“It does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that knows what you know."
-- Sarah Orne Jewett, from The Country of the Pointed Firs
Don't know about you, but I'm a little tired of reading people's eyes by now. Turns out I'm not great at this, or put it another way, while eyes may "speak the same language everywhere" as George Herbert said, some of them don't seem to have much to say. All we are going to get for the foreseeable, but as someone working in retail, I do wish they'd speak up. There can be a lot of blank stares, foggy glasses, shy people already disinclined to eye-contact, all something of a problem in yet another season of masks and winter headgear. I mean maybe if one were to lock eyes, as in some fabulous movie close-ups between Paul Henreid and Bette Davis, but there one had help from that swelling Max Steiner score to communicate, you know, undying love and suffering, etc. It seems even anger needs rather more than a knotted brow. Could be a friendly nod or a curt dismissal. That look could be quizzical, or cretinous or aimed elsewhere. Asking for help finding a book for Aunt Joan who likes thrillers with serial killers, or this person staring at me is a serial killer -- how would one know?!
I miss faces, smiles, even chins. (Who knew we could miss a chin?)
Last week a gentleman at the cash register congratulated me on the bookstore "getting back to normal." I took his meaning and I thanked him, but... no. Every day now does bring back a bit more of what life was like before the pandemic. The bookstore is looking good and business is better, even if our hours are still limited, the mask mandate remains in place, etc. There is a growing optimism to which I am myself not immune. As always, books help. It is good to see old friends, familiar faces, loyal customers returning. But, truth be told, I still wish I saw more of Nancy Pearl.
Time was Nancy went for walks; long, vigorous walks of the kind recommended by doctors and in television ads for ladies' sneakers and supplemental Medicare insurance. Our Ms. Pearl would stop by the bookstore to buy a newspaper, sip her coffee -- presumably her reward for the long walk -- and, as they say back home, maybe shoot the breeze with whatever bookseller was to hand. (They don't always say "breeze" back home, but you know what I mean.) As I lived largely on the sales floor in those days, I was often the lucky fellow who got to hang out for a few minutes with America's Favorite Librarian. Now, if you don't know who Nancy Pearl is I can't imagine why you would be reading this, but if you were to look her up you would see that she is indeed a former librarian, a teacher, lecturer, writer, novelist, reviewer, television and radio presenter, an action-figure, and A National Treasure. Not convinced? Well, she is also the most recent recipient of the National Book Award's Literarian Award for "outstanding service to the American literary community." In other words, this little lady is a very big deal in the book world and where have you been?!
A decade ago I wrote a piece called Why Nancy Pearl Matters. Therein I tried to explain to the uninitiated why my friend was an important person to know. And we were friends by then. For all of her many achievements and despite my relative unimportance in the great scheme of things, we get along fine. From the day I met her I just thought she was one of the most charming humans I'd ever encountered in a bookstore and she seemed to like me okay too. Yes, she's a macher, but she's also a mensch, and frankly a dear. Such a person doesn't need my endorsement obviously, what with the awards and the bestselling books and the rest. (Herewith my congratulations to be added to the general applause.) Nonetheless I offer a personal note of an entirely selfish character:
I miss her sweet mug. I really do.
When I saw her all the time we talked about books, obviously. I read what she read sometimes, but more often not and we'd talk about that. I read books she recommended to me and I avoided books she wasn't glad of. We had books in common, loved and unloved. We talked about the news now and then as how can one not? And we talked about personal things too now and again, and topics of broader interest. We described our own moods which were not always the best and sympathized in an unsticky way like grown ups who happen to like each other but don't live in each other's pockets. Nice, and a model may I say of how to feel for someone without either gloating or being intrusive. So she's not always cheerful? Fine. Neither am I no. Neither is anyone else who isn't either drunk, feeble-minded, or heavily medicated. Sometimes we'd crow together, sometimes it was nothing but the blues. Sometimes we'd just nod. Maybe sometimes she didn't feel much like talking. That is the thing about this otherwise exceptional person, I liked her even when she didn't feel much like being A National Treasure.
