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I spent yesterday afternoon at the combined conference of the Montana Library Association and Mountain Plains Library Association here in Billings. I was on a panel with Ruth McLaughlin (Montana Book Award winner! Woot!), Montana poet laureate Henry Real Bird and Dan Aadland.
Somehow, when I was recruited for this panel some months ago, I got it into my head that we were to deliver speeches. Well, no. We were there to read from our work (which, frankly, is a way better deal anyway). I was happy to make the switch, and I realized that I could just post the speech and PowerPoint presentation I prepared here at the blog.
So here goes: recycling!
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY: AN ESSENTIAL
I’d like to thank the Montana Library Association and the Mountain Plains Library Association for inviting me here today. I’m proud to be able to speak with folks who are doing a job that I consider absolutely essential to a well-rounded community and an informed, engaged populace. Thank you, sincerely, for all that you do.
I came to book writing relatively late. Although I’ve been involved with writing and editing as a journalist for nearly a quarter-century, it was just two and a half years ago that I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. And while I sometimes retroactively kick myself in the pants for waiting so long to get going, in some ways I’m happy to have a nascent career at a time of such upheaval and rapid change in the business of words and publishing. You see, I have no time to sit around and pine for how it used to be, back when publishers were proliferate, writers were given three or four books to become overnight sensations and a fella could wear an ascot without getting funny looks. I have to figure out how to make it work with conditions as they are, not as I wish them to be. And if you’re here today, you have the same challenge.
This is just one guy’s opinion, but it’s an enthusiastic one: I think we’re going to be okay. Yes, it’s true: Never have so many things competed for people’s time and attention, and even when reading happens on a cell phone screen rather than a typeset page, it’s a decidedly old-school endeavor against the allure of game consoles and 3-D movies and video on demand. Like you, I hear this sullen phrase more than I wish to: “I just don’t have time to read.” And yet, on the other side, good news blooms: There’s more reading going on than ever before. Everybody and his dog are buying one of those fancy new e-readers. There’s a revolution in reading that certainly does threaten less-than-nimble publishers, but on the flip side, more power to create and bring books to market has fallen into authors’ hands. And we authors are eager to work with you. My friend Dee Ann Redman at Parmly Billings Library need only call and I’ll be there for any program she cares to put together. (Okay, truth be told, she’ll have more luck by pinging me on Facebook, but my larger point stands.) I’m dead serious about this, and I walk my talk. Any library group that wants to work with me will find that I’m a willing partner in presenting timely, informative, entertaining programs. I consider it vital to my self-interest as an author and a library’s role as a community pillar.
In this new world of reading, there is an essential role for librarians to play. We will forever need people who curate books, who put them in the hands of readers, who love them so much that their infectious enthusiasm lights the fuse of patrons young and old. That these tasks are performed in a place that is uniquely positioned as a community gathering place makes your role all the more important. My great hope for you falls along two lines: First, that your local governments and voters will give you the capital you need. (This, I’m afraid, is where my optimism wanes a little bit. It seems that the public arts are too easily considered expendable when tough economic times come along. On the contrary, I believe they’re needed more than ever.) Second, that publishers who adopt a penny-wise-pound-foolish approach to new technology see things in a more rational way. As you have no doubt gathered, I’m speaking here of ridiculous rules regarding limited licenses for e-books. It’s madness, and I sincerely hope that more reasonable people prevail here.
Back in January, my second novel, The Summer Son, was published. To have written and published two novels since November 2008 has changed my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I sat down and finally pursued my writing dreams with an appropriate vigor. Among other things, it has afforded me the opportunity to talk about the influences that shaped my decision to pursue a career in letters.
In this regard, teachers and librarians – and, of course, my parents – loomed large in my upbringing. Some of my earliest memories of family outings involved going to the public library in Hurst, Texas, and taking home a stack of books. In my high school years, the library was an invaluable source of information and a quiet space for study. In my early twenties, when I could barely afford my rent, let alone books, the public library was a place I could feed my voracious appetite for free.
