The Reason I’m Sleepy

A couple of nights back, I had a dream about Thornton Wilder. (NO, you pervert. It was not an erotic dream. It was a respectful dream. Literarily respectful). This was a first for me. Not just dreaming about Thornton Wilder, but dreaming about any author. My dreams are generally unremarkable-the usual fare entailing talking animals, having the ability to fly, or showing up naked for a math test. I’m nothing if not Freud’s most boring case study. (Sometimes, a math test is just a math test.) As much time as I spend reading, you’d think my dream life would be heavily populated with literature, but it’s not. It’s perhaps notable that I don’t dream about books, but I’ve never expected have dreams about authors. You know what would be amazing? Character dreams. For instance, could Jay Gatsby please show up in a dream and make out with me? Yes, he could. JAY: THE DOOR IS OPEN. Instead, Thornton Wilder showed up and hung around while I ran around doing dream stuff.

For those of you who have not been visited recently by Dream Thornton Wilder, let me catch you up. Son of the Midwest and global citizen, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) had a gift for taking appallingly complex philosophical, moral, and historical topics and presenting them in works both approachable and relatable. A novelist and a dramatist, he is probably most known today for the play Our Town, the deceptively simple story of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Our Town scored the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. In his spare, non-Pulitzer-winning time, Wilder wrote novels, and his 1927 book The Bridge Of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. OOOPS. I made a mistake there. I meant in YOUR spare non-Pulitzer-winning time. Then, because everyone needs a hobby and his two other Pulitzers were lonely, Wilder picked up a third one in 1942 for the play The Skin Of Our Teeth. All of which leads me to wonder if Thornton Wilder ever dreamed about showing up naked for the Pulitzer Prize ceremony.

It’s sad, but even three Pulitzer prizes cannot keep an author on the top of the best-seller lists indefinitely. Now is a good time to confess that the only Thornton Wilder I have ever read is Our Town, and I have not read it in a long, long loooong time. However, since Our Town has ascended to Required Reading immortality, it feels like I read it every other year when I was in school. I’ve also seen it produced a few times. (Because the set for the play is a minimalist masterpiece consisting of a ladder and a couple of side chairs, Our Town is incredibly cheap to stage, meaning you can probably go see it at a high school near you right now.) Our Town tells the story of the intertwined lives of the Gibbs and Webb families in tiny Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The geography is interesting but ultimately irrelevant-Grover’s Corners could be any small town in any part of rural America in the years between the World Wars. In the traditional arc of events in a traditional life-graduations, marriage, parenthood-Wilder examines our relationship with our mortality and what is means to be resilient, not just in the face of personal tragedy, but in finding the strength to thrive in the banality of everyday life. It’s heady stuff, but Thornton Wilder sneaks past everyone’s Serious Drama Alarm System with the folksy, wry Stage Manager character. The Stage Manager guides the audience through the play, observing and commenting on the unfolding events in Grover’s Corners. He serves as the viewer’s advocate and representative on stage, right in the middle of that small town action. It’s a devastatingly effective way to involve an audience, and no matter how many times I have seen Our Town, it never fails to move me.

Our Town is a breezy read, and I really liked it every time I read it, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in a long time. I don’t even own a copy, which I discovered the morning after the Ghost of Thornton Wilder Past crashed my dream. I was a little embarrassed, and I hoped that Thornton Wilder would not show up again so I wouldn’t have to explain to him that he’d visited someone who didn’t even own ONE of his THREE Pulitzer Prize-winning works. (Seriously, y’all, Thornton Wilder will take every opportunity to bring up those Pulitzers. BRAGGY.) Off I went to the bookstore to remedy this glaring oversight. After hunting all over, I finally had to ask for assistance. A quick online search revealed that the only Thornton Wilder inventory in the store was one copy of Our Town in the Required Reading section.  It would seem that Thornton Wilder has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Clearly, the time is ripe for a whole Our Town branding reboot. Why not? Jane Austen’s well-manned Georgia era young ladies now genteely kill zombies. Abraham Lincoln is ridding frontier America of a vampire scourge. Isn’t it time for the citizens of Grover’s Corners to operate a training academy for international spies? Maybe it can be the location of a secret laboratory for the CDC where they research and cure all the urgent diseases and train international medical spies? Or perhaps the whole town collectively owns a maple syrup factory, which serves as a front for a safe house for international spies. I think you see where I am going with this.


Picked up some souvenirs from the Columbia University bookstore.

I’m not sure what possessed Dream Thornton Wilder to show up in my head, but clearly, he was slumming. If he’s looking to stage a comeback, he is doing it all wrong. I mean, I appreciate the consideration, but this Tiny Book Blog isn’t exactly going to deliver a splashy re-entry. I know he’s dead, but I think even dead Thornton Wilder could score a seat on James Corden’s couch or the cover of People magazine.


Action Items
Thornton Wilder wrote the screenplay for one of the best Alfred Hitchcock movies, Shadow of a Doubt. Netflix and chill with that.

