Jonathan Safran Foer at Hunter CollegePeter Dunifon
Hunter’s auditorium was abuzz on Wednesday, August 24th, with a group of almost 300 Macaulay Honors students chatting in eager anticipation of the arrival of Jonathan Safran Foer. When he first stepped on-stage, everyone broke out in applause. “I’m just shocked that anyone cares about books anymore,” said Foer.
The event was the highlight of Macaulay’s welcome week for incoming freshman. They had been assigned Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as summer reading. Foer, who has been called one of the most controversial and influential writers of the last decade, came to Hunter for a reading, discussion and book signing.
He began the evening by reflecting on his own college experience. After remarking on how greatly he had grown during those years, he added, “If changing isn’t the point of being alive, I can’t imagine what is.”
Born and raised in Washington D.C. Foer attended Princeton University. As a freshman, he intended to major in pre-med. Later on, he traded in his stethoscope dreams for the works of Kant and Foucault and became a philosophy major.
It was only after an entry-level creative writing class, taught by Joyce Carol Oates, that Foer began to consider writing more seriously. Under her guidance he won awards for his writing every year of his undergraduate career. And after graduating, he expanded his successful senior thesis into his first full-length novel, Everything is Illuminated.
The success of that book worked as an impetuous decision to launch his career as a writer, a path that Foer described with an attitude both wayward and rational. He said, “I grew up having the really strong sense that I wanted to do something I believed in with my life... Writing turned out to be a pretty good approximation of the thing that I wanted.”
Foer read a short passage from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: a story about a fabled sixth borough of New York City. It is a somewhat cautionary tale, targeted specifically at New Yorkers.
In the same vein, albeit more directed at the students in the audience, Foer spent some time elaborating on what it is like to live in New York. In a comment quickly followed by confirmatory applause, he said, “Be very careful about the experience you have in New York because it is very possible to have a shallow experience... one in which you could be anywhere.”
Although he moved to New York City almost on a whim, Foer described his decision to stay as something he chose more deliberately. Presently, he lives with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, and his two children in a Park Slope townhouse.
He stays in New York City largely because of the cultural climate, which is created by the vibrant arts scene. For him, New York is a unique place with a distinct energy that allows experimentalism to thrive.
In fact, he claims that when he writes, his intention is not to experiment. Rather, he attempts to write what he wants to write. The difference for Foer is that the so-called “restrictions” of his medium are not at all crippling obstacles. Instead, he takes the limitations of black ink on paper and turns them into his books’ greatest assets.
Wary of the technological onslaught brought on by electronic screens and Twitter feeds that demand our generation’s constant attention, Foer finds solace in the novel.
He described books as a single-tasking activity: “They require quietness, they require slowness, they require not answering the phone,” And Foer’s work often demands this patience and focus that is typically afforded to other, especially electronic, mediums
Towards the end of the evening students were invited to ask Foer their own questions. The bubbling energy of the audience burst and nearly thirty students lined up behind two microphones.
“Your life has the ultimate stakes. You don’t want to experience it half asleep,” he said.
And later, Foer suggested, “There’s nothing that somebody won’t applaud for.” He was right, everyone applauded, again.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s most recent books are Eating Animals and Tree of Codes, published in 2009 and 2010 respectively. His short stories have appeared several times in The New Yorker.