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Sven Birkerts: My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter In A Contrary Time


My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter In A Contrary Time

Author: Sven Birkerts
Publisher: Viking

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When he writes about reading, book critic Sven Birkerts proves more responsive than most to the woozy magic of good fiction. Open to the heartening power of language and lyrical about its transformative effects, he made his name in the literary world with essays that enrich stories rather than just sizing them up. But in recounting his own life in My Sky Blue Trades, Birkerts mostly comes off as distant and removed, much like the writers he's so equipped to see through. Growing up Latvian in the suburbs of Detroit, the young Birkerts led a quiet childhood governed by shyness and embarrassment over his ethnic heritage. Dreaming of assimilation, he bristles when his family speaks Latvian, and finds a temporary escape in fourth grade when he cracks open his first Hardy Boys book. An unremarkable student who grows increasingly rebellious against his stern, pragmatic architect father, he eventually ships off to college at the University Of Michigan, where he shirks his studies in favor of hippie-era drug-doing and a romantic devotion to writers like Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Ernest Hemingway. Guilty of breaking the show-don't-tell rule (which admittedly finds few adherents on the memoir circuit), Birkerts repeatedly alludes to a troubled upbringing loaded with epochal conflict. But through the first two-thirds of the book, his clinical recitation of events and moods does little to bear out the emotions he cites as so moving. Instead, Birkerts rails against his college-age self with a wholesale contempt not just for the hippie movement's failed ideals, but also for its very existence. Too sweepingly dismissive to bother with details, he runs through trips to Woodstock and Europe in two-page passages that gasp for amplification, but that changes dramatically when he returns home for a post-college spell of wandering and pining for the writerly life. Delving into various bookstore jobs and a tempestuous move to Maine with his girlfriend, Birkerts summons his strength as an essayist by wading through the mind of a drifting young adult who's unsure of his past and even less certain about his future. The last third of My Sky Blue Trades throbs with still-warm memories—of eccentric bookstore friends, frozen romantic relationships, and an ill-fated stab at a first novel—but the heartrending outro casts an accusatory light on what's missing from the book's detached beginning. Birkerts ends with the story of his breakout essay on Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but his significant life as a reader ultimately serves as a footnote to a book seemingly written more for himself than for anyone else.