Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bless Jon Meacham’s Heart

Jon Meacham was relaying an amusing anecdote to the overflow crowd that had come to hear him speak at the Miami Book Fair last weekend. He concluded it with, “Or as we would say in the South, bless her heart.” The story had been a warm-up to something larger: his discussion on his new book about George Herbert Walker Bush. That’s what the audience had come for.

And something larger still.

A few holdouts who have to be from out of town still do a bit of a head snap when they hear “Miami” and “book” in the same breath, bless their hearts. But readers know otherwise. Mitchell Kaplan and Eduardo Padrón, the two visionaries behind the fair—Mitchell the impresario of Books &Books, Eduardo Padrón the president of Miami Dade College—have been orchestrating this better-than-Woodstock-for-readers event for 32 years now. Each year, it grows larger.

Bring 600 authors together for two days, and in any given hour there are as many as 18 concurrent sessions taking place. O, the word choose. And oh, the many books.

“Have Half”

And so if you are a reader, you come for the books and the talks. But you come, too, for the moments of transformation, the ones you put your own stamp on—the moments when a stillness comes over you as the words of the author, and sometimes those of the audience, go beyond intellect to a deeper, larger place.

You could feel it as Jon Meacham spoke—of a former president who, as a youngster, was nicknamed “Have Half” because of his empathy. Of a father whose heart broke when his young daughter died. Of an imperfect leader who always knew that the office was larger than the person holding it.
As Jon spoke, you could all but feel the audience, many of whom would never describe themselves as Republicans, succumb to the larger story that Jon was telling. The one that went beyond passing judgment and that instead spoke to tolerance, and civic duty, and compassion.

Sharecroppers and sinners

It was much the same with Congressman John Lewis. He spoke with the kinetic power of a preacher and the quietude of one who has witnessed both compassion and its flip side. He described the five-dollar suit he bought when he joined the Civil Rights movement (and still has). Sharecropper: that is what his father was. The word startled with its many implications, and his story took us deeper.

When Gerald Posner relayed the many sins of the Vatican bank, there was neither malice nor triumph in his voice. Instead, there was hope that on some level, there could be redemption.

Darkness visible

Stacy Schiff spoke in her elegant way of how absolute the darkness was in Salem in 1692, solid and terrifying and fraught with dire consequence. That same darkness, Antony Beevor would tell us, descended upon the soldiers who fought in the frozen forest during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

And it is darkness that clings to many soldiers of any war, in the form of PTSD. In one of the most emotion-charged events of the fair, the actors Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn performed readings from Sophocles, the ancient Greek tragedian—searing, agonizing, gut-wrenching readings—the kind that can reach into that deeper place where suffering lies and become a way to climb out of the darkness.

The Rabbi’s thanks

Rabbi Harold Kushner also invoked the ancient Greeks in his talk. Among the audience members who went to the microphone after his presentation was a woman who didn’t have a question, only a message.

She told the Rabbi how, years earlier when her young child had died, his books had been her single salvation. She never thought she would get a chance to thank him. But now here, in this room, she could.

Only a few stalwarts managed to hold back tears. The rest of us didn’t really care that we couldn’t.

“Proofreading Woman”

Not every moment at the book fair, of course, is so tearful. There was the smile of sheer joy that first-time author Rebecca Rego Barry had when for the first time she set eyes, and hands, on her book—it had come directly from the printer to the fair at the last possible moment.

And then there is the catharsis known as the Rock Bottom Remainders, the band of writers—as in musical band—where Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom and other authors let loose with exuberant, raucous abandon.

Where else can you hear the song “Proofreading Woman”? And with the immortal lyric, “She never says ‘between you and I’.”

Okay, so you had to be there. But that is, in fact, the point. We lovers of books come to the Miami Book Fair to be among fellow pilgrims, to seek and bear witness to the larger stories, to recognize ourselves in each other, and to dwell, however fleetingly, in that deeper place.

Bless our hearts.