In his 1956 book The Marlinspike Sailor, marine illustrator Hervey Garrett Smith wrote that rope is “probably the most remarkable product known to mankind.” On its own, a stray thread cannot accomplish much. But when several fibers are twisted into yarn, and yarn into strands, and strands into string or rope, a once feeble thing becomes both strong and flexible—a hybrid material of limitless possibility. A string can cut, choke, and trip; it can also link, bandage, and reel. String makes it possible to sew, to shoot an arrow, to strum a chord. It’s difficult to think of an aspect of human culture that is not laced through with some form of string or rope; it has helped us develop shelter, clothing, agriculture, weaponry, art, mathematics, and oral hygiene. Without string, our ancestors could not have domesticated horses and cattle or efficiently plowed the earth to grow crops. If not for rope, the great stone monuments of the world—Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, the moai of Easter Island—would still be recumbent. In a fiberless world, the age of naval exploration would never have happened; early light bulbs would have lacked suitable filaments; the pendulum would never have inspired advances in physics and timekeeping; and there would be no Golden Gate Bridge, no tennis shoes, no Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
“Everybody knows about fire and the wheel, but string is one of the most powerful tools and really the most overlooked,” says Saskia Wolsak, an ethnobotanist at the University of British Columbia who recently began a PhD on the cultural history of string. “It’s relatively invisible until you start looking for it. Then you see it everywhere.”
We’ve been together for six years now; neither of us is much of the same person we were then, though remnants of those eighteen-year-olds still remain: my vaulting excitement and insecurity when someone disagrees with an opinion I value dearly, her leather jacket and ability to outpace me in really any argument. We’ve bonded over a hundred books since then, argued over maybe even more, but when people ask me how we met, I always return to the same story: she told me she hated Shakespeare, and so I couldn’t let her go.
As I pulled over on the Massachusetts Turnpike to take five at a rest stop, I noticed a woman at the Burger King counter wearing a lovely formal dress, her hair meticulously styled; she wore heels and a pair of stockings with seams running up the back.
In one hand she carried a long white cane. Because she was blind.
As I looked at her, I thought what in retrospect is something I’m ashamed of: If I were blind, I wouldn’t be wearing all that crap.
I didn’t even have time to tell myself that what I was thinking was wrongheaded before the woman raised her cellphone and, to complete my astonishment, took a selfie.
In engaging such a cross section of people, who become animated in his presence, the narrator strives to uncover the idiosyncratic and meaningful in each. “I must, in speaking to a person, know what is special about that individual,” he thinks. He is on a quest to discover himself in the faces of others, in the events of their lives, and in the quirks of their conversation. People, Ball seems to be prompting the reader, are mirrors for the good and bad within us, and there are rewards in paying attention.