Dusty Book Review #1: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I first opened this book in a barely sterilized family-sized waiting room at Hackensack University Medical Center. I spent an hour reading here and there, while down the corridor and through the automatic doors my father was dying in a bright curtained-off room.

Let the Great World Spin was a necessary title at the time. Yes, I thought: let the great world spin. But I was dizzy with grief already, and couldn’t handle thinking about the movement of the world. There was enough unchangeable.

So, McCann’s National Book Award winner sat on the shelf for about three years. I admit that when I picked it up last week—the week before Father’s Day, no less—I thought maybe there’d be some revelation. Maybe some of that magically slow clarity that comes with grief would come back, and I would embrace the eternal spin of the world through this book.

Of course, that’s not what happened. But I don’t fault McCann.

The book is wondrous. McCann takes the infamous man on the wire—the highest pedestrian; a man atop the tallest building in the city—and swoops you uptown, below the Major Deegan Expressway, to the guts of the city, where the hookers have babies who grow up to be hookers who have babies. The most vicious social and personal cycles are spun through, uptown and downtown, all delicately balanced around the man who dared to skywalk. McCann paints a portrait of Manhattan that is just as fair as the city pretends it isn’t. The author’s ability to present so many believable voices, so many individual histories, and braid them into one cohesive thing is what makes the book memorable and inimitable. The spinning in this novel is not the equatorial spin I immediately imagined, but a complicated web, multidirectional, moving into itself before expanding outwards.

My foolish anticipation of a revelation in Let the Great World Spin diminished my attitude towards the book. You won’t find a rainbow in a cloudless sky. Still, for McCann’s deft handling of so much city in such a small moment, for his ability to expand and compress a human into something digestible and too big to comprehend, this book will stay in my collection.

Official Rating: Middle Shelf  –  I’ll keep this book to recall McCann’s methods, but I got in my own way on this one. Maybe in a few years I’ll do a Meet ‘Em Again Book Review Series and I can have another go. We change more than the books do, after all.

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