Yesterday I traveled home from a fairly long trip to Washington, DC for the 2011 NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference. The conference itself was three days, but we added on several days of team meetings and so when it was all said and done, it made for a six-day trip. That’s a long time to be gone in any person’s book, or at least, a long time to be gone for a trip that doesn’t involve a beach.
In any case, the conference was fantastic, but by Saturday night the Event 360 folks and I were feeling a bit punchy and spent the better part of the evening shuffling around Dupont Circle. There are far worse places to spend a Saturday evening, particularly an evening involving a Supermoon, and we had a lot of fun stopping in various places around the neighborhood and trying to decide if the moon was larger after all.
One highlight was the fabulous Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill, which I’d heard about but never set foot in. It took all of ten minutes for me to be juggling a pile of six books — I’m not so much a reader as a book acquirer; I seem to have far more books than time to read, and since my recent disavowal of the Kindle (a post for another time), I’m piling up pages quickly. Luckily one of my Event 360 Voices of Reason talked me down to three books, one of which was Zeiton by Dave Eggers.
For years I’ve had a copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which has been recommended to me by so many people that a while ago I began actively resisting suggestions to read it. Not that I don’t trust all the recommendations; I suppose I just have enough of an anti-establishment streak that the more I hear the less I want to go along. (Or am I just stubborn?) Plus, I understand the theme involves the death of parents, and I’ve had enough of that for the last several years, thank you very much.
In any case, I know of Eggers and the book looked interesting. A true story, it involves two of my many hot buttons: Hurricaine Katrina and civil liberties, or the lack thereof; and more broadly, the reason you might want to adopt a healthy anti-establishment streak yourself. So yesterday afternoon, tired from the week and with thoughts of nonprofits, technology, and making a difference mulling around my head, I boarded my plane home and turned to page one.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Harrowing, haunting, and ultimately hopeful, the book in simple but heroic, subtle but compelling turns tells a vast story on a small canvas, like a faded postcard from a distant trip you might frame and hang in your guest bedroom, a tiny reminder of a much larger experience you can’t fully explain. You will find yourself wondering how and why this could happen here, in America, only a few years ago, and then — if there’s any hope for us — find yourself angry and troubled that you haven’t heard more about it.
The absurdity of bureaucracy, the mechanized degradation of personality, and the progressive devaluation of individuality are all important themes in the story. But unlike me, Eggers is a powerful writer, and doesn’t need to specifically call out those themes at all. They tap themselves on the head and step forward for you.
It is a story of vast consequence told with almost no pretense. It will leave you with many questions, and yet also with a reminder of the power we each carry within us. Worth reading.