Let the Great World Spin – Book Club Central Pick (January 2013)

by Colum McCann

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Set against the backdrop of the famed tightrope walk across Manhattan’s Twin Towers in 1974, richly-drawn characters collide in this narrative laden with lyricism and power. 

Great for: 

  • Lovers of multi-perspective narrative
  • Readers of intelligent literary fiction
  • Anyone who has had / has a love affair with Manhattan

If you liked the book, rent the movie(s): Man on Wire; In America; Into the Wild

Please click on the tabs above labeled ‘quotes for discussion’ and ‘questions’ to enhance your reading experience.

“He crept in on their poverty as if he wanted to own it.”

  • What does this say about Corrigan? 

“The long-sleeved shirt he wore was tight to his body and the bones of his ribcage were like some odd musical instrument.”  

“she had that emigrant’s sadness – she would never go back to her old country – it was gone in more senses than one – but she was forever gazing homewards anyway."

  • Knowing McCann's status as an Irish immigrant, how does this infuse his writing of the city in your view? What abou the immigrants in the story? They way people are treated in general?

“A row of goldfish bowls sat in the window, the thing orange bodies spinning in aimless circles.”

  • Is this one way to look at life? Does this relate to the tightrope walker? 

“I sit there thinking about how much courage it takes to live an ordinary life.”

  • Do you agree with the above quote?  

“Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.

Blaine pulled over: “rather, it was calm with only small sprinklings of jeweled glass across the lanes, a few bundles of newspapers in a havoc on the ground, distant from the body of the young girl, who was expressing herself in a patch of blooming blood.” 

  • Is this evocative of 9/11? What does it say about the fragility of life? The senselessness of death?

“He let the pieces of napkin flutter to the floor and said something strange about words being good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t.

  • Discuss McCann's power as a writer using the above quote as a starting-off point. 

“Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.” 

  • Compare this image of New York City with what you know of it (either through literature or first-hand experience).

“It was a city with its fingers in the garbage, a city that ate off dirty dishes.”

  • What kind of New York does McCann paint as an author? How is this different from post 9/11 NYC?

 "Recklessness and freedom – how did they become a cocktail? It was always his dilemma. The law was a place to protect the powerless, and also to circumscribe the most powerful. But what if the powerless didn’t deserve to be walking underneath?”

  • Think of the image of the tightrope walker at the highest possible point in the city: does he defy human limitations? 
Consider the following quotes: how do they show McCann's prowess as a writer? 

“Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.”  

“The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before. Out he went.” 

“He was the son of his son – he was here, he was left behind.”

 “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

  • Explain the significance of this quote.

 "Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.”

Whose perspective were you most interested in? Confused by? Disinterested?

How does the title give the book a more universal feel?

Why does McCann include Petit’s story? What is it symbolic of?

Do the characters in this story achieve a state of grace? Consider: 

  • The prostitutes?
  • Corrigan?
  • Parents who have lost a child?
  • People suffering from racism?
  • The tightrope walker?

Why do you think Jaslyn ends the novel? Why in 2006?

Who do you see as the book’s main character? Is there one? More? 

Why is M. Petit never mentioned by name? 

Do you see the act of walking the tightrope as revolutionary? As stupid? 

All books recommended on the website have been read by The Book Dumpling. New titles are added on a continuous basis. To recommend or suggest a book, please email me

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