“The greatest work of art is to love someone."
- The Letters of Vincent van Gogh


The Polar Express

Chris Van Allsburg

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Dec 01, 2015
Category: Children

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What is the most interactive medium of all?

A rich, wise man in Silicon Valley — so rich he did not need to offer up the kneejerk response: “online media” — had the right answer:

A person in a chair, reading a book.

I instinctively knew that was right. As, surely, do you. For we have all had that magic experience of opening a book and entering a drama of knights and knaves, princes and goddesses. This world? We’ve left it. We are living the book.

I would go one step further: The most interactive medium of all is a person in a chair,  reading a book to a child.

Especially this book.

On Christmas Eve, a father tells his son that there’s no Santa Claus. Later that night, a train packed with children stops in front of the boy’s house. He hops on and travels to the North Pole, where Santa offers him the first toy of Christmas. The boy chooses a reindeer’s bell. On the way home, he loses it. How he finds it and what that means — that’s where you reach for the Kleenex.

A simple story. A timeless story, and on purpose — as Van Allsburg has said, “If you opened up my books and there was no copyright page, you wouldn’t be able to tell exactly when it was published.” It’s precisely because the illustrations do not anchor us to our time, our town, that we can deal more directly with the theme of the book. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

That theme is belief. Not in Santa, though that will do just fine for kids. Belief in really big things, things we hope are true even in the face of all the information that says they are not. Again, Van Allsburg: “We can believe that extraordinary things can happen. We can believe fantastic things that might happen. Or we can believe that what we see is what we get. But if all that I believe in is what I can see, then the world is a smaller, less interesting place.”

Most of the time I believe in magic. Sometimes I believe in miracles. That is the baseline of all the greatest spiritual stories — the impossible happens. And you can’t explain it. Except, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis does: “Miracles only occur to people who believe in them.”

So as your holiday gift to yourself, buy the book. Not the "special edition” with the bell and the CD and Lord knows what else. Not the Kindle download. The basic book. Because it’s all you need.

And then, of course, find a child. And settle in your chair. And start to read. Before you know it, your eyes will mist, you’ll be reaching for the Kleenex, and — and this is the best part of all, especially for the sophisticated and the hard of heart and the bitterly disappointed — you will believe. 

Over the past twenty-five years, many people have shared stories with me about the effect that reading “The Polar Express” has had on their families and on their celebration of Christmas.

One of the most poignant was told to me five or six years ago at a book signing in the Midwest, on a snowy December evening. As I inscribed a book to a woman in her sixties, she told me that it was the second copy she had owned, and wanted to know if she could she tell me what had happened to the first. “Of course,” I answered.

A dozen years earlier the woman, who had no children of her own, befriended a neighbor, a boy of about seven, named Eddie. He would often cross his driveway to visit her.

She had a collection of picture books, which she read to him, but around the holidays, the only story he ever wanted to hear, over and over, was “The Polar Express.” One year she offered to give him the book, but Eddie declined because he wanted to hear her read it aloud to him, which she continued to do every year until the boy and his family moved away.

Years later the woman learned from a mutual acquaintance that Eddie had grown up and become a soldier. He was stationed in Iraq. Since Christmas was approaching, the woman decided to send him a gift box. She included candy, cookies, socks, and her old copy of “The Polar Express.” She wasn’t sure what a nineteen-year-old battle-weary soldier would do with the book in an army barracks in the Middle East, but she wanted him to have it. A month later, after the holidays had passed, she received a letter from Eddie.

He told her he was very happy to have heard from her and to get the box of gifts. He had opened it in his barracks, just before curfew, with some of his fellow GIs already in their bunks. A soldier in the next bunk spotted the book. He knew it well from his own childhood and asked Eddie to read it. “Out loud?” he asked. “Yeah,” his buddy told him.

Eddie, quietly and a little self-consciously, read “The Polar Express.” When he’d finished and closed the book, a moment of silence passed. Then from behind him a voice called out, “Read it again,” and another joined in, “Yeah, read it again,” and a third added, “This time, louder.” So Eddie did.

