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Original Essays

Dwelling on Unimportance

by Steve Leveen
 
  1. The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

I'm a member of an organization of company presidents and recently attended a cocktail party with some of them. The fact that I've written a book is a source of mild amusement.

"So how's the book thing going?" asks a rather tall CEO looming beside me. Behind his question is another unstated one that goes something like, I'm assuming you have enough sense to put in a solid team to run the place while you're out gallivanting around?

I'm used to this attitude and just try to answer him honestly.

"Well... there are ups and downs."

One particular down on my mind as I gazed off, swirling my Scotch, was when I showed up at a public library in Florida to give one of our Well-Read Life workshops and a total of eight people showed up, three of them being on the library staff.

We were expecting at least thirty-five and I was secretly hoping for twice that, given all the advertising dollars we spent. At ten minutes after the scheduled start time, realizing this was as crowded as it would get, I took off my wireless microphone and stood before the audience that could fit comfortably in a minivan. They seemed embarrassed for me. Two had positioned themselves for a quick escape and didn't look me in the eye.

Well, I thought, might as well practice and try to improve my act. So I plunged ahead and gave it my all.

There have been other workshops with not many more attendees, and the poor turnout gets me down.

Knowing my dream of reaching millions with the Well-Read Life campaign, some of my friends try to make me feel better.

Tom Morris, a philosopher who, along with scholarly books, also wrote Philosophy for Dummies, tells me, "Dwell on your unimportance."

I have found the concept comforting. Because when things have gone right on my "book thing," I have experienced, if only momentarily, the rarified air of importance.

One long day in Boston, for example, I had five media interviews, including two TV appearances, two radio shows, and a newspaper interview. I spent that night feeling important — or at least believing that my message was important. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before Oprah called. I imagined myself as a new kind of Dr. Phil, coaching millions of Americans on how to lead their largest, well-read lives. I fell asleep that night with a smile on my face and a warm feeling, imagining a grateful nation reading like never before.

The feeling of importance didn't last long. The next evening, my audience for yet another much-advertised workshop could have fit in a Marriott hotel elevator. I had a chance to dwell, once again, on my unimportance.

During that week of ups and downs in Boston we actually had twenty-five people show up at the workshop held one rainy night at the Wellesley Public Library. They were a lively and engaging group and we had fun with each other. But the audience wasn't the highlight. The highlight, so high I will always remember it, was one woman and what she said to me as I signed her book.

After the workshop she was first in line at the signing table. She leaned down and locked her gaze on mine. After a pause, she spoke with an intense whisper.

"I turned sixty this week," she said. "And it has been hard on me."

Most people would have joked or smiled saying this, but she was all seriousness.

"On my birthday, I was at the bookstore and saw your book on the counter. I bought it and went to the park, and sat on a bench and read it straight through that afternoon. I realized it was my answer."

Not knowing what to say, I just looked at her waiting for her to finish. She went on.

"I know that what I need to do, at age sixty, is to finally lead my own well-read life, and you showed me how."

She stopped talking and I must have tried to respond. I don't remember what I said. I don't even remember her name, which she had me write in her book. Sensing she'd taken too much time, she flashed the briefest of smiles and moved away. My eyes followed after her until I had to greet the next person. She didn't reappear.

When I finally collapsed into my cab to the hotel, I tried to collect my thoughts about what she had said.

I was flattered, of course, and satisfied in some deep sense. But mostly I felt a sense of obligation. If it were true that my Little Guide had such an impact on her, then, by God, it had better deliver.

This was serious stuff all of a sudden — to change someone's life. Of course that's what I had wanted to do with the book. Don't all authors want that? But to have a reader actually say it had changed her life and say it with such utter conviction, well, damn....

I told this story to my editor, Mim Harrison, who also manages our Well-Read Life campaign. She gave me her happy, somewhat smug smile I've come to recognize. It means: Didn't I tell you never to lose faith?

"You know, Steve," said Mim, "If I ever heard that from a reader of a book I had written, well, that would be all I would ever have to hear. It would make all the work, all the frustration of publishing and book tours, worthwhile... just to hear that from one person."

In the weeks since that workshop, I've had a chance to reflect on that woman I shall call Ms. Wellesley.

I realize Ms. Wellesley falls into a pattern of people who suffer a trauma and then discover the curative power of books. In the Little Guide, I recount stories of people who battle unhappy childhoods, debilitating injuries, bitter divorce, even prison sentences. Only in their sufferings — and because of their sufferings — did they discover the transforming power of books.

Ms. Wellesley had to suffer the trauma of turning sixty in order to make her discovery. Feeling depressed, perhaps wondering what the rest of her life was going to be like — should be like — she spotted a little hardcover titled The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. Perhaps the old-fashioned drawing on the cover depicting an open book with a fountain pen beside gave her further encouragement to pick it up. Then the words spoke to her. I'm so grateful they did.

Perhaps it's just as well that I don't know Ms. Wellesley's real name because I'm free to imagine her living happily ever after.

I imagine her smiling with pride and satisfaction at her new home library. She's hired a carpenter to come in and make her library in her elegant Wellesley home just to her liking. Then she's filled it with shelves and shelves of Library of Candidate books that make her beam with anticipation, so eager is she to read them. But just now she's in book-love with another book and has one ready after that. She reads at least a book a week now and seems a new person to her family and friends.

And she takes a quiet satisfaction in keeping her Bookography journal up to date recording the titles and authors of the books she has read, when she read them, and what, in a few sentences, they really mean to her.

Nowadays, she doesn't hesitate to give up on books. If she doesn't love it by page fifty or so, she gives them away. Or, if she thinks she might like the book later, she puts it on a special shelf labeled "Maybe Later." Since she knows how many great books await her (great by her standard), she won't tolerate getting bogged down with a book that doesn't sing in her hands.

She goes to the library once a week, when she's not traveling, just to see what's new and talks to her friend Abby, one of the librarians. She'll buy any books Abby really recommends and since many of them are out of print, she buys them online.

She even allows herself to write in the margins, now that she knows her children and grandchildren are likely to be pleased, years hence, if they come across her notes. (They can buy their own copies if they want unadorned books, she thinks with a smile.)

She likes buying her husband and friends nice old books. They often look more rare and expensive than they actually are, and her friends are always asking, "Where on earth did you find that?" and, "That's so thoughtful of you to find a book on orchids right after I told you about my new hobby...."

She joined a book group with other smart, interested Wellesley women. They value her thoughts and perspectives and humor and even accuse her of being well-read, a charge she denies.

Some of the book group members have become her close friends and they do things together, including planning for an upcoming author's cruise to Europe. She and her friends can't wait to meet P. D. James.

On her daily walks, she listens to audio books on her iPod. She has favorite narrators and marvels how they can make dialog come alive with inflections and emotion. She always buys the hardcover, too, to be the permanent record — and so she can write in her copies and put correspondence right inside the dust jacket.

Someday, I imagine, around her birthday, she walks back to that park and rests her hand on the bench where she sat and read the little guide that was the catalyst of her transformation. Perhaps she'll smile as she remembers meeting me at the library workshop and wonder why I couldn't seem to say anything to her.

"Oh, well," she thinks. "At least he wrote a useful little book." spacer

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