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A Book Club Feast with Billy Collins and William Maxwell

Five years ago I talked my book club into bringing two masters of language to our ritual readers' gathering. We were in our early years then as a reading group of 12, democratically selecting the novels we'd discuss each month. The suggestions my fellow bookies offered for that first year covered a wide range of styles, from Emma Donoghue's Room to The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Little Bee by Chris Cleave to A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. The book club had never considered poetry, nor had anyone yet recommended classic literature.

So I suggested we select something from the works of famed poet Billy Collins, who would be in our community doing a local reading. While there is humility and humor in Collins' poetry, there is also the stuff of life and death, of time passing, of all the things of beauty that we experience, and the details of the world that we miss. The only characters inside his poem, he will tell you, are “you and I, alone in an imaginary room which will disappear after a few more lines….” ("The Great American Poem").  He conjures up the images that take you into your own memories as you follow his gentle hand from the ordinary to the profound. In "The Death of the Hat," he begins, "Once every man wore a hat;" then he takes the reader to places like ballparks and boat docks and in the streets where everyone wore a hat, to his father who wore a hat to work every day. Then he seamlessly moves you into the present before you know he did so:

“But today we go bareheaded

into the winter streets,

stand hatless on frozen platforms.

Today the mailboxes on the roadside

and the spruce trees behind the house

wear cold white hats of snow.

Mice scurry from the stone walls at night

in their thin fur hats

to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

And now my father, after a life of work,

wears a hat of earth,

and on top of that,

A lighter one of cloud and sky--a hat of wind.”

Alongside our reading of poetry, my book club paired a brief novel, just 135 pages, written by William Maxwell. An editor extraordinaire, Maxwell worked from age 28 to 67 at The New Yorker, where he edited the fictional works of John Cheever, John Updike, and Eudora Welty, among many others. He spent the other part of his working life on his own writing, completing six novels across five decades. So Long, See You Tomorrow, which won the American Book Award in 1980, came out when Maxell was 72 (he died at 92 in 2000).

Like Maxwell's other books, this compact novel arose directly from his childhood experiences in

Lincoln, Illinois. The prose's art resides in the way Maxwell reshapes the past, occupying the shadowy land of experience and recollection. He brings us this memory in a cascade of lucid details, animated characters, and precise settings, a world we recognize no longer exists. His sad and compassionate tale leaves us with the awareness that this small town has vanished, along with his past self. His visceral childhood memories are reconstructed and contemplated from an adult consciousness—the story an attempt to fill in the emotional terrain of his boyhood, to try to make sense of the violence experienced by his thirteen-year-old playmate, and of his own sense of loss at the death of his mother when he was ten. Maxwell touches on the inevitability of life coming from the lack of choices people have due to circumstance, convention, or just plain inertia. As readers, we see the innocence of two boys intersect with the harsh reality of a world around them. And we realize the persistence of childhood in memory and its continuing power to shape adult life.

The two works gave me and my fellow book club members ample food for thought. The gentle hand of Collins's poetry, combined with Maxwell's stark narrative, engaged our senses fully, and offered us a literary feast that still, in all the years since, has—for me—gone unmatched.


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