"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
When I was ten years old, my family moved from Washington state to Ohio. More than any other single event, this move fundamentally changed my life, in some ways for the better, in some ways rather value-neutrally, but in most ways for the worse. Everything was different after the move, and ever since I have felt cast adrift, homeless.
My sister and I blamed it on the utter soul-crushingness of the Midwest ambience, of Ohio itself. We used to, as kids, call it O-hell-o. We'd repeat that line from Animaniacs over and over: "All is strange and vague. Are we dead? Or is this Ohio?"
I say often about certain books that I wish I could go back in time and give a copy to my younger self, and Winesburg, Ohio is one of those books. My eleven-year-old self needed this book; I needed to know that I wasn't the only one who'd ever felt so alone and desperate, that the characters in this book had felt that pain too, had understood it, had endured it. But maybe that would have depressed me all the more, because there are no happy endings in Winesburg. Nothing ever changes and for most there is no way out.
Maybe it's better 11-year-old me didn't read this, after all. I would have misunderstood it, anyway. I would have put far too much importance on the fact that it's set in Ohio; that would have reinforced to me that the place is the problem. It would have strengthened my belief that everything would be good again if I could just get out of the Midwest. Too many of the characters in this book operated under that fallacy, too. It's so comforting to believe there's an easy fix, especially if you know you'll never test it out and be proven wrong.
But I've been proven wrong enough times now to know that the particular setting isn't that important. Winesburg is everywhere. And the fact that it's an inbred small town isn't that important, either. Winesburg could as easily be a bustling city. As they say, cities are places where thousands of people go to be lonely together. My own personal Winesburg certainly followed me out of Ohio, back to the coast, back to the city.
Some of these stories were so familiar they were painful to read. Enoch Robinson was me. Elizabeth Willard was me. Alice Hindman was me. Elmer Cowley was me. And even the characters who were repulsive, hateful, utterly awful people, I found myself only feeling sad for - I couldn't bring myself to hate them, because they were just too real, their actions just too understandable.
This is one of those works that seems too big and too important to exist within the space of a 250-page paperback. Its essence can not be encapsulated in a book review. These stories can't be fully appreciated in a single reading, and there are some days and some moods where it's best to not even try to read them - you'll get nothing out of it but bored and depressed. And Winesburg, Ohio seems too real a place to just be literature. I've been there; I've lived there. Some days, I still live there.
20 August 2010