Used Books, Annie Dillard, and the Vanity of Life

Each year at this time, our town holds a used book sale at the local library. Like Jesus’ sojourn in the grave, it usually lasts for three days. Hardcover books sell for two dollars, softcover books are a dollar, and paperbacks are fifty-cents. On the third day, the books aren’t resurrected. They are left on the lawn for those who pass by to take home for free.

I look forward to the sale every year. As a reader, I love it. Especially on the third day, when I can take as many books as I like for nothing. I’ve found books by my favorite authors, Bible commentaries, even a few obscure reference books. But as a writer, the sale always makes me a little melancholy. There is something about the experience that always makes me think of the grave.

I recognize many of the names on the books. I can remember shelving them when I was a student in seminary and worked for B. Dalton Bookseller at a local shopping mall. There are books about leadership, books about spirituality, cookbooks, and out of date computer manuals. There are novels, of course. Boxes and boxes of novels and series of novels. Almost any type of book you can imagine.

Many of the titles I see as I wander among the boxes were the “it books” of their day. At one time they graced the shelves of bookstores or in someone’s home, with shiny jackets and unfrayed corners. Now, cast down from their former glory, they lie discarded on the library lawn. No one will buy them, even at a discount. You can’t even give them away. After a few days, the remainders will all be consigned to the recycling bin.

I suppose this view is pessimistic. Some would marvel at the longevity of these books. After all, these are only the books that didn’t get sold. A few days earlier hundreds of people were handing over their dollars and quarters and extending the shelf life of these old books. They carried them away by the bagful. Many of the leftovers still found a home. The day after the sale, I saw a woman crossing the street with both arms loaded down with free books she had retrieved from the library lawn. So what if the leftovers are recycled? Recycling is good for the environment.

But I find myself wondering how the authors would feel to see their books in the sale. Maybe they would be happy about it. After all, the more popular the book was in its day, the more likely it is to end up in some used book sale. Most writers want to be read, even if they don’t get the proceeds from the sale of their used book. Besides, all the books in the sale were purchased by somebody at some point. Everybody wins in the end.

Still, there is something about the library book sale that reminds me of the Preacher’s lament in the book of Ecclesiastes. It all seems like vanity. When the Preacher speaks of vanity, he’s not talking about pride but futility. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body,” he says in Ecclesiastes 12:12. “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” he complains in Ecclesiastes 6:12. “There is nothing new under the sun,” he says (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

As I scan the spines of these books, I see names that I recognize and wonder whatever happened to them. Some are still writing, of course. Some are dead. But many have passed into obscurity. Their fifteen minutes of fame is over. Some are easily forgotten, but others deserve better. On more than one occasion, after the sale is over, I’ve come across books by Annie Dillard in the discard pile. She’s one of my favorite authors, and it disturbs me to see her work lying there. I feel that I should rescue it, even though I already have copies at home. Would she be bothered to see her book lying abandoned in the grass?

 A while back, I read an article in The Atlantic, which purported to explain why Dillard doesn’t write anymore. But after reading the piece, it seemed to me to be only a survey of her work, mixed with speculation and a few back-handed compliments. I think I remember seeing a quote from Dillard somewhere, in which said that nobody wants to read the kinds of books she writes anymore. But I don’t remember where I saw it, and I can’t find it on the Internet. Which as everyone knows, means that the quote probably doesn’t exist. Even if I could find it there, that doesn’t mean it was legitimate. Dillard’s personal website offers no real insight into the question either. “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters,” she says. “I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” She seems to have gone into seclusion, like Bob Dylan in Woodstock after his motorcycle accident.

When I was a young writer, two of my great ambitions were to write an article for an academic publication in which I quoted myself and to publish an article in Leadership Journal in which I quoted Annie Dillard. Both ambitions, I suppose, sprang from vanity. Not the sort the Preacher talks about in Ecclesiastes, but the other kind. On more than one occasion, I tried to imitate Dillard’s style but found that I lacked her patience of observation. To some of us, a frog is just a frog.

