Authors: Min Jin Lee

For most of my reading life, I loved to slowly graze through bookshelves. At least once a week, I’d spend a good couple of hours just browsing, usually in a used bookstore, not discriminating between genres, prices, pub. dates, or authors’ backlists. I would stand and stare at spines, then hinge out one book after another, reading jacket copy, flyleaves and a paragraph or two plucked at random. Sometimes I’d emerge with an armful, sometimes empty-handed. The hunt was the fun.

Things have changed a lot as bookstores have been increasingly usurped by websites. Now I am forced to hopscotch on a course based on others’ opinions and algorithmic recommendations. I am a difficult read, I imagine. — I consume history, pulp fiction, thrillers, classics, science, nature guides, how-to, how-not-to. Genre is an unreliable guide of what will strike my fancy. But Amazon thinks it knows me and serves up minor variations on the themes and authors I’ve already exhausted.

I used to judge a book by its cover. But now books appear on my Kindle as tiny greyscale icons. I can barely read their titles. Looking for any sort of guidance, I read a lot more newly published books and best sellers than I ever have. And I find I abandon many books mid-course, a practice I would never have permitted when I was younger and much more loyal or maybe just forgiving.  Now I know time is growing shorter and the options seemingly infinite. Lose me in the first hundred pages and I’ll find another book on the fishes in the sea.

Certain books keep appearing in my recommendation list. Years ago, I read Free Food for Millionaires.  I barely remember much more about it than I liked it.  But Amazon wants me to read Pachinko, also by Min Jin Lee. It’s a National Book Award finalist. I tend to be attracted to award nominees, just because they blink brighter in the endless sea of books, appearing to ensure quality in the bottomless fathoms of self-published crap and mystery novels with “Girl” in the title.

Finally, I give in and click over to read the description. A book about Christian Koreans in Japan in the 1930s? Uh, no. None of that is interesting. But Amazon insists and Pachinko shows up again and again, “Inspired by your purchases”. Inspired!

I give in again and download the sample. It begins in a boarding house for Impoverished fisherman. Again, not something I care about. But slowly I do start to care. The sample hooks me and begins to reel in. I start to care about these people. Their fastidiousness.  Their morality. The strangeness of the situation. The unfamiliarity contains the familiar.  The language is as crisp and clean as sun-dried bed sheets.

And even though it’s foreign and historical, it’s honest. Discussion of bodily functions, of sexuality, of wavering morals are all modern and not wrapped in pious bullshit. People speak and act like people. They are very different from me and yet the same.

The book is longish, something I tend to forget on my Kindle which holds so many books of so many lengths. But it contains so much. It follows one generation then another, interweaving stories, throwing characters into impossible situations and then fishing them out, dripping with regret or discovery, forgiveness or shame, setting them back on their pins to struggle forward. It’s epic and yet so personal.

The whole mystery of Korea, of what it is, where it comes for, how it has been shaped by history, where it fits into my world, all become clearer with each page. Not in a didactic way but through story, through the way global conflict inflicts itself on little lives, how they groan under its weight, how they struggle on.  I learn but also feel how poverty inevitably creates criminality, how religion provides succor and delusion, how nuanced and brutal racism is in every society.

One of the characters in the book manipulates the pins in his Pachinko machines so customers’ balls are guided to certain outcomes.  That’s how I felt reading the book, pinging between events and people, bouncing across the story, on a long and surprising journey crafted by a master of physics, story, and the human mind. I don’t mean Amazon (though that too) but Min Jin Lee, whose next books I will immediately download when it appears on my recommendation list.

Chapter One. He adored New York City.

I just want to write this down before the spell breaks.

For years, I loved Woody Allen. But the romance died over the past couple of decades, beginning with Manhattan Murder Mystery, then waning as his films felt increasingly trivial, one-note, slapdash, irrelevant, and crammed with marquee names, ending in a moratorium where even the sight of an ad for his newest movie makes my gorge rise.

But Annie HallBroadway Danny Rose, and Manhattan are some of my favorite movies ever.

Manhattan used to seem to me to be the most romantic movie ever. In retrospect, I’m not sure it’s the story itself — a sordid tale full of Seinfeldianly selfish and immature pseudo-intellectuals. It was probably 30% Mariel Hemingway, 30% Gordon Willis’ cinematography, and 30% New York City at its most iconic and 10% some of Woody’s most hilarious lines (Wally Shawn the homunculus; I can’t keep my eyes on the meter; very few people survive one mother; I can beat up her father, I grow a tumor instead, etc).

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we’re just people. We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.

Isaac Davis: I… I gotta model myself after someone.

