Monday, January 11, 2016

The best parts of authors

The St. Mark's Bookshop is a crossroads for the serendipitous and the unplanned, where you can meet older authors -- and frequently find why the best parts of them are in their books.
Arthur Nersesian, My Bookstore

Novelist Arthur Nersesian is among the dozens of contributors to My Bookstore, a book in which writers reflect on their favorite bookstores. The above quotation comes from his discussion of St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City. The sentence strikes me as a nice way of saying that authors, when you meet them in person, can often be disappointing. The "best parts of them are in their books." Face to face, they may not make much of an impression, or the impression they make may be negative, even if you love their books.

There can be good reasons for this. Chuck Palahniuk touches on this when writing about Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. Speaking of authors on book tours, he says, "At Powell's you see the literary gods at their not-best. Exhausted from weeks of sleeping in a different hotel bed every night. Starved. Lonely for family. Hung over. Here they are."

I have been reading Yossarian Slept Here, Erica Heller's memoir about her father, novelist Joseph Heller. Catch-22 must certainly be one of the most significant novels to come out of World War II, and could even make a list of the most important novels of the 20th century. Yet even his daughter, who never stopped loving him, cannot find much positive to say about him as a human being. He was selfish, deceitful and manipulative, not just some of the time but all of the time. He left the best parts of himself in his books.

Many people, not just writers, leave the best parts of themselves in their work. The Norman Rockwell biography I've been reading makes that clear about the famous artist/illustrator. The man who could express so much emotion in his paintings had great difficulty expressing his own emotions to those closest to him. He was always tentative and insecure, yet his paintings reflect a firm hand and firm convictions.

How many of the rest of us are much like that? Strong business executives can turn to mush when they go home to their families. Respected pastors may lead much less saintly lives behind closed doors. Heroic actors are found to be nothing like the roles they play.

Sometimes, of course, the opposite can be true. I think of Rocky Balboa in the original Rocky when, because of intimidating size, he provides the muscle for a gangster. Later he turns to boxing. In truth, Rocky is a softy whose best parts come out when he is with his introverted girlfriend.

The luckiest people are not those who need people, as Streisand taught us, but those who are the same good people at work as at home, the same at the book store as on the page.

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