It was the summer of the steel mill. One of my co-workers was offering to sell me paper targets of black men and rabbis for a cheap price. Another co-worker got his hand pinched off in the rolling mill, and everybody was speculating on how much that severed hand had earned him. Not enough for a boat, one guy said bitterly, apropos of nothing. I don't think I ever hated a job so thoroughly. I had an hour for lunch, though, and on those breaks I sat on the deck overlooking the yard and the Raritan and read. I always read when I'm down or at a loss. I had an issue of Granta—No. 17, I think—that had Greene, Gordimer, Kureishi, Kundera, Lessing, and Ishiguro, that I read cover to cover. But the book that still remains with me was Octavia Butler's Dawn. Her novel was about the traumatized remainder of the human race being forced back to a ruined Earth by aliens in order to participate in a nightmare breeding program. I know: sounds kooky, but it's a beautiful, wrenching story with a knockout female protagonist and a premise that is both gut-turning and all too American. I looked forward to that book. Read a page a day. Made that beauty last. I got through that lousy summer on the back of that book. Gave me a whole new respect for the power of art and for my strength as a person. Gave me a glimpse, too, of what Butler's protagonist would come to know well: Surviving is as much about luck and grit as it is about hope. After all, what's a great book doled out a page a day if not a hymn to hope?