You’ve probably heard the saying, Boston is the hub of the solar system. And you may well have thought, What East Coast snobbery, or What a dated sentiment from the early 19th C. when Boston was the literary center of the United States, or What a provincial thing to say, or maybe you didn’t think anything at all because you felt it was so patently untrue.
I have said all those things to myself, and have always used that saying with a sense of irony. “Hub of the solar system,” spoken as if it has quotation marks around it. But it’s also true for me, because I know I have been shaped by Boston-area literary heritage, by Boston-area instituions, by Boston area people. So here I am, in Cambridge, right at the edge of the hub of the solar system.
Not that I ever want to live in Boston, or even in Cambridge. I’d rather be outside the hub of the solar system. New Bedford will be close enough — or, I should say, far enough away.
And I do fit in, here in Cambridge. I ran into someone I went to middle school with, and an old friend saw me from the bus and sent me email saying hi. Walking over to the farmer’s market at Davis Square, I saw A. and T.’s house, and the house where R. and her sister M. used to live. Boston and Cambridge are smallish provincial places where you do know people.
So here I am, and while we’re here I’m enjoying being in Cambridge, next door to the Hub. Jean and I walked up Mass. Ave. towards Harvard Square to visit bookstores today. Jean stopped in at Robin Bledsoe, who sells art, architecture, and horse books (Jean was looking at the horse books). We went to Harvard Bookstore, where I found a translation of Japanese travel narratives, a book on the Cambridge (England) Platonists, and a Perry Mason novel.
Looking through the used nonfiction books, I wound up standing next to a tall thin young woman talking to a young man. I got the impression she had just graduated from college. She was telling him about a job interview that she had gotten with what purported to be an advertising agency. “So I got all dressed up, in like my best businessy clothes, and went in for the interview.” Then she told about her first interview, though I missed part of what she said, and she was called back the next day for a second interview. “So I walk into this room full of men in suits, and I’m wearing my business outfit, and they start talking to me, and they were saying I’d be good for the job.” I squatted down to look at a book, and missed a sentence or three. “It turns out I’d have to go door-to-door for like four hours a day, selling door-to-door. When I got back home, I was like, Nick, I got duped, I thought I had a real job, but it wasn’t at all, it was like going door-to-door.”
While we were at Harvard Bookstore, Jean saw that Michael Cunningham was going to be reading from his latest book tonight. So tonight we went to hear him read.
We got there 50 minutes early to be sure to get a seat. The reading was in the bookstore, and there wasn’t much room. Twenty minutes before he was to start, it was standing room only.
He came up to Cambridge from a stay down in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod (how very Boston). He was wearing a faded pink t-shirt, was very tan, with bleached-out hair, the picture of a Provincetown beach bum. He is a charismatic speaker, and he reads quite well. I have to admit I have not read any of his novels. I felt a little guilty that I was taking up one of the precious few seats. But then I realized that I belonged there, too. I’m a reader and a booklover, and unlike music lovers we don’t have concerts; unlike art lovers we don’t have gallery openings; our social events are author readings. It was good to be in a room full of book lovers, and it didn’t matter if we were in Cambridge, or Provincetown, or Geneva, Illinois — for readers, anywhere there’s a book and someone to read it, it’s the hub of the universe.