Lost in the City of Glass: How I Fell in Love with Writing

by on March 7th, 2015
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Writing first caught onto me during my junior year in high school, when my American Literature teacher, Ms. Nickolai, gave out our class’s first independent reading assignment. She handed to each student a single sheet of paper displaying an extensive list of books from which we were to choose one book to read and prepare notes on. On the surface, the assignment seemed rather standard, very similar to a summer reading assignment. The catch? The part of the assignment that left me wracked with nerves? After selecting and reading one of the books from the list, each student was to sign up and prepare for a one-on-one discussion about the book with Ms. Nickolai.

Now, I certainly was not the shyest student in class. I would raise my hand occasionally, when I had what I presumed was some remarkably unique perspective to offer. But, I was also not the kind of student who would muster up the courage to seek a teacher’s help outside of class. The mere thought of talking to a teacher one-on-one, without the buffer of having other puzzled students around me to mask my own confusion, simply terrified me. So, as you can imagine, the thought of spending a straight fifteen to thirty minutes discussing with Ms. Nickolai my own thoughts on a book left me gripping the assignment page in my hands so hard that the sides began crumpling under my fingertips.

After avoiding the assignment for a week or so, fear that I would not finish the assignment at all began to kick in. I forced myself to forget about the looming discussion date and just focused on selecting an interesting book. I chose Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The synopsis seemed intriguing enough: The book follows Daniel Quinn, a writer of detective stories, who receives a strange phone call in the middle of the night from a man who claims his father is trying to kill him. Quinn winds up accepting an assignment from this mystery man to work as a real private investigator and becomes entangled in a case more puzzling than any he has ever written about. The novel boasted the excitement of a detective mystery and the suspense of a psychological thriller; it would be the perfect escape for me, a straight-lace student who had unwittingly submitted herself to a grueling schedule of AP classes and back-to-back extra-curricular activities. I figured this book would be a quick, fun read and would be anything but snooze-worthy.

Well, the book turned out to be a surprisingly difficult read. In it, Auster intentionally confuses the reader, ceaselessly blurring the identities of the story’s characters. The mysterious late-night caller who contacts Quinn initially mistakes him for a private detective named Paul Auster. (Yes, the author, Auster, names a character in the book after himself.) The reader also finds out that both the mystery caller and the caller’s supposedly murderous father actually have the same name, Peter Stillman. I found that, to make sense of the story and each character’s role in it, I needed to map the characters out using a diagram, linking each character to various names and other associated characters.

I realized midway through this process of diagramming that Auster, the author, had me piecing together his puzzle of a novel, much like the protagonist Quinn attempts to piece together the case in the story. Auster had me not only reading the story of a private investigator, but had me actually playing a private investigator of sorts. I remember myself nervously, but excitedly, sharing this discovery with Ms. Nickolai, explaining to her what I am sure she already knew: that through his intentionally convoluted writing, Auster was able to make me as a reader sort through, and struggle with, the identities of his characters. Auster had me questioning the very concept of identity, making me ask, “What is the purpose of a name?” “How does a name define one’s identity?” and “Does a name really mean anything at all?” I will always remember the way that Ms. Nickolai smiled at me in that moment, as I began to more comfortably and confidently describe what I had independently figured out about the novel.

I ended up getting an “A” on the independent reading assignment. More importantly, and more notably for me, I also ended up falling in love with writing. I felt awe-struck by the way that Auster ever-so-sneakily tricked me into playing detective along with his characters. I also felt indebted to Ms. Nickolai for teaching me well enough to recognize at that age what Auster was doing as a writer, and for ultimately helping me discover the immeasurable power in great writing. The hope that, one day, a reader will become as lost in my writing as I was once lost in Auster’s, inspires me everyday to continue writing.

Despite City of Glass’s sentimental importance to me, I have actually not read the novel since that high school assignment. Mostly, I think I am afraid that if were to pick it up again, it would no longer be as thought-provoking or revelatory to me as I felt it was in high school. I like to think that I am better off keeping the novel as it currently is in my mind, raised on a pedestal as the piece of literature that forever changed how I view writing.


City of Glass by Paul Auster

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