“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.” -Edith Wharton

A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I watched Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit and his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in the summer of 1974. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it. It was great.

And then, the next day, I got a notice that a book had come in that I had been waiting for at the library. A book I’d been waiting for for so long that I had forgotten putting it on hold. It was called Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it was about several people, all throughout New York City, and how their lives were all touched in different ways by the tightrope walker between the Twin Towers. Isn’t it funny how pop culture can intersect like that?

The narrators range from a prostitute to the brother of a priest, two mothers who have lost their sons, a judge, some very early computer hackers, and even the tightrope walker himself. I had a little trouble with the book in the first half, and then we got to the part where it was being narrated by a prostitute, and her pages just flew by. She was an amazingly drawn character, one you loved and pitied and wanted to root for. I would recommend the book if only for that section, but I truly enjoyed all of the second half. A lot of the blurbs and reviews talked about how it was a book of heart and passion. I admit that even about halfway through, I was wondering if we were reading the same book. But if I had stopped then, I would have missed the redemption, the ways that people took the pain they were dealt and turned it into love and care for others, and I am glad I decided to stick with it. I should also mention that, for the most part, I was very impressed with the very different voices that McCann was able to give his characters. They were all very specific individuals, and I admire his ability to make them so distinct.

And, as I finished it, I realized that this was quite a week to be reading about the Twin Towers. In the very last pages, the timeline of the book moves to 2006 and one of the characters reflects on this picture of Petit walking on the wire with a plane in the background. That picture was featured in the movie, and I found it a little jarring. It’s so similar to the hundreds of pictures we have all seen of the planes approaching the towers intentionally, for very different reasons. As the character talked about the picture, she said:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

It strikes her as an enduring moment, the man alone against scale, still capable of myth in the face of all other evidence.

I would recommend Let the Great World Spin with the caveat that it does drag a bit in the first half (mostly because the priest is not as compelling as some of the other characters, and the first part has quite a bit to do with him). And you should rent Man on Wire this week, if only to see the Twin Towers in something joyful rather than the destructive images we see this time of year.

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