'We will all live in Washington, D.C.'

My colleague Hank Stuever loaned me Richard Rodriguez's essay collection "Darling." I'm glad he did. The whole thing is excerptable, which means the whole thing is dang good, so read it. Below is one passage from a 2009 piece called "Final Edition" that laments the death of newspapers (I know, I know) and finds God's architecture in a paperboy's route. Though Rodriguez is guilty of tweaking a pet peeve of mine  conflating Washington the city of people and Washington the political morass  he somehow makes curmudgeonliness and antiquarianism seem vanguard and, more importantly, correct.

Something funny I have noticed  perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the "New Establishment" issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and Do Not Disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of "The Simpsons" through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.

We will end up with one and a half cities in America. Washington, D.C., and "American Idol." We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing debate between "conservatives" and "progressives." We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses ("Moby Dick" is "not a really good piece of fiction" — Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, IL, USA — two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

National newspapers will try to impersonate local newspapers that are dying or dead. (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal publish San Francisco editions.) We live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at the Nebraska Holiday Inn or the Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

An obituary does not propose a solution.

That's only about 2,700 column inches, right?

In about two years, unless the writing kills me first, a book will be published under my name. Zoinks! That book, whose title is TBD, will be based on this story of a break-in at a nuclear weapons site, but it will be broader in scope. In my head I'm categorizing it several ways, depending on how the reporting actually goes: a parable, a "moral thriller," a "general theory of sociopolitical relativity" or  brace yourself  a THEORY OF EVERYTHING (take your pick, fellow fauxlosophers). There will be grannies and God and bombs and bureaucrats, caught up up in a 70-year chain reaction, all underlined by physics and faith. The patient and exacting Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects shepherded my proposal over the past eight months and sold it last week to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin, and I can't think of a better home for the project. Here's the Publishers Marketplace blurb:

Washington Post reporter Dan Zak's [tentatively titled] THE PROPHETS OF OAK RIDGE, the story of why three activists broke in to one of the world's most secure nuclear weapons facilities in 2012, how their actions were connected to the larger history of the anti-nuke movement, and why their intrusion bolsters the argument that nuclear catastrophe is our most imminent existential threat, to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, in a pre-empt, by Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects (World English).

"I'm going to make lots of trouble," Rosenthal told The New York Times when he first announced his imprint, and I ♥ trouble. I also ♥ Gene Weingarten for turning David on to my stuff, and Ann Gerhart for mothering the original story (and me, for that matter), and The Washington Post for giving me license to expand it. The first draft is due in November 2015; I am taking a one-year sabbatical from the newsroom starting this June 1 to tackle the epic reporting that needs to be done. After nine years at the Post and 15 years writing short (ish) for newspapers, I will have 90,000 words of open road in front of me. Perhaps I will chronicle the progress and pains here. If you see me doing that, though, tell me to get the fuck back to work. Or just say "Boooooook!"

The world you thought you knew

I read two books in quick succession this past week, which is a considerable clip for me. They were "The Accidental Universe" by physicist-novelist Alan Lightman and "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" by Ben Montgomery, a reporter for The Tampa Bay Times whom I met last June in Sanford, Fla., while covering jury selection for the George Zimmerman trial.

I knew of Ben from his online showcase for features journalism, so it was nice to meet him in person. I don't remember him mentioning anything about a book then, but he must've been in the throes of it. Anyway, "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" is an easy read in the best kind of way, effortless and clear but also subtle enough to sneak up on the heart and give it a strong tug near the end. The grandma in question is Emma Gatewood, a great-grandmother, actually, and at 67 the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail solo, then the first person ever to hike it twice and three times. You'll finish the book and feel like a missing sliver of your American identity has been restored.

"The Accidental Universe" is a compact 145 pages parceled out in seven essays that,  in the tradition of Carl Sagan, render theoretical physics in conversational language without sacrificing the inherent majesty. The book's subtitle is "The World You Thought You Knew," and that might've also worked as the subtitle of "Grandma Gatewood's Walk." I don't think it's a stretch to consider Grandma Gatewood alongside the British physicist Brandon Carter, who pops up in Lightman's first chapter and whose anthropic principle states that the universe must have its particular parameters because we are here to observe them. In other words, our existing intelligence to measure the universe means that those measurements must be such that we can exist with intelligence. Right? I thought of Grandma Gatewood as I read Lightman's first chapter, chiefly because she was fresh in my mind. Ben sniffs out certain motives for her quixotic walk on the 2,050-mile trail, but paramount — at least in my interpretation — is that she walked it because it was there to be walked. "I took it up as kind of a lark," she said. "I just do what I want to do," she said. She read about the trail, told herself she was going to do it, and did it. Her matter-of-factness masked deeper motivations, but the point is the trail existed to be walked, so she walked it. And Grandma Gatewood exists, in our national history, because of the trail. The universe is because we are, and a trail is because we walk it. Sometimes it's not more complicated than that.

Grandma Gatewood died in 1973, the same year that Brandon Carter articulated his principle, but she had illustrated it years before, in a way.