The Reason I Have Solutions

If you’re in a frantic race to the finish full of stress and endless errands-congratulations! You’re doing the holidays right! It’s important to take shortcuts whenever you can, so hear me out when I tell you that:

  1. If you have an entertaining dilemma, Julia Reed probably has a solution, and
  2. Don’t bother doing stuff like taking pictures or making any kind of written record of your memories. TIME SUCK.

Click here and out how you can do the above simultaneously!


Who knows? Maybe a Julia Reed book is that perfect gift for someone on your list, in which case I’ve just solved THREE problems for you. YOU ARE WELCOME.


Action Items
Take a nap, probably.

The Reason It’s Trivial

The following is a true story.

When I was but a fledgling reader, the one of the first book series I devoured was that classic of American classics, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie. The books appealed to me because they were entertaining and pleasant, accessible because book Laura was about my age, but still alien because of the historical frontier setting. Laura was frustrated with her siblings, just like me! So relatable! She uses an outhouse, while I have modern plumbing! So exotic! Laura’s adventures in pioneering were engrossing but benign..until book four. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for the bombshell waiting in By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

As By The Shores Of Silver Lake begins,  the entire Ingalls family is recovering from scarlet fever. Times were hard on the prairie! So exotic!  Everyone miraculously survives, which isn’t how things typically went down in a pre-modern medicine world, but Laura’s older sister Mary is rendered blind by the disease. LIKE SHE JUST WAKES UP BLIND WTF. I was stunned. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that blindness existed. I just didn’t know that someone could just UP AND GO BLIND. WHY HADN’T ANYONE TOLD ME PEOPLE COULD JUST UP AND GO BLIND? Mary, of course, rallies to her circumstances, gathers her resources, and perseveres with the support of her loving family. Her inspiring example made me panic. I knew if I JUST UP AND WENT BLIND I would crumple like a piece of old tin foil. Even at a young age, I recognized my lack of internal fortitude. In my panic, I began to practice being blind so that if scarlet fever ever found me in the suburbs, I would be prepared. I ate with my eyes closed. I got dressed with my eyes closed. As it turns out, I was terrible at doing those things with my eyes closed, but one thing I got really good at was taking a shower in the dark. It took a while, but I got to the point that I could shower in the dark more efficiently than with the bathroom lights on. I practiced it so often that to this day, I shower in the dark. It just feels more natural. COME AT ME. PRAIRIE DISEASES. I AM READY.

True stories are sweepingly epic, or horrifying, or chilling, or heartbreakingly sad. (Or really dumb. See paragraphs 1-2.) Resultingly, true stories are great foundations for books, but a true story isn’t a guarantee of a great book. In the right hands, a well-told true story makes a book an equivalent of a phenomenal TED Talk-compelling and informative. In the wrong hands, you end up with a book equivalent of a toaster cooking demonstration-unnecessary and boring. What about a true story really matters? Does a story rivet a reader with insight, or stop a narrative in its tracks with irrelevance? These are the questions that authors struggle with. Unless, of course, the author is historian David McCullough.

David McCullough has told some of the most fascinating true American stories there are to be told. He’s been blowing the doors off American social history since his first book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968. McCullough’s painstaking research marries with his lively storytelling style to make a convivial learning experience. He’s everyone’s favorite history teacher. His presidential biographies are enough to justify his formidable reputation (John Adams, Truman, Mornings On Horseback) but McCullough also tells larger stories about the unique experiences that contribute to the American identity. From the history of the Brooklyn Bridge to the year 1776 to American aviation, McCullough will entertain you and turn you into an armchair historian all in one book. You know where armchair historians are in demand? TRIVIA NIGHT. That’s right: David McCullough will make you smarter and more popular.

For maximum American history trivia answers packed into one true story, it’s hard to do better than McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. America in the 1830s was a country on the move, busy building on the potential and the promises of the successful Revolution. A new generation took on the task of forging what it meant to be American by engaging in the time-honored practice of traveling abroad. In particular, Americans headed to Paris to take up residence, steep themselves in culture, and study and practice in their chosen fields. The result was an America that developed upon a foundation of New World democracy and Old World intellectual tradition. A thorough education was one that embraced the value of broadened horizons, so it was not unusual to spend multiple years in Paris before sailing back across the pond. Because David McCullough wants your team to win every single American history category including the double points round, this book delivers reams of trivia about notable Americans like Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper,  and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Of all the true stories that David McCullough tells in The Greater Journey, my favorite is that of Samuel Morse. Prior to The Greater Journey, the only thing I knew about Samuel Morse is that he invented the telegraph and Morse code and the only reason I knew that is because I read a million scrappy kid detective stories in which the scrappy kid detective, tied up and thrown into a closet/attic/cellar by the bad guy, gets rescued by tapping out a message in Morse code. As it turns out, before he invented the telegraph and detective rescue Morse code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. He went to Paris to improve his painting skills, and while there he spent hours every day at the Louvre, immersing himself in as much art as he could cram into his eyeballs. He distilled his time there in one of his most famous works, The Gallery At The Louvre, 38 of the Louvre’s most famous paintings rendered in miniature.  For Americans who did not have the means to experience the greater journey, Morse’s painting – and subsequently, Morse’s communication invention – closed unimaginable distances. If you can’t parlay all that Morse knowledge into a seat at the team trivia table, then you’re just not trying hard enough.