All of these people – parents who actively encouraged me to read, librarians who shamelessly fed that habit, teachers who helped me shape my thinking and my interests – worked in concert to make me a lifelong reader and someone who loved books so much that he wanted to write them. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, making me a candidate for viewing that part of my past through a kaleidoscope of nostalgia, I have a hard time believing that times have changed so much that these roles are no longer needed. Again, I have to think that they’re needed more than ever.
So, again, I thank you for lending your considerable talents to the communities that so badly need you.
And here’s a PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation I prepared:
The smiling, friendly-looking young man to the right is Brian Shults. If his hair and glasses seem a little out of date, it’s only because Brian is, too. He’s been gone since March 21, 1993. I received this image in an e-mail from his mother just a few days ago.
I wasn’t prepared for how jarring it would be to see him again. Brian’s never been too far from my mind in the nearly 18 years since I answered an early-morning phone call in my new apartment in Owensboro, Ky., and heard my mother say, “Your friend Brian, he’s dead.”
“Dead, dead how?”
“He shot himself.”
It fell to me to call another friend, Jon Ehret, in Buffalo, N.Y., and listen to the same crushing incredulity my mom heard.
“I said, he shot himself.”
“Why would he do that?”
I don’t know. I didn’t know then. I don’t know now.
I didn’t want to like Brian when I met him at the University of Texas at Arlington. He came on like a freight train, blustery and bad-assed, and it was all a put-on, his way of masking deep insecurities. But if you hung in there with him for just a little bit, the trip was worth it.
The guy was brilliant in a way that gets lost nowadays, when “genius” is a word my friends and I wantonly use on Facebook. He could write like nobody I knew to that point in my life. He asked great questions, was utterly unafraid of the answers, and possessed an insight into the dispossessed, the lonely, the broken that seemed far beyond his years. It was only after I got to know him, after we threw in together in an off-campus apartment while scrapping it out for freelance jobs, that I discovered the source of that hard-won experience.
Brian was dyed-in-the-wool Fort Worth, a boy from the Arlington Heights neighborhood near downtown. I was a suburban kid, a transplant to Texas. Brian came from a broken family that had scattered — a mother there in Fort Worth, a father in Portland, a brother in Seattle. I lived a life the Cleavers might have claimed: stay-at-home mom, 3.7 kids, family dinners every night, family pictures every Easter. By the time Brian got to UTA, he’d already rehabbed for drug and alcohol abuse, and he was living the straight-and-narrow life of the 12-stepper. I’d done nothing more daring than stealing draws off a wine cooler in the back of a friend’s pickup during lunch.
On paper, we shouldn’t have been friends. But we were.
When we settled on an apartment off Cooper Street in Arlington, Brian said, “You’re gonna be sorry you roomed with me. Everybody is. I’ll drive you crazy.”
I smiled and said, “You won’t drive me crazy. If you piss me off, I’ll kick your ass.”
Brian balled up his fists, jumped at me and said, “You do that, and I’ll press charges!”
Jesus, he was tightly wound sometimes.
He was right, though. He occasionally did drive me crazy. I grew tired of chasing him down for his half of the electric bill, or getting him to clean the dishes in the sink. But those frustrations never lasted. There were too many good times — the kind of times you get to enjoy only when you’re young and stupid and people give you a wide berth because, well, you’re young and stupid.
At the age we were during the months we lived together, 21, Brian and I were not beyond unwinding after a shift at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports department by hitting one of the myriad high-end strip clubs in Arlington. Brian never drank, at least not in my presence, but he seemed to enjoy being in the presence of action. One night, we were at a place called Lace, and Brian said, “You know who should be here? (Name redacted).” (Name redacted) was one of our supervisors at the Star-Telegram who had a famously uptight bearing on the job. Brian and I were convinced that it was environment, not nature, that informed (Name redacted)’s personality. We knew that if we could just manage to get that guy in a place where he could credibly wear a feather boa in public, he’d loosen up.