Last night, Jenny took me to Lincoln Center to see the New York Philharmonic play the Gershwin score of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, while the movie played on a screen above.

That sounds like a simple thing and it took a while for the extraordinariness of the experience to sink in to me, so let me spell that out: The New York Philharmonic playing live. In Lincoln Center. On a September evening. Gershwin. My favorite Woody Allen movie. Introduced by Alec Baldwin and Tony Roberts. In a sold-out hall filled with old school New York celebs and characters right out of, well, a Woody Allen film. We sat a row ahead of Michael Moore and, at intermission, hung out with Mort Zuckerman who owns the Daily News.

Too much.

At the time the movie was made, the room we sat in to watch it was called the Avery Fisher Hall, a soaring maple-paneled auditorium with a history of acoustic challenges. A hundred million dollar donation later, it’s been renamed after David Geffen. The orchestra, under the baton of Alan Gilbert, sat watching the movie with the rest of us mere mortals, until a musical cue was needed. Then they burst forth with another tablespoonful of Gershwin, glorious but always leaving us wanting more.

And all those gorgeous black and white images of NYC in the ’70s! The 59th Street Bridge at sunrise. Fireworks over Central Park. The fountains at Lincoln Center. The Russian Tea Room. Elaine’s. On and on. It made me miss New York while sitting in the middle of it.

I don’t think my writing is doing this experience justice. Not only did you have to be there, you had to be a child of the ’70s, a New Yorker, a movie lover, a writer, a nostalgist, a romantic, a man in love with his wife. In short, me.

Five beautiful things I saw today.

I looked up from my book and glimpsed the setting sun reflected in a window across West 3rd Street. It was enormous, an incredible, unnatural, cherry red. I rushed to the corner of the terrace to look at the actual sun but it was hidden behind a tangle of water towers and satellite dishes. I watched the last slivers disappear in the mirrors of my neighbors’ picture windows.

In the park, a woman in a black pinafore spun lime green hula hoops ’round her hips, her waist, and knees, and then suddenly convulsed and folded them all into a single shape, a globe with all its meridians demarcated by the buzzing hoops.

The fur on Tim’s back is curly as Persian lamb today. The air is still but he is knotted and wavy. His fur is a dusky rainbow: eggplant, auburn, battleship grey, matte black, all threaded with silver highlights.

I went to Jack’s room to put away some towels. On his top bookshelf, the albums of his drawings that we collected when he was just starting to draw, aged 2 to 4. On their spines, they’re labeled “The Art of Jack Tea Gregory, Vols 1-4.”  On the shelf below them, arranged, apparently in the last few weeks, a row of books of art notes Jack’s been making this year.  Each is labeled with a Brother P-Touch that I didn’t even know he had.  Those two rows of books encompass the last twenty years of his life. And of mine.

At least seven blocks away, there’s a railroad apartment. It has windows at the west end near me and at the far eastern side. A slice of sky is visible through that far window and, across that bright patch, the silhouette of a person passes back and forth. A single leaf on the crabapple tree across the street appears larger than that tiny silhouette yet somehow, I am connected, and know something about how that miniature person feels, pacing so many blocks away.


My uncle Michael published half a dozen books. Everyone in our family prominently displayed their set. A foot-long row of familiar spines standing proudly together — his books, his name repeated across them. I envied the pleasure I imagined that gave him, that cube of honored real estate.

I made my first book when I was six. A stack of deliciously thick paper. The smell of library paste, a smell I can taste (probably because I did). A clear plastic sleeve filled with a rainbow of markers. Brass paper fasteners.

I treasured the pleasures of bookmaking. Carefully lettering my name on the title page. Alternating pages of drawings with pages filled with large, neatly penciled letters. Numbering all the pages. Making up the front matter: the publisher, the copyright, the dedication. Conjuring up blurbs from my favorite authors to put on the back.

My biggest regret: my books never had a proper spine. I couldn’t run my name and title and the Dewy Decimal number down the edge. It didn’t look right on the shelf.
But that was a minor blunt to my pleasure. I was still “an author”.

A half century later, whenever I visit a book store or a library, I always, eventually, wind up looking for my books on the shelf. I can spot them from across the room, familiar faces in a sea of stripes, like spotting my son on a crowded playground.

No matter how many books I publish or sketchbooks I fill, that boyhood thrill is still there. I love the shelves of books I’ve made, all together, spines aligned like little soldiers.

Oh, BTW, I am soon gonna add a new spine to my collection. Shut Your Monkey: How  to control your inner critic and get more done is in the design/illustration phase and will soon head to the printer.  It’ll be on the shelves of your local bookstore this fall.