A Night at the Opera: National Writers Series’ George Packer

My girlfriend and I were already five minutes late to a National Writers Series’ symposium when we tiptoed across an ice-coated parking lot behind the City Opera House.  We snuck through Brew to the Opera House’s Front Street entrance, and—with two will-call tickets in hand—I set out in a polite jog up a long flight of stairs to the Opera House’s second story theater.  Elise casually walked up the steps in tow despite my simultaneously encouraging and exasperated gaze from above.  “I need to use the restroom,” she said when she finally crested the stairs.   

Oh, the embarrassment of an interruptive, excuse-me-pardon-me entrance into the theater that awaited me!  I waited; time ticking away.  I hung my jacket on a rack near the bathrooms and snacked on a few complimentary Morsels-made mini-pastries—aptly named ‘George Lip-smackers’ in honor of the night’s speaker, George Packer—and then I counted the seconds.  I snatched another pastry: a lemony, creamy number—quite good.

Elise finally escaped the restroom.  We peaked our heads into the theater after one final Lip-smacker.  An usher took our tickets and escorted us to our seats, which—Hallelujah!—required little knee swiveling from other audience members to reach.  The two of us settled in for an evening of engrossing, intellectual musings, only to be met by a man on stage who was wearing a bathrobe.

That man, as it turned out, was Benjamin Busch, the host and moderator of the night’s proceedings.  Given that I was both distracted and late in my arrival, I am still unsure as to why Busch was wearing a bathrobe, but, in retrospect, that seems like an irrelevant point anyway. 

Busch was a Marine in the 2000’s; he served two tours in Iraq, and now lives in Reed City.  In 2012 he published a memoir, Dust to Dust, which recounts his past experiences as an active-duty soldier, and later his life as a veteran.  He introduced George Packer, who entered the stage sans bathrobe.

Packer’s most recent publication, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, earned him the National Book Prize in 2013.  The book is a kaleidoscopic non-fiction narrative that tells the tales of American everymen who have faced adversity in a changing cultural and economic landscape.  There’s the son of a tobacco farmer attempting to convince Carolina school districts to buy his bio-diesel for their buses, and the Rust Belt daughter-of-a-junkie, former factory worker turned community organizer.  While describing an extremely complex system—21st century America—The Unwinding works like a microscope to reveal the patterns of the universal; as Packer described it during the event, his approach in writing the book wasn’t “to grab the world with both hands,” but instead to weave several threads of life into a larger tapestry. 

The on-stage discussion ranged from identifying and dissecting ideas particular to the United States—exceptionalism, capitalism, celebrity—to deliberating the future of independent booksellers across the country.  Packer was eloquent and sharp.  He answered questions about his life in the Peace Corps and about his work as a journalist in a perfectly professorial kind of way: his words guided us along his line of reasoning neither tediously nor condescendingly. 

My overall impression was this: here is a man—George Packer—who is, more than anything else, extremely intelligent, and whose opinions are at the very least worth listening to.  I don’t mean to sound like a sycophant; it’s just that Packer has greatly contributed to a general understanding of the topics about which he has written, and the accolades he’s received attest to that. It’s not that his beliefs are necessarily accurate or useful, but that his voice is a soprano’s aria in a world continually filled with hollow noise and under-informed Tweets.

I was thankful to have been able to attend that evening, which was my first time at a National Writers Series event.  Never mind the fact that I’d never read one word of Packer’s work before going (which is regrettably true).  Despite being called the National Writers Series, the symposiums aren’t exclusively—or perhaps even remotely—about writing per se, but more about the facets of life that are worth being written about.  For Packer, such topics include the crumbling institutions in America, like our education systems and journalism standards, as well as what drives America into foreign wars and, conversely, what keeps us away from them.  The guests invited by the National Writers Series have special perspectives, and the sharing of those perspectives is nothing short of enlightening and entertaining.

When the floor was opened to questions from attendees, the Opera House’s staff of microphone distributors was outmatched by the audience’s inquisitiveness.  When Busch was forced to turn away several questioners on account of time, the spectators politely filed into the Opera House’s second story antechamber in anticipation of Packer’s book signing.  Conversation spilled out of the theater.  As I gathered my jacket, I was accosted by a woman as she walked out of the women’s restroom.  She wanted to know what a younger attendee such as myself thought of it all.  The exchange, while borderline unsanitary, was genuine nonetheless, but I found myself considerably short of words when trying focus the spectrum of thoughts that Packer had inspired in me.  Before descending down the Opera House’s stairs to the exit, Elise and I took one last Lip-smacker as a toast to the evening, and perhaps to give our brains a little fuel for digesting Packer’s words.

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