Not long after Adam Gopnik returned to New York at the end of 2000 with his wife and two small children, they witnessed one of the great and tragic events of the citys history. In his sketches and glimpses of people and places, Gopnik builds a portrait of our altered New York: the changes in manners, the way children are raised, our plans for and accounts of ourselves, and how life moves forward after tragedy. Rich with Gopniks signature charm, wit, and joie de vivre, here is the most under-examined corner of the romance of New York: our struggle to turn the glamorous metropolis that seduces us into the home we cannot imagine leaving.
Gopnik, bestselling author of "Paris to the Moon" and writer for "The New Yorker," does for New York what he did for Paris in this collection about life, art, and family.
1. Who is the implied reader of Gopniks essays-the person who lives in New York City, or the person who, like those who see the skyline from a distance, wants to get a taste of New York from afar? Does direct experience of life in New York City make a difference to how one experiences the book?
2. “Manners matter,” Gopnik writes. “These are stories about the manners, the children, and the objects of the professional classes in what was and remains the worlds real capital, in a time of generalized panic and particularized pleasures, about the secular rituals of material but not unmindful people, a handful of manners pressed between the pages of a book” [p. 21]. In what way does he mean “manners matter,” and how are New York manners different from those of other places in the time period of which he writes?
3. Gopnik calls himself a “comic writer” in his introduction [p. 21]. Is this an accurate assessment of his sensibility? Which essay, for you, best expresses the particular character of his sense of humor, and how does it do so?
4. Consider the following two observations: “If the energy of New York is the energy of aspiration . . . the spirit of New York is really the spirit of accommodation . . .” [p. 5] and “I love Paris, but I believe in New York and in its trinity of values: plurality, verticality, possibility” [pp. 5, 22]. How accurate are these brief assessments of New York?
5. In “Man Goes to See a Doctor,” Dr. Grosskurth tells the author that his professional anxieties and arguments are of little importance because “No one cares! People have troubles of their own!” [p. 44]. How useful is this advice? What elements contribute to the considerable humor and pathos of this story?
6. “The art of child rearing,” Gopnik writes, “is to center the children and then knock them off center; to make them believe that they are safely anchored in the middle of a secure world and somehow also to let them know that the world they live in is not a fixed sphere with them at the center; that they stand instead alongside a river of history, of older souls, that rushes by them, where they are only a single, small incident” [p. 87]. What is most useful or agreeable about this approach to child rearing?
7. Gopnik calls the genre in which he writes “the humane-liberal essay” and elsewhere, “the comic-sentimental essay. . .a kind of antimemoir, a nonconfession confession, whose point is not to strip experience bare but to use experience for some other purpose: to draw a moral or construct an argument, make a case or just tell a joke” [pp. 20, 186]. Discuss what Gopnik means by these terms as exemplified in your favorite essays in Through the Childrens Gate.
8. In “The City and the Pillars,” Gopnik writes, “More than any other city, New York exists at once as a city of symbols and associations, literary and artistic, and as a city of real things” [p. 122]. How does it compare in this sense with other cities, like London, Istanbul, Rome, Chicago, San Francisco? What effect did 9/11 and its extended impact have on Gopniks experience of the “real city” of New York
9. In “Urban Renewal,” Gopnik discusses W. H. Audens poem “September 1, 1939,” referring to its prescience in the context of 9/11. Read the complete poem here, and discuss Gopniks idea that the poem suggests we should “follow our authentic self-interest, which means being in touch with the reality of what is and is not actually possible in the world” [p. 130].
10. Is Gopniks sister Alison, a developmental psychologist, correct in counseling her brother that, if Olivias imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli is not only too busy to play with her, but also has an assistant to whom she has to speak, he should move his family out of New York [p. 163]? What is most funny, and what is most disturbing, about this story?
11. “Memorable description depends on startling metaphors,” Gopnik writes [p. 166]. In thinking about Gopniks own style, examine a couple of sentences in which he uses particularly startling metaphors. Or you might comment on the following sentence from “The Cooking Game”: “Cooks, I learned, indulge the gaping outsider-I want to run away with the circus!-without even trying to explain to him what they know too well, that the tricks are easy; the hard part is preventing the clowns from committing suicide and the lion trainer from getting into bed with the ringmasters wife” [p. 172]. To what does this extended metaphor refer? How effective is it? Why is it funny as well as accurate?
12. Gopnik reflects on the time after 9/11, “A Steinbergian drawing of New York in these years would show eight million people, each person standing on a pole above an abyss of anxiety. . .” [p. 190]. How accurate are his observations about fear and anxiety and his idea that “structures of delusional domesticity” are a New Yorkers way of coping with fear [p. 194]? Taken as a whole, is Through the Childrens Gate a hopeful book?
13. In “Fourth Thanksgiving: Propensities,” Gopnik comments, as a parent, on the difficulty created by the ubiquitous “screens” that dominate childrens lives today-the computer, the television, the iPod, the cell phone, and so on [p. 235]. What does he think about the effects of electronic media on the inner lives of children?
14. Kirk Varnedoe is the hero of the book. What is most extraordinary about Varnedoes character as revealed in “Last of the Metrozoids”? What is the gift that the boys on the football team are most likely to take away from the experience of having known him?
15. Gopnik discusses the significance of the “secular ritual” in modern life [p. 287]. How does Thanksgiving function for him, and for this book, as a ritual? What do you notice about the four Thanksgiving essays? Do they create their own kind of narrative and meaning as the book progresses?
16. If you have read Paris to the Moon, how has New York changed Gopniks thinking about everyday life? What might have been different had he decided to stay in Paris to raise his children?
17. Gopniks own aspiration, with regard to New York, is contained in his early desire and determination to write for The New Yorker, which represents the ideal of New York sophistication to reading audiences. If you have read some of these essays in The New Yorker, do they take on a different feeling here? Can you locate a storyline or structure in the order of the essays in the book, and if so, how does it affect your reading?