1830s Snapchat

Recently, some scrappy medical detectives published a paper recapping 10 years of research into Mary’s blindness. It turns out Laura’s true story about scarlet fever isn’t actually true, and the likely disease culprit is not scarlet fever but viral meningoencephalitis. The end result is the same: someone can up and go blind, so I’m still showering in the dark. It’s probably time to learn Morse code, too. Just in case.


Action Items
Medical detectives are awesome.  

Image of The Gallery of the Louvre 1831–33 is in the public domain {{PD-US}}

The Reason To Pick Up A Spare

Peoplewatching is the best. I love being in the vicinity of a crowd. Plant me in a corner seat in a bar, an out-of-the-way chair at an airport, the back row at a wedding, and I am set. Watching interpersonal intersections is endlessly fascinating. The best peoplewatching, though, is when I score an invite to a family reunion for a family other than my own. Family reunion dynamics are flat out epic. It’s like watching bowling. People mill about in tightly formed clusters, maintaining uprightness, then BAM! Someone knocks everyone nine-eyed by telling the story of how Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy got into a shouting match at Bobby’s wedding over who was sitting at the better table.
Bobby: It was Helen
Me: Don’t start
Bobby: She bribed me with a better gift
Me: You’re making it worse

Come to think of it, the entire family reunion experience is like a day at the bowling alley. It’s loud, you probably won’t like the music, and somewhere, someone is definitely keeping score. The best strategy to employ is to find your team, name it something silly, and keep your head down bowling your frames until it’s last call. If that’s even beyond you, though, stay home and read a book about someone else’s family dynamic, and make sure that book is Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.
Bobby: I named my team
Me: I’m listening
Bobby: Best Seats In The House
Me: Way to poke the bear

Ann Patchett is a bestselling author, gifted writer, and owner of one of America’s most amazing bookstores because life isn’t fair. Well—it’s fair to HER. Not to me. I have to make special trips to bookstores because I don’t own my own, and when I do get to the bookstore, none of my bestselling books are on the shelf. Ann Patchett has to skirt around the giant Personally Written Bestsellers Section of her own bookstore just to get to her cash register so she can check out the next person in line there to buy one of her books. Commonwealth is her latest novel, a story of how families are made and unmade, of the collective territory of shared experience, and of how memories can tether us to each other even when we’ve left the past behind. It’s a wholly beautiful book, and Ann Patchett is astonishing in her ability to move the narration seamlessly from the past to present to the past. She understands that the key characteristic of family dynamics is baggage.
Bobby: Like a bowling bag
Me: Nope
Bobby: I keep bowling shoes in mine
Me: You own your own bowling shoes?
Bobby: Nope

An uninvited stranger’s attendance at an overdue christening party is all it takes to circumvent the seemingly settled lives of two families. Bert, an indifferent husband and a casual father to three-and-one-on-the-way, manufactures countless reasons to avoid participating in his home life. He wanted lots of kids, it’s just that actually parenting lots of tiny humans is, you know, a bummer. It’s in this spirit that Bert crashes a christening party for a co-worker’s new baby rather than spend a weekend afternoon with his own children. Several gin and juices and one kiss later, Bert has met the woman who will eventually be his second wife, and Commonwealth gets down to the messy business of affairs, divorces, and remarriages.

When all the dust Bert kicks up settles, there are six children in a new blended family that none of them asked for and none of them want. Anyone who grew up in a large family will recognize themselves somewhere in these brothers and sisters. Age, birth order, gender—all those slippery quantifiables that determine what your power is and where you can wield it. As the kids in Commonwealth grow up and make peace with the choices their parents have made, Patchett presents each of their stories in turn. The sibling relationships in this book are front and center, and what makes this book so powerful is Patchett’s ability to give each character’s perspective equal weight while maintaining the flow and the momentum of the story.

One of the universal experiences of childhood is grappling with powerlessness by declaring “When I grow up, I’m never going to do anything I don’t want to do” while one of the universal truths of adulthood is grappling with the discovery that we very often have to do things we don’t want to do. If attending family functions during the holidays is one of the things that you don’t want to do, the characters in Commonwealth are right there with you. Feeling stuck in an old family dynamic gets, well, old. What are the compromises we have to make as grownups to participate in family narratives that are sometimes older than we are?


If you find yourself stuck at a family gathering, and things are starting to get ugly, book a few lanes at the nearest bowling alley. Keep Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy on separate teams at opposite ends. Bobby likes to stir things up, so keep him in the middle and give him the team with all the kids to keep him busy. Grab a lane yourself and knock some pins down. Or, if bowling isn’t really your thing, grab a seat where you can see everyone and settle in. The peoplewatching is great at a bowling alley.


Action Items
If you are close to Nashville, immediately visit Parnassus, Ann Patchett’s bookstore.