“These Precious Days” is a compilation of 23 essays, an introduction and an epilogue, describing Ann Patchett’s life, relationships and experiences.
In the introduction Ann Patchett explains that she fears death the most when she is writing a novel. She is afraid something will happen to her before she is done creating the world she envisions in the novel. But during the pandemic, she kept writing essays and decided to put them together. “Again and again, I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life…Death always thinks of us eventually. The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have.” And thus, one of the themes of the compilation.
The essays are all well done and thoughtful, covering her family, her friends, her decision to stop shopping (“If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what people don’t have.”), her decluttering and a variety of other topics. There were three essays that particularly struck me.
The first is entitled “Three Fathers.” The essay begins with a picture of Ann with her three fathers (in other words her mother married three times, divorced twice). The picture was taken at Ann’s sister’s wedding, where father number two (Mike), commented to the others that: “‘You know what she’s doing, don’t you? She’s going to wait until the three of us are dead and then she’s going to write about us. This is the picture that will run with the piece.’” “He was right. That was exactly what I meant to do. That is exactly what I’m doing now.”
Ann’s biological father was a policeman and lived in Los Angeles. Ann was close to him but he did not approve of her decision to make a living as a writer. He wanted her to be a dental hygienist. “Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval.”
Ann’s mother divorced her father and moved to Nashville with Mike, a divorced father of four. Mike, a doctor, wanted to be a writer. And apparently he was not really so good at it! And finally, when Ann was 27 years old, her mother married her last husband, Darrell. Ann had a good relationship with all three.
The second essay that stuck with me is “A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities.” This is a speech she gave where she describes her graduate school experience and her love of reading. Ann Patchett went to the Iowa Writers Workshop which she did not describe as the greatest experience. “…one semester the very old and extremely unwell visiting professor regularly conducted his workshop in French. I don’t speak French.” But no matter what the experience, she has always loved books. She describes an encounter she had with a young man in the airport who was a Hare Krishna. He described his love of G-d as being “willing to stand in an airport day after day to tell people what it was like—to love G-d.” Ann explains that this is how she feels about books. “I would stand in an airport to tell people about how much I love books, reading them, writing them, making sure other people felt comfortable reading and writing them.” She describes her love of books and reading in a way that all of us who love books and reading can feel deep down in our souls.
The third essay is the title essay. This essay starts with her serendipitously reading a book of short stories written by Tom Hanks, then meeting Tom Hanks and becoming close friends with his assistant, Sookie. Sookie and Ann start an email relationship and when Ann learns that Sookie has pancreatic cancer, Ann arranges for her to come to Nashville for a trial taking place at her husband’s hospital (Ann’s husband is a doctor). Ann and Sookie had never spoken on the phone before the invitation. The essay describes their growing friendship and Sookie’s medical, physical and spiritual changes. The essay is extremely moving. It is impossible not to get wrapped up in their relationship.
I am a huge Ann Patchett fan. The set of essays took me through every emotion—annoyance (why is she writing only about herself?), laughter, understanding, and tears. It was written in that typical Ann Patchett style, with dry humor and deceptively simple lightness that does not quite hide the depth of her subjects. Ann Patchett tells you the meaning of life without burdening you with the weight of what she is saying. I loved the book but at the end, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Because it ended. Because ultimately, it ends.
You can reserve “These Precious Days” at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.