Colum McCann was sitting in his grade-school class in Dublin listening to his teacher, Mr. Kells, read a soccer novel. Colum already knew the ending.
His father had written the tale of an impoverished gypsy boy named Georgie who could not afford soccer cleats but refused to surrender to taunts as he sprinted the field in tattered sneakers. As Mr. Kells approached the book’s climax, Georgie’s game-winning goal, a hushed class listened.
Christopher sat in front of Colum. Christopher was blessed with a wild head of red hair. (Yes, many Irish cliches double as Irish truths.) When Georgie scored, Christopher vaulted to his feet and punched the air in joy.
“It was very odd and very wonderful,” Colum said, thinking back. “A teacher reading this book to our class, a book created in the shed of our little Dublin house. How weird and how wonderful that it came out of my father’s imagination.”
Fortunately for us, Colum followed his father’s path. He’s the author of “TransAtlantic,” the fiction selection for All Pikes Peak Reads 2019. The novel offers a gripping and complicated 150-year journey through the lives of anti-slavery crusader Frederick Douglass, World War I airmen John Alcock, Teddy Brown and Sen. George Mitchell blended with the observations of four generations of women. McCann is best known for his masterpiece, “Let the Great World Spin,” winner of the 2009 National Book Award.
Colum laughed as he remembered his father, Mr. Kells and Christopher. He talked at Library 21c, a branch of the Pikes Peak Library District.
“It’s a beautiful library,” he said, looking around. “A beautiful, beautiful library.”
Yes, it is.
McCann writes novels that make immense demands on readers. He writes in the tradition of Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin, and his novels, with multiple narrators, do not offer tidy, quick reads. His stories challenge and trouble you.
“My readers are smarter than I am,” Colum said. “I have to trust them to complete the story.”
This month, while waiting for a flight in Chicago, I looked across the big room and saw a mother holding a smartphone in front of her 9-month-old (or so) daughter. The baby was riveted by the action on the small screen, and I worried, as I often worry, for the future of serious reading.
Let’s not get alarmist. The kind of novels Colum crafts are not in danger of extinction.
But those novels slide to less power in our culture as we grow less willing to employ our imaginations to complete intricate stories. We want it easy. We decline to volunteer for the challenging and troubling.
Colum is, by temperament, an optimist. He sees how screens, mostly from our wonderful, terrible and oh-so-brilliant phones, invade and conquer our attention, but also sees unconquerable hunger to escape from the obvious to the complex.
“There’s always talk about novels shifting, books shifting, books not being read, about reading online and reading on your phone and a lot of predictions of doom, but the fundamental thing about it all is stories will always be necessary,” he said.
“Storytelling is the vast democracy, the one true current that we really have. It’s a human right in certain ways, and there always has to be a way to engage in it because it allows us to become not ourselves.”
“And we do this most successfully by reading. That’s when we vault out of ourselves and start listening to others. Reading is beautiful, and I don’t think we’ll ever lose that.”
I hope he’s right. Studies of American reading habits offer discouraging and encouraging news. In 2018, according to Pew Research, one in four Americans did not read a book. Funding to American public libraries is being slashed, a trend — thank God — we defy in Colorado Springs. Disinterest and Amazon.com endanger our bookstores.
And yet …
Americans read a mean average of 12 books a year, and the average (again, mean) American reads four books a year. These numbers remain steady since 2011 with listening to recorded books rising slightly.
I just completed “Inland,” a demanding 2019 novel by Tea Obreht that involves bloodshed and despair in the Old West. Camels, against all odds, lumber along as central characters in the rambling, gripping plot.
More than once, I was tempted to flee the big demands of the book for the small demands of my television.
Then I remembered Colum’s words.
“We forget,” he said, “the beauty of difficulty.”