I worked a volunteer shift at our tiny library today. It was a quiet, drizzly day, with few patrons. But I had some homework. Our librarian would like to cull the collection a bit, and so asked if I’d go through the adult fiction, YA fiction, and graphic novels, looking for the last borrow date on each book. Any book that hadn’t been taken out since 2017 was to be rolled forward onto its nose, awaiting her further consideration.
There’s a humbling exercise for a writer.
The array of writers whose books I tipped (at least one, sometimes two, sometimes several) would be known to many or most of us. There were literary heroes: Colum McCann and Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Ursula LeGuin. There were pop stars past their prime: Anne Tyler and John Irving, Jennifer Weiner and Robert Ludlum. There were the phenoms by Stieg Larsson, two of the three girls no longer of interest as they played with fire or kicked the hornet’s nest. There was fluff by Danielle Steel and George R.R. Martin, classics by Twain and Steinbeck and Morrison.
This is the fate that awaits us all. From compost were our books grown, and to compost shall they return.
Nora and I were in Manhattan last week to visit friends. We had a conversation with one of those friends about their favorite museums, which included the American Folk Art Museum. And it suddenly occurred to me that my writing might be described as a form of folk art, so I looked at their definition.
Since 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been the leading institution shaping the understanding of art by the self-taught through its exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. As a center of scholarship, it showcases the creativity of individuals whose singular talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training.
Well, I’m certainly self-taught, my work coming through personal experience rather than formal artistic training. But can I claim “singular talent?” Not for me to know. That’s a curatorial decision.
As part of that New York trip, we went to a pretty abysmal (albeit highly reviewed and pretty expensive) restaurant, where we had an array of dishes suitable for the world’s most exclusive nursing home. All I had to do was lift a fork and point in the general direction of a vegetable, and it collapsed in surrender.
But, because Nora is who she is, we ended up in a delightful, nearly hour-long conversation with the young couple at the next table. And it emerged through the course of our chatting that he’d also written a novel. I told him I’d be eager to read it, and yesterday afternoon, he sent it as a PDF. Because I’m a binge reader, I’ve now read it.
It’s really good.
No, I mean really good.
I’m not going to tell you much about it, it’s not mine to disclose. But I mean, here’s this fellow who went to college to become an engineer, who’s worked for a dozen years as a coder for big tech companies, and he’s written a book that’s at least as good as anything I tipped forward in the library today. If it were available to you in a bookstore, I’d write a review and recommend that you buy it. If he were teaching this summer at Bread Loaf, I’d recommend that you try to get into his workshop.
Well, maybe not so much a synthesis as a swirl of leaves. Folk art. Culled collections. Those whose work is known, and those whose is not.
If we aspire to anything beyond immediate kindness and generosity, I think that we delude ourselves. We have no monuments, no lasting value. We simply help our friends and neighbors, or we don’t. My days have been improved because of the books that I’ve read; some other folks’ days have been improved because of the books that I’ve shared. That’s all that there is. That’s all that there needs to be.