Immortality and art. Reflections from a library.

April 30, 2010


Books unread and way past due…

Recently, I attended a charity auction for my kid’s school at a downtown club, where I found myself having a Don Draper moment in the unattended library, a stuffy, decrepit sort of room where the nicked and worn bookcases were filled with countless navy and maroon hardcover volumes. Clearly, none had been opened in many years. Maybe decades. There was dust on all of them. I even saw cobwebs.

I gazed upon the titles. I’d never heard any of them or their authors. I opened one up and read a few paragraphs, something about a bachelor going over his dead father’s keepsakes. The man’s name was Jack. Or was it Henry or Bill. Anyway, the sentences were finely written. They moved along nicely enough. For a moment I could almost see myself sitting down in the nearby armchair. But no. I already had a bad rap as being anti-social, especially at events like these. If my wife caught me wiling away the evening reading I’d catch hell. The car ride home would feature another steely lecture. I put the book back. Sliding it into the slot, I imagined the bookcase, a la Sherlock Holmes, opening up into a secret passage! Wishful thinking. I’d have to go back to my party.

Before adjourning to the ballroom, I pondered the books once more, and their authors, now so utterly forgotten. When I was younger I thought being a published author was the pinnacle of achievement. For me, it was the goal of goals. The penultimate. Even deeper I believed creating a book was a form of immortality, a legacy. I knew someday I would. Had to. Otherwise, it seemed to me, my inevitable death would be in vain.

Now, gazing upon these hundreds of decaying volumes, I had a different view. There is no immortality, even through books. Unless you are blessed with creating a masterpiece like Moby Dick or Portrait of the Young Man as Artist, nobody but no one will care about it or you. And even in the unlikely event you did create a masterwork, you’d still fade eventually. Ashes to ashes. Dust jackets to dust jackets. High school kids would be required to read your prose but they would do so begrudgingly. A few nerds might carry the torch, less and less of them every year.

Needless to say, the same epitaph exists for movies and other art. For every Hemingway or Caravaggio there are millions of fabulous nobodies. People like me. I’ve written three novels, struggled to have two of them published, and dozens of short stories last read by a college professor whose name I can’t recall anymore than he would my stories.

Staring up at all these old books, I realized how silly my ambition was. Legacy! Please. Besides my kin, who in the hell did I think would read my stories? In fifty years my novels would be lucky –damn lucky- to be housed in a decrepit room such as this. Unlikely, given they are paperbacks. Even online they will be “out of print.” Maybe even –gasp!- Google proof!

Still, I would not trade the years I spent toiling on my books for anything. The countless hours I’ve spent conjuring tales are among the best times of my life. Selfish in the extreme, it was and is the one place where I felt and feel in control. Certainly more so than in all those mind numbing cocktail parties I’d attended and will attend.

So, what’s the lesson here? What is my point? I think it has something to do with living in the present and not worrying about the future or fretting over the past. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating hedonism. This does not mean sex, drugs and rock and roll. Lord knows I tried that. It means if my present is about writing (be it books or ad copy) then that is what I should do. It is my ambition that needs to be tempered. Rethought anyway. For all my blessings, my ambition got me right here, between a few hundred unremembered books and about as many drunks in the next room.

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8 Responses to “Immortality and art. Reflections from a library.”

  1. jim schmidt said

    Keat’s tombstone reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” One of the greatest writers of all time knew that there is no such thing as immortality.

  2. Mark said

    Thought provoking post. You’re not a fabulous nobody – nor is any great copywriter. Millions of people have read, listened and watched your stories in the form of advertising copy. As a Creative Director I admire once said [paraphrasing] “a successful copywriter writes one page novels and 60 second plays that have to be standing room only best sellers.”

    • Gene Payne said

      Was Bleak House one of the titles you were perusing? Sheesh. Get thee over to a book store today…AfterWords is a gem in your neck of the woods…and you’ll see that books do indeed live on, bringing hope and joy to the living, long after the writers are gone. Good post. Keep writing.

  3. Everything that has ever existed, or will ever exist, only happens in the Now. If only for one moment you achieve your vision of what the world could be, you have accomplished the highest humanity can realize. By shaping Now, you shape eternity, because Now is eternity.

  4. tjay said

    Happy or not, it is possible to leave part of one’s soul behind. I am as I am because of the efforts of countless ‘nobodies’ who would never even have imagined the existence of me. While I won’t be immortal either, maybe my efforts will make a similar difference for somebody else. Even if they never know my name. I guess that’s why I keep so many creative irons in the fire. For instance, I’ve never met Jim Schmidt, never heard his name except in your blogs. But he’s always writing stuff that makes me think again. Thinking again is good for me. See? Even this blog leaves part of more than one soul. BTW, I think this might have been the first post of yours that I read. Cool huh? Carry on, I say.

  5. Thank you for crafting such beautifully written posts. I’m really enjoying reading your work. I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you that, but I think you should be told more often than not.

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