(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth recently began reading the autobiography of Bill Clinton, not entirely by his own choice. The book simply appeared in his life, and now it doesn’t seem inclined in the least to leave.
(Baruth) More than I believe in anything else in this life, I believe in books. I believe books change you, immediately, not just in the long run. I believe books choose you every bit as often as you choose them. And I believe that some very potent books should be read in certain carefully chosen places. I read a good chunk of Stanley Kutler’s “Abuse of Power,” a direct transcript of the Nixon tapes, in the belfry of the Old Mill at the University of Vermont.
Don’t ask me why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
And so when Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life,” came out the other day, I picked it up in the bookstore and I held it. It’s a massive book. There’s a nice picture of Clinton on the front, taken from the one very narrow angle at which his nose can be made to seem proportionate to the rest of his face.
And it costs a lot of money.
Now, my last novel was based on Clinton’s life and times, and even though I finished it three years ago, I actually managed to work his future autobiography into the plot. So in an odd way, this large object I was holding in my hands was the concrete embodiment of my own imagination.
And even so, I still couldn’t bring myself to drop that much cash on a hard-cover. As much as I believe in books, I believe even more strongly in waiting for the paperback. But when I got home, ironically there was a voice-mail message from a nice guy at the Burlington Free Press, asking if I’d like to review the book for them. A copy was waiting at the receptionist desk for me, he said.
So that’s how I found myself standing on Church Street yesterday afternoon with a copy of “My Life” in my hands. The book clearly had chosen me, and the only decision left was where in Burlington to begin it.
I thought about Frog Hollow, the Vermont craft gallery. A friend of mine who worked there waited on Clinton when he visited in 1996. Clinton spent $300 there, a good chunk of that on finger puppets.
Okay, maybe not Frog Hollow.
Then I thought, what about the Oasis diner on Bank Street? Clinton ate lunch there, a turkey sandwich on rye, hold the mayo, big wedge of apple pie. I’ve always loved that — hold the mayo, followed by the apple pie.
But while I was standing there — and this is the God’s honest truth — the power went out on and about Church Street. They’re digging up the lower block, and somebody hit a cable. People started to pour out of all the restaurants and stores because cash registers wouldn’t work. So I had no choice but to sit down outside, at a cafe table right in the swirl of all those funky Burlingtonians, just where Bill Clinton would have wanted me to sit in the first place.
But almost immediately I realized something was strange: Clinton is born twice in his autobiography. Really — at the beginning of Chapter One, on page four, and then again at the beginning of Chapter Two, on page eight. And if he’s going to be born twice, how many times will he revise everything else?
And that’s when I realized that this particular long book, in addition to choosing me, never ever planned to let me go.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.