You know I couldn’t ignore a book about cheese. Especially the world’s greatest piece of cheese, a cheese which had to be aged at least a year in olive oil, and which Ari Zingerman once described as “rich, dense, intense, a bit like Manchego.”
But The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti, though it is a good story about cheese and an even better travel memoir, shines most brightly as a meditation on storytelling. It took Paterniti many years to finish this book, and much the book is dedicated to explaining why. He wanted so badly to tell the story that the book cover is trying to sell you; a noble Castilian, rediscovers his family’s cheese and begins to make it in the traditional manner, is brutally robbed by a friend and above all by modern capitalism, becomes a symbol of all that’s gone wrong in society and what we’ve lost in the quest for efficiency and profit. He couldn’t write that book, though, because the story is more complex than that. So he wrote this one instead.
Unlike other recent books about truth and fact in nonfiction writing, however (looking at you, The Lifespan of a Fact), The Telling Room doesn’t have an agenda so much as it has a lot of questions and fewer answers. Paterniti, who has devoted himself to narrative nonfiction for years, is genuinely interested in whether his desire to tell a compelling story—and to be told a compelling story by his subject—is more or less important than getting all the details right. Especially because the details directly contradict some of the story he wants to tell. He doesn’t assume that wanting to tell a good story is the most important thing, nor that being factually correct is. And he can’t get away from how much the story depends on him and what he decides:
I was telling myself a story, too. So who was I kidding? This whole business had long ceased to be journalism. It was mythicalism, the making of and suspension in something mythical. This was encouragism, the telling of a story to remind yourself of your higher angels. Before it became discouragism. Or discombobulism. Before it became implicationism and possessionism.
In many ways, Paterniti argues for some of the same things D’Agata argued for in Lifespan, but to me the biggest difference is that he is arguing for them on personal terms. As a storyteller, as a human—Paterniti is invested in the story and he wants it to be great. Whereas D’Agata’s argument is more professional: as a writer, he wants the story to be great. And where D’Agata deliberately and antagonistically speaks of the duties and rights of a writer, Paterniti is exploring the writer’s desires, and fears. It’s a powerful difference, and makes the last few chapters of the book thrilling.
On top of all this, he is just a great writer—funny and honest and compassionate, with a keen eye for important detail. The only strike against this book is that Paterniti has all too ably described a delicious cheese that I will never get to eat. That is a cruelty from which most books could not recover, but The Telling Room is not most books.