Here’s a simple story. I go to an independent book store in a Midwestern town of around 14,000 people to talk about, read from, and sign copies of my new novel, Late One Night. The location isn’t far from where I grew up. I’m back in the part of the world I know best—those small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois. Reading is sometimes a tough sell here. Too many people are challenged by a lack of job opportunities. Too many people have made unwise choices that have led them to dire circumstances, or worse yet, to the wrong side of the law. Too many people are occupied with getting by day to day. Of course, not everyone falls into these categories; I’ve met plenty of folks who love a good book. Still, in general, as is the case all over the world, too much competes for peoples’ energies and spare time.
I’m heartened, then, to see about twenty people out for my event, an event I volunteered to do because this part of the world matters so much to me, matters so much to me that I keep trying to represent it fairly and accurately in my writing. I don’t want to be the sort of writer who lives at a distance from his native land, treating it only on the page and not in my heart. I want to be there as often as I can. I want to be a part of its measures and rhythms. I love the people there even though at times they frustrate me, and even though at times their stories bring me to tears or to rage. The point is I want to be a part of that world. I want the privilege of hearing its people’s stories.
On this night, a woman tells me that her mother taught her to love books. She tells me it’s the first time she’s been to a reading. Her boyfriend is with her. It’s the first time he’s experienced anything like this as well. They are both genuinely pleased that they came. The boyfriend hands me a copy of my novel. “I’d like you to sign this for her,” he says, and I do.
She tells me that she tried to teach her children to love books, too. Her son never had any interest, but her daughter did. In fact, her daughter is the children’s librarian at a small public library.
The woman says, “She just finished enrolling 300 children in her summer reading program.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say. “You must be very proud of her.”
“I am,” she says, and her eyes are damp. “I really, really am.”
I’ll admit I sometimes get discouraged by the apparent lack of readers in the world, and I worry about what that means for us as a people. How does it affect our level of compassion, our level of empathy, our ability to consider what the world feels like inside someone else’s skin? Then I meet someone who bolsters my faith. At this event, I’ve sold five or six books, but this woman’s story has made my trip worthwhile.
So this post is for Gina, who had a mother who loved books—Gina, who passed along that love to her own daughter, who now makes a difference in so many children’s lives.
“Take away my TV or my books?” Gina says to me. “Go ahead and take that TV. My books are here to stay. I wouldn’t know how to live without them.”
It’s a hot night. I have miles and miles to drive, and as I set out I recall what E.L. Doctorow said about writing being like driving at night. “You can only see as far as your headlights,” he said, “but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I’m thinking about the years of my life I’ve committed to this craft, wondering from time to time, what good another Lee Martin book can possibly do in the world. I’m grateful to Gina for reminding me tonight that books matter, that there are still people who love them, that they teach others to love them, too, and like that, we go on.