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The Giant's House: A Romanceby Elizabeth Mccracken
Chapter OneI do not love mankind.
People think they're interesting. That's their first mistake. Every retiree you meet wants to supply you with his life story.
An example: thirty-five years ago a woman came into the library. She'd just heard about oral histories, and wanted to string one together herself.
"We have so many wonderful old people around," she said. "They have such wonderful stories. We could capture them on tape, then maybe transcribe them--don't you think that would make a wonderful record of the area? My father, for instance, is in a nursing home--"
Her father. Of course. She was not interested in the past, but her past.
"If I wanted to listen to old people nattering on," I told her, "I would ride a Greyhound bus across country. Such things get boring rather quickly, don't they."
The woman looked at me with the same smile she'd had on the entire conversation. She laughed experimentally.
"Oh Miss Cort," she said. "Surely you didn't mean that."
"I did and I do," I answered. My reputation even thirty-five years ago was already so spoiled there was no saving it. "I really don't see the point, do you?"
I felt that if those old people had some essential information they should write it down themselves. A life story can make adequate conversation but bad history.
Still, there you are in a nursing home, bored and lonely, and one day something different happens. Instead of a gang of school kids come to bellow Christmas carols at you, there's this earnest young person with a tape recorder, wanting to know about a flood sixty years ago, or what Main Street was like, or some such nonsense. All the other people in the home are sick to death of hearing your stories, because really let's be honest you only have a few.
Suddenly there's a microphone in your face. Wham! just like that, you're no longer a dull conversationalist, you're a natural resource.
Back then I thought, if you go around trying to rescue every fact or turn of phrase, you would never stop, you would eaves drop until your fingers ached from playing the black keys of your tape recorder, until the batteries had gasped their last and the tape came to its end and thunked the machine off, no more, and still you would not have made a dent on the small talk of the world. People are always downstairs, talking without you. They gather in front of stores, run into each other at restaurants, and talk. They clump together at parties or couple up at the dinner table. They organize themselves by profession (for instance, waitresses), or by quality of looks, or by hobby, or companion (in the case of dog owners and married people), or by sexual preference or weight or social ease, and they talk.
Imagine what there is to collect: every exchange between a customer and a grocery store clerk, wrong numbers, awful baby talk to a puppy on the street, what people yell back at the radio, the sound the teenage boy outside my window makes when he catches the basketball with both his hands and his stomach, every oh lord said at church or in bed or standing up from a chair. Thank you, hey watch it, gesundheit, who's a good boy, sweetness, how much? I love your dress.
An Anthology of Common Conversation. Already I can tell you it will be incomplete. In reference works, as in sin, omission is as bad as willful misbehavior. All those words go around and end up nowhere; your fondest wishes won't save them. No need to be a packrat of palaver anyhow. Best to stick with recorded history.
Now, of course, I am as guilty as anyone, and this book is the evidence. I'm worse; I know my details by heart, no inter views necessary. No one has asked me a question yet, but I will not shut up.
Peggy Cort is crazy, anyone will tell you so. That lady who wanted to record the town's elders, the children who visited the library, my co-workers, every last soul in this town. The only person who ever thought I wasn't is dead; he is the subject of this memoir.
Let me stop. History is chronological, at least this one is. Some women become librarians because they love order; I'm one. Ordinal, cardinal, alphabetical, alphanumerical, geographical, by subject, by color, by shape, by size. Something logical that people--one hopes--cannot botch, although they will.
This isn't my story.
Let me start again.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. All rights reserved.
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