Friday, September 26, 2008

Powerless

Two weeks ago, Hurricane Ike and its 125 mile per hour winds steam rolled over Houston, where I now live.

No, the destruction wasn’t the same as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, but Houston is roughly ten times the size of the city of New Orleans – with some 2.5 million people – and the financial toll is ultimately going to be far more devastating.

Also, if you’re at all curious why I haven’t been blogging, it’s because I’m one of the two million residents of the city of Houston in the dark for the past fourteen days.

Prior to the storm, I thought the guys in pick-up trucks who were camped out at gas stations filling up their fire engine red, five-gallon supplemental gas tanks seemed a little paranoid.

Then things got weird. In the hours before the storm the city got very quiet. The streets around my neighborhood were all but abandoned. Windows were boarded-up, making this prosperous community look all but derelict. Those that waited too long to get plywood to protect their windows tacked up cheap, blue plastic tarps, the kind the UN hands out to refugees for makeshift shelters.

I took my dog for a walk, only a few people were out: an old man with wispy gray hair who rode slowly by on a bicycle wearing a floral print sundress; a man wearing just a pair of shorts – no shirt, no shoes – hobbled by on crutches; a woman with tattoos crawling up her neck dragging her tiny dog “Ninja” on a leash.

There was a pre-apocalyptic air about the place and it made me think of Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach.

The next morning, following the storm, it wasn’t quite a dark and hopeless Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it was a disaster. Apolcalypse-lite, so to speak. We joined the others who weren’t trapped by floods and fallen trees and caravanned out of the city as fast as we could.

It’s ironic, of course, that Houston has been left without power for so long, considering it is considered the energy capital of the United States.
Houston is also not a place known for the literary arts. I often get asked why I live in Houston and not Austin (where I lived prior to Houston) or New York. My usual reply is that I can live in Houston and afford to make a living as a book critic.

The truth is that the distance from being constantly surrounded by those in the book world is that it has actually given me space to think. I can read a book and think about it on my own without going out to a party and being bombarded with other people’s opinions. That said, I do spend more time in New York than anywhere other than my hometown.

Then I realized even in a “non”-book town like Houston, there was a preponderance of literary life. On September 11, the day before the storm, David Ebershoff was in town to read from his excellent novel The 19th Wife. A.J. Jacobs was scheduled to read from The Year of Living Biblically, but flew out last minute so as not to risk delaying his tour. (It’s a shame, I planned to interview him and ask him whether he thought the flooding of New Orleans had any correlation to the Biblical flood).

That weekend, the biggest Latino book festival in the country was ready to convene in downtown Houston, but had to be cancelled; the following Monday a reading with Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz was cancelled. And on, and on…

All this time without electricity has given me a renewed appreciation for my library of books.

All talk of the Internet, video games and television signaling the death of reading, would have you thinking that books are an anachronism. Of course, when you’re powerless, none of these things have any relevance to your life. Daylight and a morning newspaper are luxurious; at night, a few candles and a good book are essential.

My friends who are booksellers here tell me business is booming; I’ve even had neighbors stop by to ask for books (it always shocks me when people don’t have a pile of stuff on their bedside they’ve been waiting to read.

Having no electricity has made me and those around me take more time to read for pleasure. Among the books I’ve sampled in the past two weeks, I’ve worked my way through Stieg Larsson’s intriguing mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just published in the US, Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls, a Booker Prize-shorted title from 1999 and one of my wife’s favorite books that I’d never read; and am just starting on The Snowball, Alice Schroeder’s new 960-page biography of investor Warren Buffett – a daunting, but timely, task considering the state of the financial markets in the US.

My brother-in-law has finished a pair of Sebastien Japrisot mystery novels; my wife just read Marianne Wiggins’s The Evidence of Things Unseen. Even the kids were dug into books which they’d checked out from the library on the day before the store especially in case of a lack of electricity.

The books, are what kept us entertained, distracted, and sane when the batteries on our laptops, cell phones, and Amazon Kindles ran out. They’ve given my family something to dwell on other than our own immediate problems (such as removing all the trees that have fallen onto our houses, or in some cases, come through the roofs.) It has been surprising to learn just how unkind and cranky people can be in just a few weeks without electricity and gas (no air conditioning).

Books, it turns out, make us civilized.

2 comments:

HJ said...

i thoroughly enjoyed reading this, ed!

Roger Tagholm said...

Forgive me, Ed - I've only just got around to reading this. I loved it - tells a a real story.