I’ve taught Shakespeare to Columbia undergraduates for three decades, and while my students over the years haven’t changed their minds much about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth, they have about Hamlet. As in everyone’s classes on the play, the conversation in mine inevitably turns to why Hamlet delays. Back in the 1980s, thanks to the influence of a generation of high school teachers who had seen the 1948 film of Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet and had likely read Hamlet and Oedipus, I could always count on a few students to say that Hamlet couldn’t readily avenge himself on a man who acted on his own desires to kill his father and sleep with his mother. (These days no student mentions the Oedipal theory, and when I offer it as a possibility, the suggestion is met with groans or laughter.)
The older Romantic view of Hamlet as an intellectual paralyzed by excessive thought still appealed to procrastinating students, so I’d hear versions of that too. But as the years rolled by I’d hear new explanations. Some of my students suggested that Hamlet couldn’t act because he was a coward, others that he was experiencing a spiritual crisis. By the end of the century a new paradigm began to emerge: Hamlet was profoundly depressed—that’s why he is immobilized, has trouble with his girlfriend, and feels so alienated. As one student memorably put it, if Prozac had been available there would have been no delay.
Symphony of the Seas – which, on its maiden voyage from Barcelona in March 2018 became the largest passenger ship ever built – is about five times the size of the Titanic. At 362 metres long, you could balance it on its stern and its bow would tower over all but two of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. Owned and operated by Miami-based cruise line Royal Caribbean, it can carry nearly 9,000 people and contains more than 40 restaurants and bars; 23 pools, jacuzzis and water slides; two West End-sized theatres; an ice rink; a surf simulator; two climbing walls; a zip line; a fairground carousel; a mini-golf course; a ten-storey fun slide; laser tag; a spa; a gym; a casino; plus dozens more shopping and entertainment opportunities. To put it another way, Symphony of the Seas might be the most ludicrously entertaining luxury hotel in history. It just also happens to float.
Picture a cruise ship. You’re likely imagining crisped-pink pensioners bent double over shuffleboard, cramped cabins, bad food and norovirus. And, once upon a time, you’d have been right. But in the last decade or so, cruise ships have gone from a means of transport to vast floating cities with skydiving simulators (Quantum of the Seas), go-karting (Norwegian Joy), bumper cars (Quantum again) and ice bars (Norwegian Breakaway). Restaurants offer menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs. As a result, the cruise industry is experiencing a golden age, boosted by millennials and explosive growth in tourists from China. More than twenty-five million people set sail on a cruise liner in 2017.
Just over ten years after that fall in Paris, I finally stopped being a compulsive book finisher. I’d learned two things in particular that helped me quit. One, I realized literally NO ONE cares if I give up on a book except me. (And maybe the author, if I told them, which I wouldn’t do because…no.) Two, I realized that I’m going to die.
Not tomorrow, knock on wood, or next year, God willing. I don’t know when, but I know better than I knew at 17 that I’m mortal, and that the hours left to read are limited.
If a novel about “first-world problems,” as Nora’s daughter calls them, already has you rolling your eyes, remember that Quindlen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary while a New York Times columnist, is one of our most astute chroniclers of modern life. This novel may be too quiet for some, too populated with rich whiners for others, but it has an almost documentary feel, a verisimilitude that’s awfully hard to achieve. There’s no moment that feels contrived or false, except perhaps to non-New Yorkers who may find it impossible to believe that anyone would consider $350 a month for a parking space a bargain too good to pass up.