Eventually, every writer’s voice grows silent. Either we run out of ideas, or we lose our platform, or maybe we die. The majority of those who want to write never do. Most of those who do write never get published. Of those who do get published, only a few gain recognition. Then, after a few years in the sunshine, their books are left on the library lawn. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is right.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling a little guilty about abandoning Annie Dillard there. Today I wish I had picked up her book and brought it home. I’m sure I could have found space next to the two other copies of the same book that I already have on my shelf. On the other hand, I wonder why I didn’t feel a similar compulsion to rescue the books by Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck or J. R. R. Tolkien or Dorothy Sayers that I saw lying nearby. I saw a few books by one of my friends too and didn’t feel a need to reclaim those either.

A couple of years ago, my wife Jane was sorting through the stacks, and came across one of my books. Instead of buying it, she decided to leave it for someone else. I’m pretty sure it ended up on the library lawn. I guess it’s o.k. if it did At least it was in good company.

The Writing Life

My childhood vision of the writer’s life was shaped by black and white movies of the 1940’s. The writer is something of a rogue and adventurer. He doesn’t really work except when he writes. When he does write, it is in a burst of creative inspiration or is sparked by prophetic outrage. It is all “Stop the presses!” and “Thus saith the Lord!”

As is the case with all childhood fantasies, the reality is something else. Writers are mostly introverts who stand on the sidelines and observe. The work is solitary, often tedious. There are few bursts of inspiration, though I will admit to occasional moments of prophetic fervor. Those moments are usually cut by the editor.

I started writing in college. Not very well. Not very often either. I wrote one piece a year, usually submitting it to HIS magazine. There was no such thing as email, so I had to wait a month or two for the rejection letter to come back in my self-addressed stamped envelope. It usually took me six months or more to get up the courage to try again. In those days, the writing life felt mostly like my love life in junior high school. Each attempt began with a transcendent vision of glory and ended in humiliation.

I used to worry that the editors who considered my submissions would read them with snickering ridicule and make fun of my work. I pictured the editorial team clustered around a table (it was always a circular table for some reason) pointing at my manuscript and laughing (not in a good way). A couple of decades later, when I served as a consulting editor for an evangelical magazine, I discovered that this was pretty much the case. At least, sometimes. “These people want to write for us in the worst way,” the managing editor once said. “And they usually do.”

The writing life really is a lot like junior high. There is a small handful who occupy the highest seats at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. Then there are the rest of us nerds huddled on the periphery trying to edge our way closer. There is not enough room for everybody. Those of us on the outside never seem to be wearing the right clothes.

When I started writing seriously and regularly, my dream was to publish an article in Eternity magazine in which I quoted Annie Dillard. Everybody was quoting her in the 1980’s. But Eternity ceased publication and Annie Dillard seems to have stopped publishing too. But I still love her work. Sometimes I pick up her books when I get stuck.

I have been writing for thirty-three years. I feel like an amateur. But I’ve learned that you can’t really trust your feelings. Especially, where writing is concerned. “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.” Annie Dillard said that.

 

 

Out of My Mind: Just Another Barbarian at the Gate

I was thinking about Annie Dillard the other day. Dillard, who is one of my favorite authors, seems to have gone underground, like Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident. On her website, which she published as a kind of defensive courtesy to scholars after someone else bought her domain name and used it to post dirty pictures, she writes: “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books, but I used to give two public readings a year. Now I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.”

 During the 1980’s it was common for evangelical writers to quote from Dillard’s Pullitzer prize winning Pligrim at Tinker Creek. I suppose that’s why I will quote her in my next book. Since I started writing seriously in the mid 1980’s, it has always been my ambition to quote Annie Dillard. And to be quoted like her. But every decade seems to have its distinctive voice. In the 90’s it was Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota and A Cloister Walk. At the turn of the century the new voices were Anne Lamott who wrote Traveling Mercies and Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Their books have all been far more successful than mine. As a Christian, I know that I should be high minded about this. I try to rejoice with those who rejoice. But I always end up feeling jealous.

Still, I have not given up all hope. There is a general trajectory toward entropy in all artistic progression which suggests that my day will eventually come. Imagine a professor displaying a series of slides to an art history class. I mean real slides not PowerPoint slides. The kind we used to beam from massive humming projectors in the center of a darkened room that smelled of burnt dust. First there are grainy images from classical Greece, perfect in form and symmetry. Then the mechanical imitations of the Roman period, precise but lacking the imagination of the Greeks. This is followed by the primitive stick figure mosaics of the catacombs.

 I find this trajectory of artistic entropy encouraging. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until evangelical writers begin quoting me.