What do you like about Annie Dillard?
"What do you like about Annie Dillard?" he asked, pointing to my book and interrupting the letter I was writing to a long distance friend, telling her what I liked about Annie Dillard.
"Funny you should ask," I replied.
I’ve always thought, ‘what are you reading lately’ is a great pick-up line, at least, it’s something I’d like to be asked, something that could get me talking. Asking why I read it or what I like about it - even better.
I told him I was writing a letter on that very subject, explaining I love the way her writing makes me notice, how it puts me in a dream-like trance, like Proust, but about cells and algae instead of memory.
"And here I thought you just were just being pretentious."
"Nope, I’m just writing a letter and just reading for pleasure, because I genuinely like her writing. No plans for a thesis, or an article, or even a blog post. Well, maybe a blog post."
"That’s great," he said, "you’re actually reading to enjoy it! More people should do that. Are you writing to a man in a gulag?"
"No, a man in a Russian prison infested with TB," I replied. I don’t know what made me say that, but it hit a weird nerve. The man told me of his time in Russia, people capriciously sent to prison, friends with TB, super TB. He asked how I’d heard of this problem. "Paul Farmer," I told him, "have you read anything by him?"
"No, I don’t read American non-fiction," he said, and he gave me his hierarchy of things he reads: Russian and German fiction, and poetry, some American poetry, barely any American fiction. Who’s pretentious now, I teased him.
We made a deal: I finish my letter while he compiles a list of American poets I must read, then we’ll have a drink together. Deal, we said, and shook on it. He began scribbling on a napkin and I concluded my thoughts on Annie Dillard.
Then he ordered us shots of whiskey and I stuffed the napkin with the poets in my book. “If you give me your email, I’ll send you the poems by each person that you have to read,” he said. Who could resist?
We talked for another hour while I slowly sipped my whiskey and he had another. He had to go outside to make a call and I got caught in conversation with someone else while waiting in line for the bathroom. He sat at the bar waiting for me for a little while, then eventually came to find me, apologizing that he was quite late to meet a buddy and had to leave. “I’m glad I met you,” he said, giving me a lingering hug.
The next morning when I looked in the Annie Dillard book for the napkin with the poets, it was gone.