True story: A few minutes later, I looked up and spotted (Name redacted) sitting alone in a booth, chatting up one of the dancers. I poked Brian and pointed out what I saw. Brian stood up and walked toward (Name redacted) with double-gun fingers pointing. Seeing the blood drain out of that guy’s face at being found out was an all-time top-five moment, man. It was beautiful.
Brian remains the funniest person I’ve ever known. He took being funny seriously. He’d done some standup and was quite good at it. He had an affinity for performers, whether they stripped bare their bodies or their souls. He collected them. One of his best friends was Doyle Bramhall Jr., the great bluesman.
One of the transcendent evenings of my life was the time that my mom and I went with Brian to an AA meeting where he told his story of addiction and sobriety. The raw honesty was searing, mesmerizing. He delivered the story like a monologue, but the laughs were incidental. Hard truth was his aim that night. It was one of those moments where I knew that no matter how much time I spent with him, I had no way of really knowing his road.
Standing there in my apartment in Kentucky, I hung up the phone, and I realized that my last thought about Brian had been one of anger.
Just before the move to Owensboro, I’d gone back to Fort Worth to see my friends at the Star-Telegram, and we all headed for the Ol’ South Pancake House on University, one of our favorite haunts. Brian rode over with me, and on the way, he’d asked me to spot him some cash, fifteen bucks, no big deal.
“I’ll write you a check to cover it,” he’d said.
Fine, no problem.
When I got back to Texarkana, where I was living at the time, I deposited the check and it bounced. That pissed me off — not because of the amount, but because it was so inconsequential that Brian should have just asked for the fifteen clams straight out. The charade was senseless.
I never called him about it. Several weeks later, I was on my way to Kentucky. It’s a hard thing to live with, the being so angry about something so small, and then never having the chance to make it good. I wonder how many of us carry such regret about him.
Brian came barreling back into my life a few weeks ago when I saw the name “Steven Shults” on a comment thread at the New York Times Facebook page, saw the semi-familiar face, and ventured an e-mail:
I about fell over when I saw your comment on the Paul Krugman column at Facebook. I knew the name, clicked on the profile and saw the Seattle location, and I knew you were Brian’s brother.
Brian and I were roommates in 1990-91 while we were both at UT-Arlington. He was one of the best friends I had at an important time in my life, and I think about him often. I was living in Owensboro, Ky., when the sad news reached me, and I wasn’t able to make it down for the funeral. So, really, I’m so happy for this chance to tell someone in his family how much I liked him and how much he’s missed.
Steven wrote back, confirming my suspicion and putting me in touch with Linda Lee, Brian’s mom. We swapped several e-mail messages and that’s how, just a few days ago, I ended up seeing a face that has existed only in my head for almost twenty years.
About that face …
I thought I knew it, but actually seeing the photograph reveals just how unreliable memory can be. I’d forgotten about the little scar on his chin and the way his whiskers crept down his long neck, a secondary male characteristic that I can’t match even today, at age 40. I’d forgotten how curly his hair was, or that he had such a winning smile. How I wish he’d shown it to us more often.
Mostly, I’m struck by just how young he was. As I aged and brought memories of Brian along with me, perhaps I incrementally aged him as well. Perhaps I gave him wisdom he didn’t have, or perspective he never lived long enough to develop, or a sense of proportion that clearly eluded him on the day that he decided he didn’t want to live anymore. Maybe that’s my way of keeping him in a place where I can relate to him as my memories of that time in my life fade.
I don’t know what he felt on that day, any more than I really know what he felt on any other day. I wish he’d held on for another hour, then another day, then another month, then another year. I’d have loved to have seen him turn 40. Meet a girl. Raise a family. Bitch about the onset of arthritis. Whatever.
Brian was never cut out for being young. He should have grown old.