Author’s Study Guide

for Readers, Discussion Groups, Teachers, and Students


When asking these questions, I prefer to use the word “author” rather than “speaker” to describe the voice in the book because I believe that the authorial voice in the personal essay speaks directly to the reader in an intimate way unique to the genre. You might begin your discussion with that idea. What relationship does the author establish with the reader in the first few pages?


1) In what way is the ukulele both a blessing and a curse to the author? Why is he fascinated by the myriad possibilities for chord and rhythmic combinations? What does the description of the ukulele as a “tightly wound boundlessness” (8) mean?


2) Read the section that begins “What’s the matter, Maddie?” (2). Is the author ever really comfortable with waving goodbye? If so, explain. If not, and he doesn’t shed his awareness of mortality completely, what compensations does he find by the end of the book?


3) How would you characterize each of the grandchildren: Maddie, Owen, Anna, and Caroline? What does the description of the picture of them on the digital photo screen (83) tell us about the author’s feelings toward them? (The picture is reproduced at the beginning of the book.)


4) Folly Beach is haunted by animals. What do the crow, the pelicans, and the various sea creatures teach the author? Are they nemeses? In what ways are they guides?


5) Read the passage beginning “Brooke lowers the strap” (77). Why is skin so important to the author? The author also insists throughout Folly Beach that “Matter matters” (101). Why?


6) Why follies? What do they say about those who build them? What do they mean to the rest of us? What does building a sand fort and a sundial, which are like follies, teach the author? He calls his book “my folly” (173). In what way is that true?


7) See the passage beginning “Secretly, I love Wikipedia” (22). In what way is Wikipedia a folly? Why does he love it? Why secretly?


8) Consider the writers the author taught in his final classes—Bashō, in particular. What do they continue to teach him in retirement? What is the “phantom dwelling” (127) he shares with them? In what way is Folly Beach a “phantom dwelling” as well?


9) Based on his confusion about the sundial, the author clearly does not have an in-depth understanding of physics, and yet the idea of the “space-time continuum” fascinates him. Why? What solace does it bring to this time-haunted book? What does Albert Einstein mean when he writes that the “future is only an illusion, although a convincing one” (167)? Why is this balm, as presented in the anecdote about the death of his friend Michele Besso, never enough?


10) Xeno’s paradox and Eddington’s “arrow of time” (173) are presented as being at odds. What is the tension? Is it ever resolved? (Hint: the arrow wins).


11) The writer Sarah Einstein compares the recursive style of the author to fractals since “each part spins off giving rise to a similar shape that takes you somewhere new.” Robert Root describes it as a “prismatic effect” that shifts “from facet to facet, linking them through echoes and changes of focus.” Kathy Winograd likens the style to “being pulled back and forth like the waves” (100). What do each of these metaphors say? What do they have in common? How would you characterize the style?


12) When the author looks at waves in the last chapter he thinks of Rilke’s lines from the Duino Elegies: “And we, who have always thought of joy/ as rising/would feel the emotion/ that almost amazes us/ when a happy thing falls” (171). What surprising insight about death do these lines offer? What do they say about Folly Beach?


13) The author finally does take Owen to the downstairs doorway and sees his grandson smile politely with a sidelong glance. What does he mean when he writes “I can see it now as if it were tomorrow” (176)?