In yesterday’s New York Times, Columnist Timothy Egan gives hope to all of us who love books – real books, the kind he describes as “with a spine, a unique scent, crisp pages and a typeface that may date to Shakespeare’s day.” Dismissing Steve Jobs’ 2008 dismissive quote that “people don’t read anymore” and acknowledging that “nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year, Egan still manages optimism. He cites rising sales of printed books, along with increased new openings of independent bookstores and declining sales of electronic versions.
Egan’s piece was titled “The Comeback of the Century.”
I read the column while casting rueful glances at my apartment-sized IKEA bookshelves that hold the remains of my late husband’s 3,000-volume collection. “This is a very nice collection,” said the only buyer of books I was able to entice to the house to look. “Yes,” I responded. “Ed loved to prowl used bookstores on his lunch hour when he worked in New York.” I refrained from mentioning that was easier to do in New York, not that the book-buying ceased much when we moved to LA. Bibliophiles will always find a way to acquire.
I watched the book buyer arrange those that interested him into pathetically short stacks and nodded as he pointed to each stack and said, “Two dollars, five, ten and fifteen.” I accepted the small check he wrote and watched him pack his purchases in the boxes he’d brought and drive away. I hadn’t even paid attention to what warranted the “fifteen.” Just one more unpleasant chore for the newly widowed.
And now I stare at the remains on the IKEA shelves. I did keep the collection of every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and have since added the past three winners) along with books written by friends and family members, and some I just couldn’t bear to part with. And I purchased a Kindle in order to download books I want to read right now, but I haven’t done much of that. Too dangerously easy for someone on a budget.
My appreciation for yesterday’s Times column extends to Egan’s appreciation for storytelling, which, he writes, “will never die,” continuing, “And the best format for grand and sweeping narratives remains one of the oldest and most durable.” Pointing to the fact that “more than a third of the people in the United States and Britain say their cellphones are having a negative effect on their health and well-being,” he proposes “a clunky old printed book [as] a welcome antidote.”
Ed and I, both onetime print journalists, harbored dreams of adding a couple of those “clunky old” things to the world during our retirement years. He completed the first volume in an envisioned trilogy depicting a fictionalized version of life among the Volga Germans. Those Russian-born descendants of ethnic German colonists, of which Ed’s mother was one, had been living since the 1700s in communities along the Volga River. I was unsuccessful in convincing Ed to submit that first manuscript, titled Scattered Grains of Wheat, to a publisher; he felt he should be further along with a proposed trilogy, and the second volume was giving him problems. “Why not skip ahead to volume three?” I offered. “That book will practically write itself since it covers stories we’ve been hearing about for years. And then you could go back and fill in with volume two.”
But before he could even decide on whether that was a good idea, he was hit with a deadly medical diagnosis: Stage Four inoperable lung cancer that took over both our lives. After more than three years of treatment – both traditional chemotherapy and more experimental options – he died at age 84. Everyone who knew and loved him was heartbroken. “What about his books on the Germans in Russia?” was not a first question on people’s minds, but it did eventually surface. A daughter who is a journalist gathered all his research materials and computer files and hopes to complete the project in her father’s name.
My attempts at producing a “clunky old” thing like a book also stalled. In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey is a memoir of sorts featuring use of my mother’s letters home from France in 1930-’31 where she attended art school, lived with the family of a well known French painter, met and socialized with other noted artists of the day, and also possibly had a romance with a descendant of French nobility – someone her cheeky brothers back home always referred to as “the no-account count.” Upon completion of my manuscript, I was at a loss about how to proceed to get published. I felt I needed expert assistance and contacted scores of literary agents, some encouraging but none knocking down the door to represent me. And I started this website as a way to showcase my abilities.
But life does intervene, doesn’t it? That’s why we should hold up and celebrate those who manage to write and publish in spite of all obstacles. I have always had a particular soft spot in my heart for Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of the 1984 best seller . . . And Ladies of the Club. I read that she found annoying press notices that claimed the book took her 50 years to write. She said, “It may have taken me 50 years or more to get it done, but I didn’t do it all at once, for heaven’s sake! I did it whenever I had a moment, and mostly I didn’t have a moment. I had a living to make . . .”
These days, one might say to her, “You go, girl!”