He wrote to the woman that he’d stood up and read it to his comrades just the way he remembered she had read it to him.

Short takes

Friends & Family: Some Recent Books I’d Like Even I Didn’t Know The People

Roberta Kaplan and Lisa Dickey: ‘Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA’
When her wife died, the IRS required Edie Windsor to pay $360,000 in estate taxes. As Windsor has said, if her spouse had been named “Theo” rather than “Thea” she would not have had to pay a nickel. Why was she billed? Because the marriage was legal in Canada but not in New York, where they lived. And why was that? Because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — signed into law by Bill Clinton — prohibited the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages. And why is DOMA gone? Because Roberta Kaplan, Edie Windsor’s genius lawyer, sued on narrow grounds. My friend Lisa Dickey co-authored Kaplan’s book, which will be catnip for lawyers and anyone who loves justice.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Elizabeth Benedict: ‘Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession’
Short hair, long story. Long hair, ditto. And there are also revealing stories here about Hindu Bengali hair, Hasidic hair, gray hair, pubic hair. And Elizabeth Benedict’s hair: “The older I get, the more attention I pay to my hair, and faced with a scalp full of gray roots, the last thing I intend to do is let nature take her course.” Elizabeth Benedict, author of five novels and “The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers,” has been a Guest Butler. I can attest: Women will find humor, insight and poignancy here.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Ernest Beyl: ‘Sketches From A North Beach Journal’
Ernest Beyl, a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, has spent decades among the city’s more exotic citizens. Now he’s profiled its whores, poets, kooks, journalists, strippers, musicians, artists and beatniks in a book that will enrich any visit to San Francisco. Among the profiles: Carol Doda, who danced topless, sporting massive silicone breasts. Says Beyl: “It’s invigorating to live in a city where one of the most prominent citizens was a topless dancer.”
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.

Cara Nicoletti: ‘Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books’
Cara Nicolletti “comes from a long line of butchers.” (Her illustrator is the aptly named Marion Bolognesi). She’s also a reader. Combining her interests, she digs into favorite books, extracts their meals — like the garlic soup from “Pride and Prejudice” and the cherry pie from “In Cold Blood” — and produces recipes that recreate them. I can’t help saying it: a delicious book.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Susan Cheever: ‘Drinking in America: Our Secret History’
We are a nation of drinkers — maybe of drunks. The Mayflower was awash in beer, then ran short, forcing a landing in Massachusetts. The colonists, Cheever estimates, spent 25% of their income on liquor. By 1820, Americans drank three times as much as they do today. Cheever: “The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history, is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present.”
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Car Seat Headrest: Way ahead of the curve

Biting my clothes to keep from screaming
taking pills to keep from dreaming
I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

I was referring to the present in past tense
it was the only way that I could survive it
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

heavy boots on my throat, I need
I need something soon I need something soon….

For The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) on Car Seat Headrest, click here.

To buy the CD from Amazon, click here.
To buy the MP3 download, click here.
For the tour schedule, click here.

When the dead are still alive for us: “Best Man”

I know Owen Lewis as a psychiatrist (not mine) and a professor at Columbia. His poetry comes as late-breaking news, and the subject of “Best Man” even more so: 23 poems about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. These poems are blunt, colloquial, rooted in real events. Jason steals Owen’s prescription pad. Owen breaks the phone Jason called on. Jason’s body is “Found After Three Days… Your face running off your cheeks, in rivulets.” But “Best Man” is much more than reportage. In the end, Owen Lewis takes his brother’s years of self-destruction and their inability to connect and turns them into a kind of conversation. And the reader comes to understand how the accomplished healer and his lost brother are rendered… well, not equal, but definitely brothers. The Edward Hirsch lines that begin the book couldn’t be more appropriate: “Look closely and you will see/ Almost everyone carrying bags/ Of cement on their shoulders.” [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.]

Take once a day, in season: Josh Ritter, “Homecoming”

From his new CD, Sermon on the Rocks.

I feel a change in the weather
I feel a change in me
The days are getting shorter
And the birds begin to leave
Even me, who’s been so long alone
I’m headed home…