Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
The house of the president of Amherst College is refined, stately, and imposing. The walls are covered with selections from Amherst’s collection of impressionist paintings. The library is filled with decades-old books on US-Soviet relations and other contemporary crises, a collection curated, it seems, by Biddy’s predecessors. One evening in late September, among the books sat a dozen or so students sporting the semiformal garb the occasion required. We had all been invited to dine with Dan Brown ’86, the author of The Da Vinci Code and, by virtue of that accomplishment, one of the best-selling novelists of all time.
The group comprised mostly journalists or fiction writers. Each probably hoped, as I had, to craft a meaningful, insightful, and innocuous question to draw some publishable sound bite or writerly wisdom from the man who sold 200 million books. We sat there in an awkward silence that enveloped the room like an ill-fitting sport coat. I tried to think of what else might have gotten us in this room together. I had the feeling that a selfish desire to extract something from Brown had compelled each of us to show up, clip the nametags to our lapels, and exchange pleasantries. I think we all realized this. And yet, we asked each other with faux modesty, in bemused tones, “Why are we here?”
Biddy walks in: “Who wants to meet Dan Brown?!” We grin as the guest of honor clumsily navigates the passage between the library and the rest of the house. He greets us one by one as we bottleneck out of the annex. We walk to sit on the couch, where it seems Biddy wants us to drink and eat and break into spontaneous, cheerful conversation with each other, not particularly caring whether we were talking to Brown or The Student’s sports editor or Biddy or Oscar, Biddy’s miniature poodle.
Nope. The students sit in silence, huddle around the assorted finger foods, waiting for The Man to speak. After some dumb small talk about fall and the weather, he finally asks it: “So why are you here?” After a beat, he looks toward Biddy, and everyone takes a deep breath, eager to hear their praises sung, or at least just have their question answered. “I really don’t know,” she said, “I didn’t even select them!” Great.
And so, one by one, we tell Dan Brown about our majors, extracurriculars, and theses, if we have them. He shares some perfunctory repartee with each of us, perhaps musing on his own experiences with the extracurricular in question, then he moves on to the next in line. (When I mention The Indicator, I tried to snake him into using some Da Vinci money to subscribe. We’re still waiting on his credit card information.) A few novel-thesis writers talk about their novel-theses, most of which sound more sophisticated than our guest’s work. Nobody mentions that. Biddy disparages William and Mary College when a student brings up his own Virginia upbringing.
That comprised the bulk of my interaction with Dan Brown that evening, though the event was far from over. I was seated (by the omnipotent Fates who control Biddy’s social functions, I suppose) next to an age-ambiguous, female college employee and a student whom I’d never met before. Dan Brown sat at the head of the table.
Once we resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t be trading egg salad recipes (or whatever you do at dinner parties) with Amherst’s most name-recognizable alum, my neighbor, a senior English major, and I got comfortable enough to talk with each other. (I should mention that wine was served.) I wanted to hear about her thesis and what the process was like, a topic which quickly led to a deeply emotionally profound discussion of the purpose of writing. We, along with most of the students gathered, rely on writing to engage with and understand the world—I was happy to have met someone who considered the questions we asked each other to be more than just academic masturbation.
The food served was quite nice—burrata, halibut in some sort of savory sauce, a pot de crème—not your typical Valentine fare, we all joked, ha ha. My neighbor and I discussed how the entire evening, in fact, wasn’t like our daily lives outside of Amherst at all. It did seem to be the quintessence of an Amherst event, in that it involved the trappings of that etheric “elite liberal arts college experience:” wealthy and/or extremely educated people inside lavish spaces with stuff the average student can’t and never will be able to afford.
These decadent associations with academia and the College, my neighbor and I reasoned, often reinforce the divisions that our measured diversity seeks to eliminate. Yes, it’s Amherst’s duty to seek out and provide education to those who society has systematically barred from the academic world. Yet Amherst continues to portray a “life of consequence” as one that is out of reach or unappealing to most students, enforcing questionable norms when it comes to the democratization of education.
A hand reached in front of me and set down my dessert plate with a clink. “Mmm!” said Dan Brown. “Is there a hint of vanilla in this?” he asked the waiter. (The waiter didn’t think so.) It was the first thing I had heard Brown say since we sat down. Sure, he was talking to the people over on his side of the table, but his best-selling-author discussion couldn’t have been more meaningful or interesting than the one I had with my peers around me. My new friend and I shared a cynical eye-roll at Brown’s remark and dug into the chocolatey bowls that had been placed in front of us.
Through conversation with fellow students—not my exclusive, “elite” access to Dan Brown—I augmented my understanding of Amherst’s culture and my relationship to writing. But just because Amherst’s eliteness may have failed me didn’t mean I left disillusioned with the cultural forces that seem to hold Amherst together. We were in the president’s home, an ornate testament to Amherst’s ostentatious underpinnings, but all that mattered was the forum it provided for me to get in touch with the humble community that should define our college.