Our culture is fascinated by the idea of epiphany–the elusive moment that alters the course of one’s life. It is said that a chance encounter between Newton’s skull and a wayward apple redefined physics, that the serendipitous meeting of J. M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies children led the former to produce the novel “Peter Pan.” “The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure” is a compilation of vignettes by a diverse selection of creative minds, detailing that precise, inspirational moment in each of their lives. These stories, ranging from tongue-in-cheek anecdotes to serious profundity, are as varied as the authors themselves. The quality of the pieces is likewise variable, and perhaps merely a reflection of the deeply personal nature of each story.
Several pieces–not necessarily the ones by the most famous artists–are outstanding and probably worth the price of the book in themselves. One by the writer Steve Almond, entitled “John Updike Sent Me a Fan Letter (Once),” is memorable for its humorous and appreciative portrayal of the modern literary community; despite its somewhat preachy conclusion, the emotion rings true throughout. “The Night My Mother Refused to Cook Dinner,” by Michael Castleman, speaks powerfully of the impact of a fairly ordinary event–Castleman’s mother’s absorption in a book–on the psyche and development of a child. Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked Start,” manages to be at once philosophical, literary and personally honest, providing an especially insightful perspective on childhood that undoubtedly informs his children’s and young adult works.
Others seem to lack a sense of direction, a true connection with the reader, or both. A few veer toward the mundane–ultimately, even vignettes must work to keep the audience’s interest–or too grotesque, as if vying for the most television-worthy moment rather than for personal meaning. Some of the best-known writers on the list come up short; Dave Eggers, for example, author of the popular memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, produced a piece about a favorite high school English teacher that reads like a college application essay. (This is a particular disappointment; many other artists and writers in the anthology are not memoirists by trade, and can therefore be somewhat excused for their contributions’ shortcomings.) Each piece, however, is short enough that the next story is never more than a few pages away–making “The Moment” a great handbag accessory for anyone with a few minutes to kill between classes, on the train or even on particularly long elevator rides (some of the stories are that short).
“The Moment” is the sort of book one might buy as a coffee table or bathroom basket adornment. It contains a story–multiple stories, even–for every reader, provided that one is willing to wade through the other pieces to get there. It is not literature, nor true memoir, but one might learn something from it nonetheless.