Walking and Talking
Gideon Lewis-Kraus went on a pilgrimage with Tom Bissell. Only one of them wrote a book about it.
In October of 2010, Gideon emailed me, one-on-one. "We've never met and you've got no idea who I am but I'm nonetheless about to ask you to read a hundred pages," he wrote. "I'm looking for someone young and gay and terrifically smart and unsentimental and who doesn't know me at all to let me know what he makes of this." What is notable here? First, the flattery! Second, probably, the flattery. (I am almost a decade older than him, for one thing. All the rest I'll accept.) Those pages were the draft final third of this book, the trip among Hasids with his father, and the pages did not change too substantially before publication; for what it's worth, I honestly could and did give him the gay seal of approval that he was clearly looking for, and also some other generally useless thoughts. And in the acknowledgments of this book, he thanks well more than 100 people for reading drafts, including Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Chelsea Clinton, Gary Shteyngart, Keith Gessen, as well as a number of his friends and/or exceptional lesser-known writers, and me.
This behavior, this habit of broadcast, improbably, seems in the end actually un-mercenary. What if every book was peer-reviewed far and wide in this manner? Workshopped by email, to all corners of the globe! Would it make for a better contemporary literature?
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"In an effort to offer something, anything, that is not already on Facebook, our writers seem less likely to go big than to go small, writing in great polished detail of the most trivial thoughts and deeds," wrote B.R. Myers in the May Atlantic, in the process of trashing The Art of Fielding. Both Tom and Gideon are prone to go micro, even trivial, in the style of the day. This seems correct, though, for nonfiction. Pilgrimage in particular, after all, is the act of throwing the vain self on an obstacle. That obstacle is seemingly the mountain ahead, sure, but it's really the rock in the shoe. Does Gideon, through the process of instep agony, actually know himself at the end? "I have a way of, say, asking a stranger for directions and seeming as though I'm calling him an idiot," he writes at one point. There is definitely something true about this, as we see from his quick-to-argument transactions with fellow pilgrims, but, as we also know, Lewis-Kraus is a master flatterer as well. (With mutual friends, he has displayed an ability to say the uncanny, acupressuring soft and sore spots, making people feel their darkest secret vanities are most valid.)
by Tom Bissell
In an essay in Magic Hours, Tom writes about the history of fame and literature, about the way that books are always prone to disappear: about Whitman, the self-promoting whore, and about Melville, whose most-famous work nearly sank forever. Fame, attention, respect: All this comes from making people want. This kind of attention isn't about creating a liking but inspiring people to be like the creator.
Tom starts off as an aspirational friend for Gideon. When they meet, Tom has a career Gideon admires— desires, really. This is funny, because, as collected (and often poorly retitled) in Magic Hours, the life of Tom Bissell Magazine Writer doesn't seem that appealing actually. But Gideon wants to become like him. This is even though Tom has become a drugged-out, video-game-addicted waste case, with little current interest in writing. Then they both change.
Gideon's book, far more so, makes the reader want things as well—to drop out like him, to jump off on a pilgrimage, even as we're informed that the benefits of pilgrimage are nebulous, complicated, maybe even nonexistent. Every journey may just be a filling of the hours; still, I certainly wanted to be like him for a while. I wanted to be like him in that way that each time you play Guitar Hero you become possessed with the desire to learn how to play a real guitar. The problem with that desire is that you have it each time afresh, because you never act on it.
The feeling with Tom, though, is that one wants to aspire to be a smarter, more careful culture consumer: to notice how fragile great things are, to see how easy grand projects become terrible, to revel in an honest admission of one's personal tastes. I wanted to be like him in that way— or maybe I just wanted his approval too. In either case, that attitude's a lot easier and faster to put on than whatever you might get from a long walk through nowhere.
Choire Sicha is a co-proprietor of the Awl.