New: Book Report: BAE05: Andrea Barrett's "The Sea of Information"

Early Saturday morning, my friend Tom Lester drove me to the Emeryville Amtrak station from Berkeley. He pointed out the bakery called Sweet Adeline, and said that they had good cookies. My memories of the next 33 hours are kind of hazy. There was a train ride. Then there was about 20 hours sitting in a hotel room in Sacramento, watching people answer phones, answering a phone, and getting progressively twitchier if five minutes passed without hearing a phone ring. Then there was a party. Then there was another train ride, and I was back in Emeryville. Then I was in Berkeley, on a pleasantly cool Sunday afternoon, at Sweet Adeline, eating ginger snaps and drinking cold milk. It seemed to me that this was the best snack I had ever had in my entire life, but you might not want to trust that thought, though--my judgement was pretty impaired by that point.

But you can trust this book report. I wrote it ahead of time, before the weekend, back when I could still think straight:

I read the compilation The Best American Essays 2005. I picked it up because it contained the essay "The Sea of Information" by Andrea Barrett. She writes books that are weighty with historical research. Surely, I hoped, an essay by her about "The Sea of Information" would shed insight into her research methods, perhaps give hints about how certain search-oriented companies could help her to research/write novels better faster stronger.

But it turns out that her research methods are not so search-y, but are more browse-y. She's not looking for particular facts. She follows chains of books and ideas. One leads to the next.

About halfway through the essay, you realize that she's answering the cliche question: "Where do you get your ideas?" She reads an old pamphlet about tuberculosis treatment; she looks at photos of an old sugar factory; she looks for quirks of language, the hints they give of another time's way of thinking.

She got a fellowship to work at the New York Public Library. She had an office. She could request more books, someone would bring more books. She read. She read more. One day into her stint in the fellowship at the New York Public Library was 9/11 2001.

Why was I reading all this? Why do all this work, especially when I wasn't writing and didn't know if, when I started again, I'd find a way to use any of it? And especially when I might more usefully have been out in the world, helping someone, fixing something: cleaning up the rubble or raising money or aiding the families of the dead. Instead I read, which is what I do.

This was not the essay I expected to read. It was darker, more gnarly. And though I didn't find the answers I wanted, I did find out how Andrea Barrett gets her ideas. It ain't easy. I don't think I can help her.

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Posted 2006-09-11