Friday, September 18, 2009

Out From Under My Bridge for the Afternoon

When I went to Portland, last weekend, I had really only one thing to do, officially. I had little or no reason otherwise for going. My job at the bookstore is not such as would require anything of me at a booksellers' convention. I do not review catalogues, take appointments with publishers' reps, or order frontlist books. Last year, I did attend a couple of the workshops and seminars on offer, as much from being at loose-ends while trapped at the Airport Holiday Inn as from curiosity. I found a couple of the speakers genuinely interesting and informative, though mostly I found myself wishing that other people from the bookstore, people whose jobs more directly connected to the activities discussed, had been able to go instead of me. Largely for economic and logistical reasons, this was not possible. If anything, this was even more so this year. Nearly all of our managers this year were, like the economy, in retreat that weekend. For the bookstore, this was just an unexpected scheduling conflict. So, this year, I was largely alone, and honestly, I had only the one task at the convention. I had to go to the meeting of my committee.

For any never honored by assignment to such a committee, I thought I might briefly describe the experience. Now, as our deliberations are meant to be secret, I can neither name my fellows, nor tell the particulars. My only object then is to convey something of the process and atmosphere, not so much of the prestigious body of which I am a member, but of my experience of service on committees in general, with I hope only the most discreet reference to any particular committee on which I've served. My experience of committee work actually extends beyond the convention and my working life as a bookseller, into the remote days of my glancing involvement in politics, activism and even theater. That last, other than actual performance, really is nothing much but committee work, though of an unusually engaging and entertaining kind. As for the politics, etc., I was never much more than a fellow traveller. This did not, at least in those early days, entirely preclude real service, but I largely confined my participation to marches, mass protests, and setting up chairs for meetings to which I was not then invited, or at which, often as not, I chose not to stay, or left early. I wasn't a very good activist, you see. I disliked and distrusted the free-for-all nature of those meetings, was ill-suited to any but the most practical discussions, and never learned how best I might contribute without becoming impossibly impatient with the types that invariably dominate such discussions: the tellers of lengthy and irrelevant personal anecdotes, the adrenaline junkies, hot for mindless confrontation, and the spoiled children of suburban privilege, newly radicalized and eager to prove themselves as revolutionaries, by offering Leninist critiques of suggested bake-sales, etc. There are admirably patient people, I discovered, who can harness the energies of all these, as well as the good majority of sincerely committed and willing workers, in addition to the lazy and intolerant, such as myself, and actually get things done. I have the greatest respect for such remarkable people. I've seen them manage everything from assaults on major drug companies, to the major renovation of a working bookstore. I am always happiest just following the leaders, from well back in the rear of the march.

Now in my second year of service, I may be described as a veteran, but I claim no special authority. I have served in similar circumstances elsewhere, though never to so elevated a purpose. On no committee have I ever been invited, elected or sought to take the chair; an unenviable part in the proceedings, so far as I can judge as the work doubles for much the same reward. It being the nature of any task undertaken in fellowship to sooner than later find the one person willing to drag the rest behind, I have always found the most comfortable, least taxing position to be furthest from the lead. Any comment or encouragement offered from well back seems to carry furthest for calling on the best rested voice. I find this maxim proved again by last weekend's experience.

We met again in a rather anonymous room, again in a thoroughly anonymous hotel. Only one among us had the foresight to bring her own snack, which she generously offered to share when lunch proved to not be forthcoming. (The esteemed representative of our sponsoring organization was the only one among us who had the sense to follow instruction and bring his free lunch from the convention floor. Anxious to get on with it, and not a little embarrassed that we none of us quite followed his example, we went without lunch until the meeting concluded.) I sipped my soda, and visualized the Cobb salad I was to have after in the hotel's only restaurant. Our chairperson distributed a thoughtfully updated spreadsheet of the books we were there to consider recognizing. There was a good deal of preliminary chatter about this title and that, though mostly in the negative, with a few early enthusiasms espoused, before we were called to some semblance of order. Our task at this gathering was threefold: to recommend and defend any books we thought deserving of either a place in our final list or at least a second look, to be reminded of those books some might either have missed or not yet received, and finally to eliminate, by voice-vote, those books we need not consider further. I brought a small stack of books I meant to champion, as I might miss my chance without the actual book in my hand, and because having the books to show my fellow committee members might help to make the titles stick. With the exception of my little stack, my primary task was to vote "no." I was, as always, willing to be overridden occasionally, and give some book I hadn't liked enough to bring, another chance. This however proved less of an issue this year as compared to last, as most of the negatives proved common among the majority. Notes were made next to the titles I had overlooked, and by the books I had yet to see. As always, as the resident dissident in the room, I waited for and received instruction as to the Young Adult titles I had to grudgingly consider. Finally, our revised list was reviewed and agreed to, and off we went, some of us, starving, to lunch. My Cobb salad was everything I remembered from last year.

The whole operation, with spirited discussion, pro and con, took somewhere around and hour and change, I think.

And that is the only reason I felt inclined to describe this meeting, however vaguely, here. Having been in just such anonymous meeting rooms before, to say nothing of church basements and the like, I am no little impressed again at the thoughtfulness, and efficiency of this particular committee, of the organizational skill of both our chairperson and our association's staff, and of the seriousness with which my fellow committee members take their responsibilities, but not themselves. I can honestly say, I have never experienced the like. Not one person strove to dominate the discussion, indulged in pointless rambling, or refused to concede a point. Based on all my previous experience of such group discussions, I can honestly say, I've never served in a more congenial and productive body. If my role in the proceedings has come to be that of the crusty curmudgeon, the role I seem best suited to assume in any such gathering, I have been accepted as such, and rather sweet concessions are made, by my fellow veterans, to my want of enthusiasm for picture books, tales of teenage angst and the like.

"You only have to read this one, Brad."

If I could, and if it did not breach our anonymity further than I may well already have done, I would record these meetings as an example to others, and to remind myself, despite all my grousing, just how painless a process it can be to serve a higher purpose as part of a working committee. Working with good people, good booksellers anyway, can be a genuine pleasure. I must remember this.

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