Sitting in Union Square Park this morning, watching as drops from yesterday’s deluge were made into rain again by breezes in the canopy, catching the sunlight as they fell, I tried to resist the urge to look to the bench at my left, where some guy seemed to want everyone to know how much fun he was having with his music. “Oh yeah!” he kept exclaiming, “CCR! Creedence Clearwater. Born on the Bayou.” And started bobbing and making guttural noises which sounded not quite like the bass line and rhythm of that song.
I really just wanted to watch the shining drops that kept falling in the center of the park whenever a breeze came up, but he kept exclaiming louder, and soon all I could focus on was his aggressive enthusiasm for music I couldn’t hear.
I thought, if I shift to the far end of my bench to give him some distance, he might calm down. But this action seemed to encourage him.
Whenever you encounter someone like this in New York, you run through a threat assessment first. Might they stab you? Are their hands empty? Do they look capable of strangling someone? I ran through the possibilities in my head, medicalizing his behavior, coming to all kinds of rational conclusions as to what might ail him, leaning toward something typically harmless like Asperger’s, and finally, as he burst out with an even louder “CCR! Oh yeah, I can’t believe I’m listening to Rock N Roll Music,” and as I looked across at a man in commando garb, doing boxing routines, and another man, mostly toothless, pouring a beer into a plastic cup he’d pulled from the recycling, I thought, “Oh yeah. Oh yeah is right. They’re all just maniacs.”
It’s never wrong when you find yourself surrounded by maniacs to ask yourself what exactly you’re doing in the same place at the same time. The truth is, I was sitting there obsessing, in my own way, on the idea that has consumed us for four-and-a-half years now, that the act of picking up a book to read is an important event that implicitly connects you to the other readers of that book AT THAT MOMENT. At its most far out, the notion that no matter how obscure the book, that finally we might have an efficient way to know that we’re not alone in sitting down to read it, that the connection may now be made explicit, whether we take action through it, or simply become aware of it via, say, the arrival ding of another reader. At the very least, we should be able to ANNOUNCE it in some way, if we want. Don’t call it a “check-in,” or you’ll get immediate backlash from people, at least in this city. Whatever we decide to call it — paragraph ping, book ack, page status — it’s that moment when you let your circle of trusted connections know that you’re engaging with something permanent. After all, books have the same kind of permanence that locations do, even though their actual locations move around. Their interiors are worlds in themselves, full of solid reference points that change either very little or not at all. If you check into the third paragraph of a chapter of Faulkner, it’s as likely to change as a particular piece of bedrock in Central Park. Conversely, twenty years from now, what good is it to know that you checked into your local Starbucks?
Maniacs exaggerate simple truths about human nature. There’s a part of us, when we engage with something we like — whether it’s queueing up CCR or Kanye, or opening a copy of Go Tell It On The Mountain or Song of Myself or the Bible — that rejoices in the idea of having other people know. No one can say that they have never, when listening to music or looking at art or reading a great story, thought to themselves “Oh yeah! I can’t believe I’m experiencing this! I want people to understand that this experience is worth having!”
This is normal. Otherwise, these things wouldn’t move us in the first place.
I don’t know why I’ve become so intent on this idea, but I’m probably going to keep struggling with it until I get it right. And I’m well aware that in the last three years, everyone else has become interested in it, and there are plenty of implementations of things that attempt to make this idea reality. But I haven’t yet seen one that gets it right. Even my own. I wish I could convey it better with words, but I think the only expression of this that will open people’s eyes is actual execution and delivery.