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 There are books about leadership, books about spirituality, cookbooks, and out of date computer manuals.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.

Fame is a Fickle Food

The other day I heard a guest on NPR describe blogging as old technology. Weblogs were what people used to do in the days before social media. He was a young, hip entrepreneur. His company sells T-shirts, or as he called it “gear,” so I suppose he would know. I was startled to find this out. But I guess I should have known. My age should have told me that what I thought was cutting edge was actually the internet’s equivalent of “dad jeans.” If I can do this, I suppose anyone can.

Still, I feel powerful every time I click publish on my WordPress blog. Suddenly the thoughts I’ve labored over are out there for the whole world to read. I feel like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Within minutes I start checking my stats to see if the Reformation has begun. But just because we put something out there is no guarantee that anybody will be interested in it (or even know where to find it). The more voices in the room, the harder it is to make out what is said. Often when I post, I wonder if I am only adding to the background noise.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized publishing in Europe by using printing presses that employed mechanical, movable type. He was to the world of books what Henry Ford would eventually become to the automotive industry. Gutenberg didn’t invent books or printing, but his technology made them affordable and available. Books weren’t just for the rich or the church anymore. Now ordinary people could own books, and for many, it meant they could publish them as well. The internet mirrored Gutenberg’s revolution and extended it. Thanks to the internet, we are all writers, publishers, and broadcasters now.

Unfortunately, with so many other voices crying in the digital wilderness, one must startle to be heard. The attention of the multitude is reserved for the loudest, strangest, angriest, or crudest voice. Such an environment is toxic for those who merely want to reflect. It is even worse for those who set out to tell the truth. These days publishing in any form seems to be more about marketing than it is about words and ideas. We sell the sizzle instead of serving meat. In the process, we may end up selling our souls to be heard. The effort that is required to capture the attention of an audience that has become deafened by the sound of so many voices can cause Christian communicators to shade the truth, smoothing the sharp edges in an attempt to make it more palatable. We may succumb to the temptation to exaggerate, telling our own story but with a flourish that makes us seem more interesting than we are. We resort to cheap sentimentalism and manipulation.

Or maybe we just get cranky. When I preached regularly as a pastor, I discovered that in my earnest desire to hold the wandering attention of my audience, I sometimes limited the emotional range of my sermons.  Looking back, I think I had confused volume with dynamism. Or maybe it was a function of my personality, which tends more toward critical thinking than chirpy effervescence. Whatever the reason, it meant that my sermons were disproportionately “prophetic” in tone. On most days there was more thunder than sunshine in them. After one of these sermons, someone approached me and wanted to know if everything was alright. “Why do you ask?” I said. He smiled nervously and replied, “Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.”

Ambition is another complicating factor. The promise of a limitless audience can lead to unrealistic expectations.  More often than not, it turns out to be a false promise, and I am disappointed. I am not blaming the internet for this. The ambition is my own as are the unrealistic expectations that come with it. But I find that I am not the only one. Nearly every evening, you can turn on the television and find some talent show whose contestants are convinced that they are destined for greatness. A few manage to capture the brass ring. The majority finish disappointed, wondering why the viewing public failed to recognize their star potential. The losers are sent home with hyperbole and accolades, which only reinforces their conviction that if they only believe in themselves and keep trying, their dreams of fame and glory will come true. Most of the time, we never hear from them again.

C. S. Lewis has rightly pointed out that “pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools” is a kind of false humility. But we live in an age that moves in the opposite direction. Today every child is a prince or a princess. Commonplace actions that were once treated as matters of ordinary civil responsibility are now spoken of as heroic. These days everybody is a hero.  The sin of our age is not one of explicit pride so much as it one of ill-conceived hyperbole. There is no longer any room in the world for an ordinary person. We are all exceptional now.

A similar spirit is abroad in the church. It is not enough to be a plain Christian. Instead, we must be extraordinary. It is no longer acceptable to come to church simply to worship and give thanks. We need to do something “life-changing.” Quiet reflection is self-indulgent. Don’t just sit there and concentrate your attention on God. You should be trolling the aisles, looking for divine encounters with strangers and engaging in strategic conversations. In this case, fame is not the goal but spiritual greatness.

