Earlier this week I paid a visit to the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village to pick up Venus in Fur by David Ives. I have an audition for a stock production coming up, and now that The Drama Bookshop has shuttered (only temporarily, thankfully), I had to travel to Union Square to purchase a copy of the play. The Strand is a marvel of Manhattan, and I’m sad to say I sometimes forget it’s here.
That’s the thing that happens in New York, especially after you’ve lived here a long time. The city is set up so that your section of the island is really a self-sufficient village. Your dry cleaners and grocery and gym and bank branch are all within a fifteen-block radius of your apartment, so for weeks on end, there’s very little need to venture outside your box on the map. As a result, you can forget that there are wondrous places just a few more downtown stops away. And when you remember them (out of necessity or happenstance), you feel ashamed for taking your town’s endless buffet of enriching cultural experiences for granted.
There is a caveat to this shame spiral, and it’s this: You’re perfectly forgiven for never visiting those landmarks located on the opposite side of the city from your home address. You should see them, but you’re forgiven if you don’t. For all the plaudits NYC rightly receives, crosstown travel is not one you’ll hear. Trying to get from West to East on this rock can drive a person mad during museum hours, so I may never get to the Guggenheim, and I’m truly okay with that.
I walked into the Strand Thursday night, and I remembered how many weekends I’d whiled away there back in 2009. I’d spend hours combing the shelves of the film and drama sections looking for my next great read. I lived closer to the Strand back then. I was on the northernmost edge of Chelsea, just two train stops away or walking distance with the wind at your back. That spring I consumed every biography ever bound on Katharine Hepburn. Every. Single. One. The Strand made previously owned copies available at discounted prices, and I gobbled them up.
I don’t mind a used book. I like the slight tears and the cracks in the spine. A dog-eared page doesn’t offend me; it tells me what the previous owner found interesting. A perfectly-ringed, coffee-colored stain lets me imagine the reader before me tucked away in the corner of a cafe sipping a latte, perhaps, while a wintry day swirled outside. I like picturing this person flipping through the pages of the very book I subsequently bought. They and I now know the secret: Hepburn’s true friends called her “Kath” and never “Kate.” If I’d read a brand new copy of that very book, I may feel alone in the knowledge with no guarantees that anyone else had ever picked up this fact. But the previous reader’s smudge above that piece of reporting tells me at least one other person now knows Kath’s truths.
My biographical deep dive neither started nor stopped with Ms. Hepburn. I remember, at an early age, plowing through a rather dense paperbacked account of Lucille Ball’s career and of her tumultuous marriage to Desi. I think that’s where I got hooked. I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, and my preferred genre has nearly always skewed to the biographies. Reading about how people I admire got from where they were to where they ended up has provided a great deal of inspiration for me and has also, I’m sure, set down some of the road maps I’ve followed to get to where I happily am today. That doesn’t mean fiction can’t occasionally catch my eye, but I do tend to drift to the books of a biographical nature if given my druthers.
I used to read a lot. Until this year, I’d been reading a lot less. Like all of us with a gadget in our hands and an endless stream of facts at our fingertips, I could feel my attention span diminishing with every double-tap of the screen and “like” on the feed. I could feel my attention span diminishing, and I set out to do something about it. I made a resolution this year to read at least one book per month. So far, I’ve knocked that out of the park. By the end of February, I’d doubled my goal and completed four: Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Mother of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis, Grace by Grace Coddington, and Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. Each of these was another fascinating glimpse into a creative mind, and I just can’t seem to get enough of that.
This weekend (which consisted of only the second and third days of March), I’ve already finished two of Nora Ephron’s witty collections of essays: I Remember Nothing and I’m Worried About My Neck. They weren’t weighty tomes, but boy were they entertaining. In fact, I enjoyed those so much I can feel myself veering down a humorous lane, as my eye is now on one of David Sedaris’ recent releases. And the fashion angle I began with Ms. Coddington may keep up. Isaac Mizrahi’s memoir has just been released, and I find him (to borrow one of his favorite descriptors) divine! Peter Biskind’s account of the rise of indie cinema in the ’90s, Down And Dirty Pictures, is on my nightstand, and I’m looking to have that completed before month’s end. It’s not exactly a memoir, but it is the biography of a moment, and that piques my interest just the same. I’m on a roll folks, and the number of minutes I’m spending on my iPhone is falling precipitously. I’m winning the battle for my attention span, and there’s a victory dance in my future.
My reading resolution goes hand-in-hand with my writing goals. Writing is also something I’ve been pushing myself to do more of lately. That’s a thing that’s tickled the back of my brain for quite some time — being a writer. It never held quite the same pull as my acting dreams, but it’s been there all along. And I think that tickle is now growing to an itch.
When I think back on it, I can remember a much younger me romanticizing the notion of my own newspaper column — perhaps reviewing films or just writing about them in some way. A magazine post had its charms, too. Still does. I remember having that dream. And my mom recently confided in me that, for a time, she thought I might someday follow that path. She still says I have a way with words. So let me just say, “Thanks, Mom.”
And I was telling my dad just the other day that I think there may be a retirement plan of sorts in the works for me here. I am more and more swayed by the allure of being able to go to work by opening my laptop and tapping on the keys from any old location I desire. I can see a much older and much grayer me who might return to the footlights if the part is just too powerful to pass up, but who is, otherwise, content to create his characters on the page instead of the stage. I think acting will always occupy the prime corner of my heart, but there’s room in there for other loves. Dad said he could see another career in this for me if I want it. So let me also just say, “Thanks, Dad.”
I suppose it's not too winding a walk from the actor to the author. We are both storytellers, after all. But I also know that to be a writer takes years of chipping away. Like my acting career, I know that it takes time. It takes time to hone a writer’s craft and find your voice and build your tribe of readers who’ll follow you through your paths of prose. And while we’re on the subject of a tribe, I want to thank you all for the encouragement you’ve given me and this blog. I’m enjoying the process of building up my chops, and I appreciate all your feedback and support along the way. I have a great respect for the writers in my life. I know and have known many. And I don’t presume to just fall into their world and be afforded all their rights and privileges. I’m working to earn those spoils.
So as I stood in the Strand last Thursday night and scanned the shelves and remembered the biographies I’d read over the years, I thought about how often I’d fancied living the lives of the subjects of those books. And then I felt something else. It’s just a little itch in my brain that I’m only beginning to scratch, but another dream seems to also be taking hold. As I strolled around those stacks of books, I thought about how much I might like to someday have one of my own on those shelves — not as the subject, but as the author. I think I might like that. I think I might like that very much, indeed.