MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Tom Perrotta is famous for writing books that are made into movies, full of irony and sly wit. His titles include, "Election," "Little Children" and "The Abstinence Teacher."
Here's his pick for our series You Must Read This.
Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author): I grew up in a small, blue-collar town in New Jersey, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. In the mid-70s, it was statistically determined to be the average American town by one of the morning TV news shows. What made it average at that point was that a lot of male breadwinners had lost their factory jobs, and their wives had been forced to go back to work. It didn't matter, though. It was exhilarating to see our town, our whole world right there on network TV. We felt more real somehow now that our existence had been confirmed by millions of strangers. Around the same time, I was a sophomore in high school, I decided that I would be a writer.
I used to wander around the empty suburban streets late at night, past Cape Cod and split levels, and dream of one day writing a book that would tell the stories of my town and the people who live there. Not just the funny stories, but the sad and mysterious ones too. The ones that conveyed the strange melancholy of small-town life.
What I didn't realize at the time was that that book had already been written. Sherwood Anderson wrote "Winesburg, Ohio" almost 100 years ago and it's still startling to read it today. Anderson's book is a collection of snapshots of the lonely souls and (unintelligible) dreamers who populate Winesburg, a seemingly quaint Midwestern town. People like Wing Biddlebaum, a man alarmed by his own hands or Doctor Reefy who stuffs his pockets with scraps of paper on which he scribbled his thoughts and then dumps them out when they become little hard balls. Or Kate Swift, a 30-year-old schoolteacher with a turbulent inner life and an unorthodox teaching style.
In the American imagination, small-town life provides an antidote to the cold anonymity of the city. But "Winesburg, Ohio" feels like a village full of eccentric strangers desperate for a moment of connection. In a story called "Adventure," a heartbroken woman named Alice Hindman runs naked through the rain and calls out to the first person she sees, wait, don't go away. Whoever you are, you must wait. But then she loses her nerve and returns home, where, Anderson tells us, she began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone even in Winesburg.
I reread "Winesburg, Ohio" last month and it made me remember what it felt like to be a high school sophomore wandering the quiet nighttime streets of my hometown, slowly coming to realize that the people I knew were more complicated and interesting than they appeared. Sherwood Anderson's strange and beautiful book made me remember why I'd wanted to be a writer in the first place.
BLOCK: Tom Perrotta's most recent novel is "The Abstinence Teacher." And at our Web site, you'll find a Web-only essay about holiday traditions and Truman Capote from writer Josh Kilmer-Purcell. That and much more at npr.org/holidays.
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