have --
how many people in this room have read a work in Arabic in translation
in the last year or five years, I mean, very few.
And if that is the way that we communicate our humanity best --
and I do believe it is -- then we're in deep trouble if that kind
of conversation isn't taking place.
So --

[ Applause ]
I'm getting the overtime card.
So I'll be signing books in some tent over there.
Thank you very much for coming.
[ Applause ]