It’s not every book that you fall into, that swallows you whole, that paints a world for you to walk around in. They are the books we seek but seldom find. They pull you close and sit you down and insist that you stay and listen till the end.
That is what Bill Buford’s most recent book, “Dirt,” did to me. The daring, persistence and throwing of caution to the wind that lies at the book’s center is what so arrests the reader. It represents the living out of a dream that lies within grasp, but remains unlikely to be ever reached for.
Here’s the scene: The Bufords, a family of four squeezed into a small New York apartment, pack up and move to Lyon, France. Buford wants to learn the art of French cooking from its culinary giants, and he and his wife reason that three is just about the perfect age to introduce their twin boys to an entirely new country, culture and language.
That is the visceral attraction of this book. The reader can imagine Buford and his wife sitting in a tiny New York apartment — perhaps at a small kitchen table or on a couch, perhaps over an evening glass of wine — and asking “What if we packed up the kids and moved to France?” The magic of this book is that they actually do it.
However, it is not only Buford and his wife’s choice to move to France that gives the book its appeal — it is equally the atmosphere that his writing constructs.
Buford’s style is messy, but beautifully so. His paragraphs are a flurry of commas, colons, semicolons and parentheses. His writing refuses to flow smoothly, but it pulls you in. Eventually, it becomes a natural part of the world he builds. It is informal and casual: When you are reading, you are in the bakery, on the farm and in the oppressively intense environment of the French kitchen.
“Dirt” is a book most naturally read in gulps. Rarely did I pick it up for fewer than 30 or 40 pages. As one travels the pages of this book, they pick up pieces of the place, like the coin you find stuck between the cobbles of the street while strolling through the city, or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting out of a bakery window in the early morning. As the book unfolds, these pieces coalesce, forming a vivid, messy and achingly inviting fresco of the city and its people.
I’ve never been to Lyon, but growing up in Florence gave me ample material to fill in the world Buford paints: the tight, cobbled streets, the grit, the bustling bakeries and cafes. I moved back to the United States 10 years ago, but reading “Dirt” made me miss it all more than I have in years.
When I first happened upon “Baking Bread in Lyon,” a personal history piece and excerpt from “Dirt” published in The New Yorker in April 2020 before the book’s release, I was instantly intrigued. It was the first truly personal narrative piece I had read, and it immediately grabbed me. But my attraction to the genre also caused me to be skeptical. Why do we — do I — like it? Is it simply the attraction of a good story told well, or is there something more to be learned?
I found the answer, or at least part of an answer, in the pages of “Dirt.”
The memoir as a genre captures a moment in time, a place, a life. It is the reading experience closest to sitting around a table listening to someone tell their story.
In 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote a piece for The New Yorker declaring the personal narrative boom of the past decade dead. It’s a statement that now, four years later, feels perhaps a bit premature.
The specific flavor of personal narrative Tolentino is referencing may indeed still be on the decline, but the broader genre of personal histories and memoir seems to be having something of a renaissance, and reading “Dirt” showed me why.
The memoir or personal narrative, when done well, makes us better writers and more thoughtful people. It provides windows into other worlds and lives. It opens up a space for us to first sit and listen, then reflect upon all we have heard: to learn, to be challenged and to be inspired. We become more perceptive and aware of the world around us and the environment we live in, as well as the way in which we want to live, the way in which we want to be in this world.
This spring, I walked the winding streets of Lyon in Buford’s shoes. I spent two weeks in bakeries, apartments and restaurants, opening myself up to the mellow din of the city’s sights, sounds and smells, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. At the moment, his favorite reading spot on campus is the second floor of the Coop on an early weekend morning, ideally with coffee and a scone.