“There is no end. There is grief and there is love and they spin together in this human body, which is, in itself, also a book.”
I started this book a few Sundays ago. Once every few months I monitor the door during my church’s uptown service. All I really have to do is be at a desk in the front for about 3 and a half hours. I usually bring papers to grade, but last Sunday I got so wrapped up in the beginning of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann on the subway ride up, that I never even took student work out of my bag. A week and a day later, I swore I was going to grade papers. But it was the end of a delightfully long weekend and so lovely outside that I, once again, left the papers inside my bag and finished the book. I just had to. And now, a week after closing its pages, it hasn’t left my thoughts.
The story is set in New York in the seventies and framed around the day that Philippe Petit tightrope walked across the Twin Towers. The story isn’t about Petit, per se, but rather he provides not only a historical context, but a metaphor for the book’s multiple story lines: that all sorts of people are carefully walking a high wire in their own lives.
There are a lot of things to say about this book and a number of characters that I could spend time analyzing, but the overriding theme that sticks out to me is the title itself: Let the Great World Spin. It seems as though I forget the world’s grandeur sometimes and get lost in the mundane or my lists of things to do. Or sometimes, I feel so burdened or heartbroken I can hardly bear it. But, I can almost picture an old school carnival barker announcing all that humans have the capacity to know and feel by shouting this title out loud and inviting us to actually start watching. The Great World, though, isn’t made up only of the best parts of existence–it is coupled with the knowledge and experience of the great pain and sorrows that accompany it, which is what the different characters come to learn:
“The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth–the filth, the war, the poverty–was that life could be capable of small beauties.”
“The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.”
“The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”
And so. I will continue thinking about the characters who broke my heart in the best and worst of ways. And, I hope that I will not be drowned by the sorrows because there is so much intangible good.