A Life Built on Books
When you work for a book publisher for many years, your annual calendar becomes predictable. Fall is an exciting, hectic time, filled with sales calls, holiday book events, and most of all, regional tradeshows. These are annual events where sales reps and bookstore staff meet to buzz and share the best fall and spring titles, where debut authors are launched, and where stores work with each other to brainstorm new marketing concepts. These tradeshows are happy occasions, but they can be bittersweet as well since they mark the passage of time through stores that have opened or closed, owners who have retired or sold, buyers who have taken other jobs, sales reps who are no longer with us. Seeing an entire region of booksellers in one place, though, I am always reminded of something that is universal to the people in this business: we chose this life, and we would choose it again and again. No matter what the state of the economy, the changes in our industry, the lower pay and longer hours compared to many other professions, most of us can imagine no other world but the world of books and the written word where we would be as happy. I still dream of my own little bookstore, what it would look like, how I would use it to connect my community, and I know I’m not alone.
I have been reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Wild author Cheryl Strayed this week, which is a collection of advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar” for the website The Rumpus. I read dozens of books each month but this stands high above many of them for its honesty, its compassion and its beauty. Cheryl has a gift for mixing straight talk with a true love for the people that seek her wisdom. A college professor wrote to her asking for graduation advice for her English department seniors. According to the professor, the students were “English and creative writing majors/minors who [were] feeling a great deal of dread and anxiety about…their entry into ‘the real world.’” She hoped that “Sugar” might be able to reassure them that following this path would turn out ok, despite worried families pushing the graduates toward more traditional fields like law.
I love what Sugar wrote to these students, and wanted to share a few of her words here. They rang very true for this former English major.
Your teacher is correct. You’re all going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land…Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories, poems, plays and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. But that’s all.
I hope that when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: ‘Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: ‘Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.’
I am so grateful for the education I received studying literature and learning to write and so fortunate to have spent 11 years surrounded by books and the people who love them. There is a satisfaction that comes from knowing that I contribute to children becoming lifelong readers that is greater than the financial reward that could have come with a u-turn to law school, as I myself once debated. If you’ve devoted your life to words or literature, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section.