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Paul Auster on Radiolab 3 min read

Paul Auster on Radiolab

The author passed away at 77, and news of his passing spurred an old memory.

By Cary Littlejohn

When I heard that author Paul Auster had died, I was taken back not to one of his books but to an episode of the Radiolab podcast.

But, for the life of me, I couldn't think of which one.

What I remembered were fragments. I was in law school, because I'd just started really listening to podcasts. So I knew the episode had to be from before 2013. Something he'd said, a story he told, something that was read, had caught my attention and put Auster's name in my mind. Something mentioned The New York Trilogy, because I knew to look for that book at McKay's, the used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was my happiest of happy places while I was in school. And at some point, I remember feeling like I'd lucked out majorly when, on one of McKay's shelves, I found it in paperback.

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After a lot of searching, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that this was the episode. (To be honest, this one was the first I found from the simple search strategy of entering Auster's name in the Radiolab search bar.) I just had the memory slightly different in my head.

The story that Auster tells at the end of this episode was related to the first story in The New York Trilogy, called City of Glass, but I was convinced what I remembered was about the second story called Ghosts. So I searched and I searched through old episodes of one of the first podcasts I'd ever listened with any regularity. It was great to revisit some of the stories that made me fall in love not just with the show but with the form of podcasting (although the experience wasn't great for mad-dash searching because the only place to hear those old episodes is on the show's website and you can't listen at higher playback speeds and the search function leaves something to be desired for this sort of task).

All that reluctance flowed from my unwillingness to admit that maybe I misremembered the details. That stung my pride a little bit because it was such a vivid memory, in general, and even more so the memory of finding that book among the stacks at McKay's, which was far from a certainty any time you went into the store (and was part of the appeal: book-buying by way of treasure hunt).

I listened to the final story he shares in the episode, and I try to peer back in time at that long-ago me and wonder, "Is this what so captivated you at the time?" Because I don't hear it now. The story fits well into the show's theme, and it's undeniably interesting, but I don't hear it in such a way now that makes me think I'd immediately go out and look for his book.

This sort of examination of a prior self felt in keeping with many of Auster's themes. As The New York Times obituary says:

“City of Glass” is the story of a mystery writer who is reeling from personal loss — an ever-present theme in Mr. Auster’s work — and who, through a wrong number, is mistaken for a private detective named, yes, Paul Auster. The writer begins to take on the detective’s identity, losing himself in a real-life sleuthing job of his own while descending into madness.

While my mystery was made of tamer stuff, I felt myself coming unraveled as I searched the archives of old episodes, searching for a memory that was probably incorrect in the first place, and wondering what had been going on in my life at the time to become so captivated with the story in the first place. Auster probably could have written something interesting out of that.