A Week in Culture: Tom Nissley, Writer and Game-Show Contestant, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Nissley’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


11:55 A.M. The pinnacle of my first day after I left my job in March was going to see a weekday matinee of The Fighter. I joked it would be matinees every day from then on, but I hadn’t indulged since, until today when my wife, Laura (who also works from home), and I play hooky at a noon show of The Lincoln Lawyer (H). We are two-thirds of the audience. As nice as it is to be out with my honey, and as indelible a spot Matthew McConaughey has in our hearts thanks to his early turn as Wooderson, The Lincoln Lawyer is no Fighter, sad to say. I go in hoping for an expert course in plot mechanics (a refresher I can always use), but feel instead like I am walking down the “Thriller” aisle at Plot Depot. A small prize, though: spotting a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on top of a stack in McConaughey’s nicely cluttered office (my eye always shoots to the bookshelves).

5:30 P.M. I meet two newish friends, Maria and George, for a quick dinner before trivia night at the Washington Athletic Club. I think I had played pub trivia once (and lost) before going pro, and afterward, becoming a post-Jeopardy! ringer was the last thing I had in mind. But my friend Ryan made an offer I couldn’t refuse: joining him for trivia night with two transplants from LA I wanted to meet—Maria, a fellow novelist who used to write for, among other things, Arrested Development, and George, who seems too unassuming to enjoy being called legendary but what else can you say? Last month we trampled the competition, but tonight, in between talk about Ryan’s and Maria’s upcoming novels, the pecking order at TED conferences (which may have inspired this), the Luna Park/Largo heyday of LA comedy, and even last month’s Paris Review Revel, where George and Maria got to talk to Terry Southern’s widow after seeing his papers at the New York Public Library, we finish second, which still pays for our drinks.

9:40 P.M. Back at home, to the more orderly trivia territory of Jeopardy!, for the first half of the teachers’ final. Okay, Coryat of 37,600, but I need to read up on Biblical women, astronomy, and country music.


10:15 A.M. My friend Seth’s query to our hometown e-mail circle for where to start reading David Foster Wallace sets off a three-time-zone roundtable discussion. While one friend makes the case for the big one, I plump for the nonfiction and am detoured into finally reading his famous “Federer as Religious Experience” piece from The New York Times for the first time. In some ways, it actually reads as if it had some of the Wallace ironed out of it: whole stretches seem like they could have been written by a more traditional sportswriter. But the beauty-and-the-philosophy-of-the-body bit couldn’t have come from anyone else. Among his tennis pieces, though, I still prefer the one from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again on the journeyman pro Michael Joyce.

12:25 P.M. I decide to work over in the University District today, since I have an errand to run there, and I make a Proustian return to Bulldog News, where I spent countless browsing hours during my grad-school years in the nineties. As I skim my way through the journals and magazines (Bomb, Mojo, Raritan, The Believer, etc., etc.), I realize, Oh yeah, this is how I info-surfed before the Web! It feels surprisingly efficient: I can move through titles and tables of contents and articles faster (and with more intuitive metadata) than through my browser bookmarks. One other aspect of the old ways, which is either a feature or a bug depending on how you look at the cultural economy: I end up dropping twenty dollars on the new issues of Granta, Poetry Northwest, and Filmmaker.

12:50 P.M. Around the corner from Bulldog, I stop into the excellent used shop, Magus Books, for a copy of Kevin Brownlow’s classic silent-movie compendium, The Parade’s Gone By (which of course they have), but also find myself unable not to also get something from further down the shelf, Rohmer and Chabrol’s book on Hitchcock. A quick skim of the latter makes me semidesperate to watch Rope again.

1:10 P.M. My last stop on this nostalgia tour is the venerable Cafe Allegro, where I went on my first date with my wife. The place is nearly unchanged in the two decades I’ve been coming. As I sit at one of the brass tables in the back room, though, I realize I’m sent back to an even older sense memory: the smell of the brass intensely reminds me of practicing the French horn, which I haven’t done since I was thirteen (and which I didn’t do much then).


11:50 A.M. Nothing can elevate you from a bout of midday weekend ennui like Queen’s “Flash” coming on shuffle. As I dance around the kitchen singing along in full falsetto (“Flash! Ah-ahh—king of the impossible!”) and only half irony, I become aware that at the very same time in the basement below me my two sons are running around as made-up superheroes in their long ninja underwear. (They come up later to explain that they are named “Ka-pow” and “Boom.”) Silly children.

6:20 P.M. Did I mention weekend ennui? My eight-year-old son, Henry (aka “Boom”), the Kasparov of the ostensibly random card game War (his lifetime record within the family must be something like 108-7), challenges me to a game at about 4:45. I’m down to two cards around 5:45, but, alas, my luck improves and finally even Henry, whose mantra “Do you want to play a game?” sometimes makes me feel a little like the young Matthew Broderick, has had enough. Time for dinner.

8:05 P.M. Catch up with yesterday’s teachers’ finale and today’s Saturday repeat show (the end of Vijay Balse’s run from early 2010). My Coryat scores are fine (35,200 and 36,600), but my point of pride is getting both Final Jeopardy questions right (“Who is Emperor Akihito?” and “What is Gloucester?”), when they were Triple Stumpers on the show.


4:25 P.M. Dear Diary: Will you still love me if I confess to you my darkest, nerdiest perversity? I am spending the late afternoon typing the books I own into a spreadsheet, and loving it. After ten years of getting books in the mail every day, and more years than that of buying faster than I can read them, I have, as Ed says about the Arizonas, more’n I can handle. So one after-I-quit-my-job priority has been to get the holdings of my library in order. But I can’t do that until I archive them—or so I’ve convinced myself.

5:15 P.M. On Day Two, Josh tipped me off to the quirky but immense riches of the Library of Congress’s new National Jukebox project, which is bringing material from the early period of recorded sound online. Today I dive in (H) to the LOC’s suggested Black Broadway and Tin Pan Alley playlist and have the pleasure of finally hearing what Bert Williams and George Walker, familiar names to anyone who, like me, studied turn-of-the-century American culture in the age of Love & Theft, sounded like: Williams still sounds fresh on numbers like “All Going Out and Nothing Coming In” (if he had survived to our day, Jack White would be producing his comeback record). And then I find a personal treasure trove: a list of pop songs, like “All Going Out,” cowritten by the multiply talented James Weldon Johnson, author of one of my favorite American novels and former head of the NAACP. What a pleasure to hear the still-catchy (thanks to the melody by his brother John) “Under the Bamboo Tree,” later to be interpreted by, among others, Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien and Steve Martin and a brain played by Sissy Spacek. Ah, America …

Tom Nissley was a Books editor for for ten years, before he won a lot of money on Jeopardy!. He lives in Seattle and now blogs, mostly on books, at Ephemeral Firmament.