Powell's Books, in honor of their Web site's 10th anniversary, ran a contest in which people were asked to submit an essay on the most memorable reading experience they've had in the past ten years. The winner (of 25 finalists) gets $1000 worth of books; ten runners-up get $100 worth of books. For each essay submitted to the contest, Powell's donated $1 to Reading Is Fundamental.
The finalists were announced today (in the form of essays posted to the Web site, which readers are invited to vote on), and though I felt a twang of disappointment that I'm not one of them (such hopes, I know, but they're kind of inevitable), that eventually melted into being thankful I took the time to write an essay in the first place. It's not often I write about reading, so doing just that was a nice departure from the norm.
My essay is below. It's called Through the Valley, and it's about reading Douglas Coupland's Microserfs twice. (If you haven't read Microserfs, maybe it's time you went down to your local bookstore and picked it up. Or ordered a copy from Powell's.)
So here it is.
Before I knew what Sand Hill Road, Draeger’s, and CalTrain were, before I had seen the city that would soon become my home, and long before I imagined I’d ever work for the company the book portrayed, I stood in a suburban Boston kitchen in the winter of 1997, reading the final chapter of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, struck momentarily dumb with tears.
I was teary at the blow delivered to Daniel, the main character, in the form of a stroke that leaves his mother speechless, immobile, and unresponsive. I cried, too, at the sweetness of the attempts Daniel and his friends make to bring Mrs. U back into the world. Karla massages her slack flesh, and teaches Dan and his father to do the same; Bug reads her the Sunday comics, complete with a running commentary on which ones he finds unfunny; Dusty and Todd demonstrate stretches and make plans for physical therapy.
But mostly I cried at Mrs. Underwood’s resurfacing by means of a computer, which Michael guides her to use as a way of speaking. The computer, which for much of the story helps keep the characters shuttered in their own small worlds, is what finally brings Dan’s mother back.
A few years later, partway into a stint with a Silicon Valley start-up, I picked up the book again to occupy the slivers of time I had at lunch, on weekends, and before bed. This time around, it read like a new story. I understood the Northern California references (well enough, even, to note a few factual “bugs”); I knew people with the same personalities and foibles as some of the book’s characters; and, like Daniel and his friends, I had felt the dulling effects of too many hours in front of a computer screen, too much time in traffic on the 101, too little daylight.
Reading the book a second time, I knew the last chapter—the one that made me sniffly in my wintry East coast kitchen—would hit me again, but I didn’t know that this time I’d be teary not just at the poignancy of the scene, but also with recognition, and with hope.
Because this time I understood that Coupland got it right: for those of us working or living in the Valley, although the Internet boom and bust had built up and wrecked so much, and though cars and office parks and cubicles had become the centers of our days, there was still plenty of life to be found in us.
To find it, we just had to believe that that life was there somewhere, and believe that, somehow, like the Microserfs characters trying to pull Mrs. Underwood to the surface, we could get at it. When we did—when, like Dan and his friends, we saw the signs of it, like Mrs. U’s words flashing into being onscreen—we’d understand that there’s something far stronger than markets or bubbles or code, something that even endless days of work can’t strangle, something that does not easily flicker out.
At the end of the story, as Daniel watches the laser pointer light show his friends put on for his mom in the Silicon Valley night, he thinks “about us…these children who fell down cartoon holes…dreamless children, alive but not living—we emerged on the other side of the cartoon holes fully awake and discovered we were whole.”
This time I cried because I knew I had fallen, too, and because I knew I would eventually fall out of that rabbit hole, out of the Valley’s living sleep.
I closed the book and for a long time I willed myself to keep falling. For months, I fell: through a job I liked less and less, through a commute I could no longer stand, through a mood grown overwhelmingly sour.
I fell until I, too, emerged from my hole; until I woke up the part of myself that had been buried by work and traffic and stress; until, like Mrs. U, I could truthfully say, in 36-point Helvetica, i am here.