KIM ADRIAN IS wearing socks. (Socks over tights, as it happens. Ankle-high, cashmere, periwinkle socks.) As are, I imagine, our fellow diners in this cafe, in Boston, in December. I — a Californian — am not. But in this matter, as in most matters, I really ought to follow her lead. Adrian is one of those people who just does life better — considers things, and what those things might mean — with greater depth and purpose than most of us.
Her new book, Sock, one of the latest titles in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, is an utterly engaging investigation — not so much of that object, per se, as of human evolution, anatomy, physics, sexuality, fashion, painting, consumerism, manufacturing, and motherhood. Of trending, sock-ish Twitter hashtags. Of myriad topics to which Adrian’s curious and nimble mind turns as she examines, explains, and otherwise elucidates the humble sock.
The effect of her approach to all of this is to make one feel a little like a guest at an epic dinner party — the kind to which I’m always hankering for an invitation. The kind where great conversation zings around the table, along with the homemade chutney or slow-roasted heirloom beets: discursive, sparkling talk that leaves you feeling nourished and sated from the neck up.
For the record, I have never been to a dinner party at Kim Adrian’s house, but once a year, if we’re lucky, we meet for a couple of hours, on one coast or the other, to pick up the time-worn thread of our grad-school friendship. Our conversations — her side of them, anyway, are a lot like this treasure of a book: illuminating, erudite, deeply intelligent, and always delightful.
SARIAH DORBIN: Of all the objects available for your examination and consideration, I have to ask: Why the sock?
KIM ADRIAN: Well, my original pitch had to do with knitting. The Object Lessons series has a very inviting website — they solicit pitches right on their landing page. It didn’t take much to sell me on the series as a concept — I love exploring big ideas through small windows. So I’d landed on their site with a lot of enthusiasm, and without really thinking things through too much, I pitched a book about knitting because I’m a long-time knitter, and I’d written about knitting before. It wasn’t until several hours later (in the middle of the night) that I realized — adoy — knitting isn’t an object. It’s an activity. So at 3:00 a.m., a bit insomnia-addled, I parsed my options: sweater, hat, scarf … sock. I’d never knit a sock in my life, but the idea appealed to me because there’s something just a bit silly about socks, something inherently absurd. They’re vaguely human somehow. Maybe because they’re smelly, and they often seem to have a mind of their own — wandering off. I wrote to the editors in the morning, amending my pitch, and they loved the idea.
Sock is not just informative and intelligent but surprisingly charming, witty, and, at times, quite personal. How did the tone of the book assert itself — and how does that tone relate to your other work?
I knew going in that tone would have to do a lot of work in this book if it wasn’t going to be a complete snore. The object of the sock interests me precisely because it’s so ordinary. So ostensibly boring. What’s to say about a sock? (I liked that challenge.) But if you were a Martian, and you knew nothing about human beings, socks would probably be very interesting to you. Hmm. They put these little bags on their feet all the time — I wonder why? I wanted to look at the sock like that. But I knew I’d have to pull my readers on board with me. Like, let’s be Martians together. Basically, I had to create a playful atmosphere. It’s a pretty different tone from my normal one, I think. Closer to my real-life conversational mode than most of my creative work, which is often a little more formal. Weirdly, formality frees me up in some contexts. But not this one.
Over the course of the book you present the sock as an ingenious tool of the most basic functionality for Neolithic man, and then, transitioning into our current moment, as an object of fetishistic desire, a totem of bittersweet maternal longing, a barrier between our skin and what some consider the earth’s “healing energy,” emblematic of all that’s wrong with our disposable culture, and, somehow, also, as a symbol of the ways in which we can fight against that very culture. Did you know, going in, that the sock would prove to be such a rich subject? Or do you believe that any object can hold such depth of history and meaning?
Absolutely I believe that any object can yield enormous insights if you examine it closely enough. There’s an Object Lesson called Dust. Dust is fascinating. An incredibly rich subject. But not if you don’t look at it carefully. If you just glance at dust, it’s nothing. I think of the Object Lesson books as extended essays more than anything else, because that’s what essays do — look closely at things. I’ve always felt that the essay is kind of a Buddhist genre for this reason. Maybe that’s stretching things, but what I mean is, a good essay examines its subject very deeply, without preconceived notions, without judgment. Your only real tools, beyond language, are your observational abilities and your curiosity, and you have to hone these qualities, because the goal is to see what your subject will yield to them. You can’t have flabby curiosity. You can’t give up just because something seems boring or insignificant. Nothing is truly boring except, maybe, our own thought patterns. And a good essay might be said to disrupt those patterns.
Sariah Dorbin’s short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review and the Bellevue Literary Review, and anthologized in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and works as a creative director for a Los Angeles advertising agency.