I don’t read a lot of essays and I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I make an exception when Ann Patchett is reading her own essay collections. The combination is perfect and I savor every word. The essays are so intensely personal and revealing and so honestly delivered that the audiobooks deserve a special kind of literary award.
So it is with These Precious Days, Patchett’s most recent collection of essays. Most of them have already appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and other publications, but the collection brings them together in a way that helps understand what moves and motivates Patchett, and why there’s no living author I’d rather have dinner with. I’m seriously tempted to drive to Nashville one of these days just to visit Parnassus, the independent bookstore she owns and manages, just for a chance to meet her.
These essays are as sharp and honest as those in an earlier collection I loved, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, but they are more serious, more intense, and more meaningful. Many of them deal with death, either deaths that have occurred or the fear of death that was brought home to all of us during the pandemic, which plays a significant role in several of the stories. But there is also insight into friendships and love and families and how the Covid lockdown has made us think of these things in a more precious light.
The more humorous essays include a wonderful treatise about her three fathers, Patchett’s decision not to have children and the way she deals with people who can’t understand the choice, a takedown of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program, and her husband’s lifelong love of flying and near-death experiences. Karl, whom Patchett married after 11 years of dating, is a fascinating character in his own right (and he’s invited to dinner too). He’s a doctor with a degree in philosophy, an uncanny ability to get things done, and a Rolodex of friends that always includes a person in a position to help when needed.
All the essays are wonderful, but the title piece, which is quite long, is well worth the price of admission. It begins with a sleepless night that leads Patchett to her study and a pile of manuscripts sent to her by publishers hoping she’ll write a blurb. On a whim, and despite her instinct, she picks up Tom Hanks’ short story collection and finds it surprisingly good. She writes the blurb, which leads to an invitation to interview him before an audience on his book tour, which leads to a friendship with Hanks and to a very special friendship with his assistant, Sooki.
Patchett decides to ask Hanks to read the audio version of her new novel, The Dutch House, which leads to an extended email relationship with Sooki, who eventually reveals she’s being treated for pancreatic cancer. By coincidence, a research study is under way in Nashville and Karl Patchett knows the people involved. Before long, Sooki is in the study and living in the Patchett’s basement, dealing with both the cancer and the pandemic lockdown that keeps her and Ann at home more than usual. The relationship that develops is remarkable, as is Patchett’s rendering of it.
Patchett writes in this essay, and really throughout the book, of her gratitude for the relationships in life—for her friendship with Sooki, for her marriage, for her three quirky fathers, and for the fortunate life experiences that have allowed her to do the things she wanted to do and discover the meaning in so many of her relationships. I know Patchett would have reached those conclusions no matter what, but there’s no denying the pandemic played a role in making all of us realize what’s important in our lives and what’s less so.
By coincidence, one of my book groups is reading The Dutch House for its April meeting. I started it last night and I already understand why Patchett thought Hanks would be the right reader. I’m looking forward to listening to the book after I finish reading it.