Sunday, February 28, 2021


This week I've been reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which is a book I go back to often. It's like reading a long letter from an old friend who can't wait to tell you everything.

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, sitting on a swing
Amy Krouse Rosenthal

The conceit of the book is pretty simple. It's a memoir (kind of) in the form of an encyclopedia, and like an encyclopedia there's not much concern for linear time. Incidents from childhood, adulthood, and adolescence are shuffled together like a deck of cards. Some entries are just stray thoughts, or lists, or detailed graphs. Some are more like social experiments, like the entry in which she appeals a parking ticket on the grounds of “karma.” (Rosenthal had parked too long while buying books for other people, and petitioned the court to ask this be counted in her favor. The city of Chicago apparently agreed; the fine was waived.)

It's a very funny and charming book, exactly the kind of thing you want to read before bed (though slightly dangerous because of the temptation to read much later than what you intended). What I didn't expect this time around was how nostalgic it would make me feel for the mundane. 

Here, take this for instance, the start of an entry titled COFFEEHOUSE:

“My coffeehouse died. The one I went to every single Thursday for three years, minus a couple sore throats, vacations, and childbirths. The one where I wrote or tried to write or thought about trying to write. The one where I ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches, tofu asiago melts, and bagels with basil and cream cheese. The one where I would sit for hours and sip and sip (never enough water). It was called Urbus Orbis, and I loved it.

“I fancied Chicago's Urbus as the kind of coffeehouse/salon you would have once found in Paris's 4th Arrondissement. I'm totally making this up; I should know more about the history and role of European coffeehouses, but I'm rather attached to smoky notions I've adopted as fact: Passion. Pretension. Unnecessary gesticulating. Cigarettes that didn't cause cancer. And pencils that caused revolution.”

I know this coffeehouse. Not Urbus, per se, but my own versions of it, some of them closed, some still thriving. Unlike Rosenthal, I've never had much luck writing there. I get too distracted, too self-conscious, too busy watching and listening to everyone else. I get more work done where I'm writing now, in a chilly basement office that, even in our small home, can barely maintain its WiFi reception. I'm very fortunate in this respect because, at least when it comes to writing, the pandemic hasn't upset my routine very much.

But reading COFFEEHOUSE now, and the thousand other entries about the daily tasks of life and the places where we live it, I miss these things very much. I miss my coffeehouse, with the familiar baristas and lousy breakfast burritos and the airpots where you can refill your own coffee. I miss the courtyard outside where for just one week a year the cherry blossom is in spectacular bloom. I miss the occasional sirens and the door that didn't close very well and the boy in glasses who would always be reading Greek classics alone in the front window.

Rosenthal doesn't mention any of this, of course, because her specifics are very different from mine. Yet the magic of specificity is how it all interlinks. The more detail she provides about her life—the idiosyncratic fascinations and experiences and conversations—the more details of my own life I'm reminded of.

It makes me think again of that Bonnie Friedman quote:

"Transcendence is not fleeing, not an absence, but a most attentive presence. To write well we must sink into the silt of this world."

Encyclopedia is deep in that silt, and that's why it's such a pleasure to read.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...