Immortality and art. Reflections from a library.
April 30, 2010
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.