Junior Essays Books

When I was a junior in college, I took an expository writing course taught by a graduate student named Trey Greer. On the first day of class, he assigned a five hundred-word essay: describe something, anything. At the time, I was convinced that I was a real writer, an undiscovered Eudora Welty or William Faulkner. Understand, I had absolutely no interest in writing. I wanted to be a Writer; and so I put off the work of the essay until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, I went grocery shopping. And sitting outside the Winn-Dixie, perched on top of a hundred-pound bag of Purina dog chow, was a woman with a tambourine.

"Girl," she said, when I walked past her, "give me some of that change."

I stopped and stared at her.

"That's all right," she said, "go on and look at Bernice. She don't care." She beat the tambourine softly against her thigh and started to sing a song about the moon rising up in the night sky like a gold coin and how it was hanging up there all shiny and new and nobody was able to get hold of it and spend it. She called it a "smug old moon."

When she was done singing, she held the tambourine out to me and I dropped some money in it and turned around and went back home and wrote an essay describing her. I wrote down the words of the song that she sang. I described her broken fingernails (painted purple) and her blue eye shadow and how she sat atop the bag of dog chow as if it were a throne. I wrote how, after I dropped my money in the tambourine she said, "God bless you, baby."

A week after I turned in the essay, Trey Greer read it aloud to the class.

"There is something extraordinary about this essay," he said, "and I want you to tell me what it is."

Extraordinary! Me! It was just as I had long suspected: I was a genius. I was born to be a Writer. I would be famous!

When Trey finished reading he said, "What is it that makes this essay worth our time?
Nobody said anything.

"It's not the writing," he said. "There's nothing extraordinary about that."

Not the writing? I sank a little lower in my desk. What else could possibly make an essay extraordinary?

"I'll tell you," he said to the silent, bored class. "The person who wrote this actually took the time to see the person she was describing. That's what writing is all about. Seeing. It is the sacred duty of the writer to pay attention, to see the world."

So what? I didn't want to see the world. I wanted the world to see me. Trey Greer, I decided, had no idea what he was talking about.

Not until years later when I finally made a commitment to writing, when I was fighting despair, wondering if I had the talent to do what I wanted to do, did those words come back to me. And what I thought was this: I cannot control whether or not I am talented, but I can pay attention. I can make an effort to see.

Because of Winn-Dixie is the result of that effort. It is a book populated with stray dogs and strange musicians, lonely children and lonelier adults. They are all the kind of people that, too often, get lost in the mainstream rush of life. Spending time with them was a revelation for me. What I discovered is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past everyday? What love? What hopes? What despair?

Trey Greer did know what he was talking about. Writing is seeing. It is paying attention.

I think of it this way: my characters sing songs and I stop to listen to them and when the song is done I give them my money and they say, "God bless you, baby."

And I feel that I have been blessed. Over and over again.

Location often dictated content. When I backpacked through western China in the early 1990s, I picked up whatever discards I could get from passing travelers — Donna Tartt’s “Secret History”; a middling Tom Sharpe satire; “Ethan Frome.” I remember reading “Moby-Dick” during a lonely holiday on Ko Phi Phi, while most vacationers more reasonably nursed hangovers with potboilers and romance. And reading “A Distant Mirror” in northern France, where I could visit the nearby Château de Coucy.

I admitted to Bob when I read self-help or reread old favorites or tossed aside “Interview With the Vampire” after one chapter, mystified by its raging popularity. Bob knew that I was perennially behind on pop-cultural phenomena, that I read “A Civil Action” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” years after the cocktail-party chatter faded. That I never finished “Paradise Lost” for freshman English. With 24 years of data, Bob reveals as much about my literary foibles, passing curiosities and guilty pleasures as any other diary.

For these reasons, I don’t generally share Bob with others. Whether it stems from envy or disappointment or genuine outrage, other people’s reactions to Bob are almost universally negative. “You’re tallying up books like the ticking off of accomplishments,” one ex-boyfriend accused me, as if I’d admitted to quantifying parental love or indexing my inner beauty. “Hurry, go note it in Bob,” he’d gibe every time I closed a book.

“What does this tell you if you don’t remember anything about the book?” another asked, suggesting an expanded Bob with a page of my impressions of each book in its stead. (That lasted one book; the relationship didn’t last much longer.) “You’re not seriously going to allow books on tape, are you?” demanded a third.

Quite a few people just can’t get past the numbers. I didn’t even think to enumerate my entries until I was somewhere in the 300s, at which point I went back and counted. But I will admit to satisfaction in the growing tally, if also an element of danger: Have I read as many books this March as I did last? What’s my yearly average? What of the long books that slow me down: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” “The Power Broker,” “The Pickwick Papers”? There’s also the inexorable decline over time, my rate dropping in response to accumulated responsibilities, children to care for, piled-up magazines competing for my attention.

Bob is otherwise showing his age. At some point, I spilled coffee on him; the gray cover is mottled, and one corner is woody and bare. Truly hopeless, I occasionally forget to enter a book I’ve just read. But I always eventually go back, ever faithful, and note the missing volumes.

Shortly after we met, my husband met Bob and came up with his own variation, the Blob (Big List of Books), which he enters into his computer. An upgrade, I ­decided.

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