Rules of Civility

Last week I worked in a classroom where students were writing literary analyses for The Glass Castle.  The book is a good one, and the high schoolers were working on thesis statements then finding quotes to support their arguments. For a few moments, it felt like I was back in one of those English classes at Miami that I miss so much.

Yesterday I subbed for another high school English class and the students were taking tests all day. I sat at my desk with Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles, and marked the pages like I would have to write a huge paper later. 

Reading for fun after a long absence always feels right to me. Rules of Civility read as if  Towles had taken Great Expectations, Walden and The Sun Also Rises, stuck them in a blender and eventually poured out something sweet that goes down smooth.


I haven’t read something at that pace with a pencil in hand since undergrad, and it felt awesome to be underlining and note-taking without much of a system — trusting that I would remember what the marks meant when I flipped back to them later. I marked words and turns of phrase and ideas. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

Eve came back without hesitation.

— You should get out of your ruts.

He nodded his head slowly and then smiled.

— What a wonderful wish, he said, to wish for another.


At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy.


…leaning with pluck into a cautionary wind, gripping identical hats to identical haircuts, happy to count themselves among the indistinguishable.


To begin, Wallace ordered aspic, of all things, and I had the house salad — a terrific concoction of iceberg greens, cold blue cheese and warm red bacon. If I were a country, I would have made it my flag.


— That’s a Grand Canyon of a tale, she said. A mile deep and two miles wide.

The metaphor was apt. A million years of social behavior had worn away this chasm and now you had to pack a mule to get to the bottom of it.


And on top of all that was her presumption that I should go to see her! The gall, as they say in all places other than New York. I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.


They were crowded in elbow to elbow and ethos to ethos, shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke.


He always looked his best, I thought to myself, when circumstances called for him to be a boy and a man at the same time.


From the end of the pier he could see the city’s skyline in its entirety — the whole staggered assembly of townhouses and warehouses and skyscrapers stretching from Washington Heights to the Battery. Nearly every light in every window in every building seemed to be shimmering and tenuous — as if powered by the animal spirits within — by the arguments and endeavors, the whims and decisions. But here and there, scattered across the mosaic, were also the windows lit by those few who acted with poise and purpose.


The little planes no longer circled the Empire State Building, but it was still a view that practically conjugated hope: I have hoped; I am hoping; I will hope.


In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revision — we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.


2 thoughts on “Rules of Civility

  1. I am continuely amazed at your writing ability…your gift to see, listen, and absorb the sights and sounds around you…then so artistically put pen to paper. Well, typed letters to computer screen:)

  2. […] I had some other good reading experiences too: “The Explicit Gospel” was my favorite book on spirituality. Dave Egger’s “The Circle” was crazy, crazy good. Honestly, I liked it so much I’m intimidated to expand on it, which is why it is just getting a brief mention down here. If you read it and want to talk about it pleeease let me know. I also really liked “A Good Hard Look” by Ann Napolitano, which brings Flannery O’Conner to life in an interesting way. “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green made me bawl like a baby. “Rules of Civility” was so good it got its own blog post. […]

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