When I was twenty-three, I was hired by the CIA. I was working at a Catholic school at the time, coaching squash and teaching seventh-grade social studies—which was funny, since I had never before seen a squash game before and was not even so much as a lapsed Catholic. I lived behind the school in a former convent where the only consistently functioning lights were a pair of glowing red exit signs. My prevailing feeling that year was one of intense personal absurdity, and it was in this spirit that I applied to the CIA (I liked international relations, and who knew they had an online application?) and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (I liked writing stories, and what the hell?). These things certainly didn’t make any less sense than coaching squash and living in a convent—though they weren’t really ambitions as much as gestures: reflections of my general hope that I would, someday, do something else. Each was something in between a dice roll and a delusion, a promissory note and a private joke to no one but myself.
Later, it turned out that this was a lot like what writing a novel would feel like.
For thousands of years, human beings have relied on stone tablets, scrolls, books or Post-it notes to remember things that their minds cannot retain, but there is something profoundly different about the way we remember and forget in the internet age. It is not only our memory of facts that is changing. Our episodic memory, the mind’s ability to relive past experiences – the surprising sting of an old humiliation revisited, the thrill and discomfort of a first kiss, those seemingly endless childhood summers – is affected, too.
I don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on confessing one’s sins, but it has been six years since I did the deed and I’m now coming clean.
Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year—in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper—was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers—both American sociologists—accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.
The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is still thriving, some 270 years after its founding.