Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Kindle Singles; 85 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the author.
One of the added benefits of electronic books is the ability to publish work that would normally fall through the cracks. For instance, what magazine would take the risk — or have the required space — to publish a 30,000 word article?
When Amazon launched Kindle Singles earlier this year for one-off pieces of non-fiction, Wired heralded it as the saviour of long-form journalism.
According to Amazon: “Each Kindle Single presents a compelling idea — well researched, well argued, and well illustrated — expressed at its natural length.” This length is between 5,000 and 30,000 words, so shorter than a novel, but longer than a typical magazine article.
The Saint, published in mid-March, is an example of a Kindle Single. It was written by Oliver Broudy, the former managing editor of the Paris Review, who now concentrates on freelance journalism.
The piece is structured around the idea that everyone gets stuck in a rut, and even if you live in the most exciting city in the world it can sometimes feel like life is passing you by. So what would you do if you were given the chance to leave your comfort zone and do something really crazy? New Yorked-based Broudy calls the moment you make these decisions “the lunge”.
The lunge may remind you of its cousin, the leap of faith, but the leap is a far nobler tactic, inspired by high ideals, whereas the lunge is driven more by desperation, recklessness and self-disgust.
The catalyst for Broudy’s “lunge” comes when he is covering a story for an online magazine about a controversial auction of Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia. There are five personal items on offer: Gandhi’s pocket watch, his sandals, an eating bowl, a plate and a pair of glasses.
The man offering the items for sale is James Otis, a 45-year-old collector who deals largely in memorabilia associated with Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and Dr Suess. By all accounts Otis is an intriguing character — with eccentric overtones.
His Gandhi auction caused an outcry, particularly with Indians — the government, the media, the public — who were outraged by a rich American trying to profit off the man they revered as the leader of the independence movement against British rule. Otis received death threats and thousands of angry emails, and had to call a press conference to explain that the money would go to “Gandhian causes”.
When Broudy attends the auction and sees Otis’s vulnerability and hears him read a statement fighting back tears, he realises that Otis has noble aims.
And then to my surprise he went on to announce that he was commencing a twenty-three-day fast (the longest Gandhi had ever attempted) to reflect on his actions. This was beyond unusual. As far as I could tell, all parties in the affair had sunk to their respective lows. The press: sensationalism; the auction-house: greed; and the Indian politicians: a self-serving indignation grotesquely at odds with the teachings of the one whose legacy they claimed to defend. Only James had tried to adhere to Gandhian principles throughout.
What follows is an extraordinary adventure in which Broudy accompanies Otis on a trip to India and Tibet. You get the very real sense that Broudy truly admires Otis — indeed, he regards him as saintly, hence the title of the piece — but before long the cracks begin to appear in their lopsided relationship.
Is Otis really as noble as he appears? Or is he merely a naive man with money to burn? And how does Broudy reconcile his need to escape the narcissistic bubble of New York life with a life on the road alongside a narcissist?
Like most good first-person journalism, The Saint takes you on an absorbing journey into a world few of us would ever visit. Broudy has an effortless writing style and his eye for detail makes the characters, the places and the events come alive.
It’s worth a read if you’re fascinated by the sometimes extreme measures people will take to find personal fulfillment. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to do something totally crazy, just to escape the rat race for a bit, then you’ll also find plenty to admire here…