During a recent lunchtime run, roughly 15/16th of my brain was properly intent on my Kindle’s text-to-speech voice, which was reading me F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The other 1/16th ran loose, free-associating, stringing three beads together to make a weird, little necklace:
Bead 1: Fitzgerald’s description of his main character’s Princeton days.
Bead 2: The fact of Fitzgerald himself having gone to Princeton.
Bead 3: Another favorite writer of mine — Michael Lewis of Moneyball and The Big Short fame — being a Princeton grad.
Just when my mind threatened to abandon the novel entirely in favor of some daydream about a baby-faced, orange-and-black-sweatshirt-clad Michael Lewis reading The Great Gatsby while leaning against an elm outside Nassau Hall, a fatal car wreck in This Side of Paradise yanked me back into the story. Then came this passage:
"I don’t know what happened," said Ferrenby in a strained voice. "Dick was driving and he wouldn’t give up the wheel; we told him he’d been drinking too much—then there was this damn curve—oh, my God!…" He threw himself face downward on the floor and broke into dry sobs.
The doctor had arrived, and Amory went over to the couch, where some one handed him a sheet to put over the body. With a sudden hardness, he raised one of the hands and let it fall back inertly. The brow was cold but the face not expressionless. He looked at the shoe-laces—Dick had tied them that morning. He had tied them—and now he was this heavy white mass.
This mention of shoelaces threw me clear of the wreckage, clear of the whole novel for a moment, back to Michael Lewis, who I remembered saying this when Ira Glass interviewed him back in 2011:
I’m always attracted to the idea that there’s value in things that other people aren’t looking at. There’s a version of this in watching people when I’m writing about them. I always try to look at the things, the details … that most people don’t pay attention to. Fingernails. Their shoelaces. Things that might have been done unselfconsciously on their person. And so I kind of look for the version of that in the society as well. I just grafted onto a journalism career an idea I encountered as an art history student at Princeton. The great connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who was the kind of first man in to go catalog the Italian Renaissance painters, had this problem that 80 guys painted the virgin in 1410. How do you separate one from the other? They’re all trying to look like each other, more or less. His idea was: Look at the details of the painting that the artist was least self-conscious about. So he looked at the fingernails of the virgin and the toenails of the baby Jesus. And that was how he started to classify, he started to identify the hands of painters. And I just took that idea into the world.
And so, in conclusion, shoelaces.