Then the world closed, and I was sent home for more than a year, and presumably Ms. Pearl did not get out so much. It happened. Nothing to do with us. since I've been back at the bookstore I saw her once, just long enough for one of those rather tentative we-are-both-vaccinated hugs. It was busy that day, she was with her granddaughter. It was good to see what I could see of her.
For me, things won't be back to normal again until I get to see Nancy Pearl get her newspaper. We don't have to talk. Her nod I would understand. That to me would be something like what I miss from the before now. As a friend, even just a bookstore-in-the-mornings friend, I am ridiculously proud of her, now more than ever. The woman has done more for literacy and libraries and books than any ten other people more famous even than her. She has empowered generations of young men and women to write, read, become librarians, become better. I am the very definition of an old dog and yet she has without trying taught me a great deal, and not just because I finally read that book by Merle Miller she kept telling me for years I had to read. Not to be overly familiar or to tell tales out of school, but Nancy Pearl has taught me to get on with it, whatever it happens to be, even when the getting on seems hardly worth the getting up in the morning. If that sounds suspiciously like an affirmation, I can only apologize. That is not the sort of thing with which either of us has much to do. Gossip we like. Grousing is good. But for all that, here she'd come yet again after her walk: coffee, newspaper, maybe lunch with a protegee or a colleague or friend. On a Thursday she'd probably be here to tape an interview for her television program. Maybe she was headed to the public radio station up the street to record a new books segment. Maybe she was just back from the back of beyond -- where she went a lot these past few years, lecturing hither and yon. She gets around, does Nancy. (When the Gods allow nowadays, but hopefully again soon.) Didn't much matter why and it wouldn't if I were to see her tomorrow. She reads, she chats, she gets about and she abides. It's the abiding I miss most.
That said, yes I also miss all the talking about books. It's not like I don't do this anyway and with a lot of other people nearly every day. One of the real pleasures of my job is the opportunity to talk about books and often with people smarter and or better educated than myself. (Hell, even the dumb questions can be fun if everybody decides to have fun with it and not everybody always does but there we are.) I miss talking about books with my friend Nancy because when she isn't being paid to talk about books or talking to an audience about books but just talking briefly with the guy, meaning me, at the information desk in the bookstore some random morning, she's just as likely to say "meh" as "marvelous!" Who am I going to tell if the lady shades a famous author or waves away a bestseller? It feels naughty. Childish word, but then so is my delight when America's Favorite Librarian, the National Treasure was maybe... a little mean? I mean, perish the thought, right?! Delightful. And don't think I didn't live to egg this sort of thing on. That said, honestly what I miss most about chatting with Nancy about books, what I most look forward to having again are her ayes, not her nays. I'm not just saying. Why? Because her endurance, that quality I most admire in my friend, is fueled by enthusiasms, old and new. She doesn't have to with me. I'm not paying the lady. She doesn't owe me any favors. I'm not making a list or putting up a chalkboard. No show. That said, liking things, reading books, loving authors, these are the things she brings with her, even on a morning walk. Can no more be helped than the color of her eyes. That's what we have in common as much as our occasional dances with Churchill's black dogs. We share an enthusiasm and a faith. Same church different pews mostly, but we are true believers. We know the secret handshakes. Light the candles (seriously, more candles who can read in this light?) Maybe all we want to do is sit home and watch Let's Make a Deal (shut up! Wayne Brady is an ENTERTAINER!) Maybe today the last thing we want to talk about is what we happen to be reading (shut up! Go read what you want. Stop asking the poor woman to tell you what to read!!! You're a grown person. Make a decision. Take a risk. Jeeeez.) But when I look into Nancy Pearl's eyes I see a comrade.
Could I stand to see more of the woman? Yes I could. Times are hard. The lady is still busy even in a virtual way (awards and such, remember?) Still, someday, hopefully some day soon Nancy Pearl will go for a walk, stop for a coffee, pick up a newspaper and maybe linger for a quick kibbitz, a little gossip, a complaint here and there. Maybe she's reading something good. Maybe not. Doesn't matter to me. I have faith. She'll be back.
Meanwhile, congratulations again, Miss Fancy. Couldn't happen to a better. See you soon.