All this pressure to do something great is tiresome. Whether the pressure I feel has been self-imposed or is an expectation placed upon me by someone else, it seems strangely out of harmony with the Apostle Paul’s directive to make a quiet life our ambition (1 Thess. 4:11-12). This command is fulfilled in the home, the workplace and the neighborhood. Its success is not measured in greatness but by responsible living. Do your job. Pay your bills. Be a good neighbor. A deadbeat who can walk on water might indeed be an intriguing spectacle. But he is still a deadbeat in the end.

I do not want to give the impression that there is no place for greatness in human experience. However, in the majority of cases, those who achieve such status were not pursuing it. If it is not an accident, it is at best a byproduct of something else. Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems, but only a few were published while she was alive. Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest By those who ne’er succeed.” Dickinson also wrote, “Fame is a fickle food…Men eat of it and die.”

Others long for it and go hungry.

Writing and Rejection

I was going through some things the other day and came across what we used to call a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It’s something we writers used to include when we sent out our manuscripts in the days before email. First, you sent a query letter outlining your article (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply in the envelope you had enclosed. Sometimes they wanted to see your piece. More often they did not.

If the editor was interested, you sent the manuscript, in a larger envelope (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply. If the news was good, the reply would come on their own stationery and in one of their own envelopes. If it wasn’t, you got your own envelope back along with the manuscript. I don’t know what they did with the stamps. Most of the time the news was bad.

I had forgotten how long the process took. I haven’t forgotten how bad the rejection felt. It was like asking someone out on a date and being turned down. Or perhaps more accurately, it was like proposing and hearing your intended say no. Curtly. Without any real explanation. Except for that expression on her face which seemed to say, “As if!”

The experience of rejection was soul crushing. I felt embarrassed every time. I wondered if I was foolish to think that I could be published. Determined to never put myself in such a vulnerable position again, I vowed to give up writing. My resolve usually lasted for a few months. Sometimes for a whole year. Then at some point, an idea would come to me. Well, maybe this time. . . .

The envelope I found the other day was postmarked, open, and empty. It would have brought a rejection. I don’t know where I sent it or what kind of manuscript it contained. But I am sure that I sent it with great expectation, certain that the editor would want to publish my words.

I suppose there are other professions whose practitioners experience just as much rejection as writers. Movie stars, professional athletes, and people who run for president (or get elected) come to mind. But I’ve never wanted to be any of those. Not really. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

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.

 

 

Now That the Book is Done…

I apologize. I have not been giving my blog the attention it deserves. But I have excuses. There are always excuses. Vacation for one thing. Vacation is that time of year that we set aside to think about the work we could be doing if we weren’t on vacation.

 I have been on vacation at a place where internet access is inconsistent. It is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it forces me to do something else. The curse is that I keep thinking about what I could be doing if I was sitting at my computer. I should go away more often.

 Then there is the book. The book was my major summer project. I just finished it last week. I’ll have more to say about the subject matter at a later date when, to use the language of my friend George, I will “flog” the book on this blog in a thinly veiled attempt at self-promotion.

 Right now I am thinking more about the experience of writing the book. This is my tenth project. My experience with each has been the same. The book begins in a flurry of excitement. The first chapter is a joy to write, so full of promise that the words tumble out of their own accord. The last chapter is also a joy but of a different sort. This is the kind of joy that I think a mother must feel just after giving birth. She is filled with relief that the task is finally done and amazed that she was able to accomplish it.

 In between the two it is mostly hard labor. Some chapters come easily, eager to make their way into the world. Others are shyer and must be coaxed out. A few are stubborn and must be subjected to a heavy hand. Now that I reflect, I realize that my analogy is wrong. It is not like giving birth to a child. More like delivering a litter of pups. After I have written the last word, I breathe a sigh of relief. This is followed by a rush of endorphins and several days of self-loathing (my dog analogy breaks down here). Don’t worry. It’s only temporary. After a few days my self-esteem will adjust itself to its normal level of insecurity. But at least the book is done. Until the editing begins…

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.