Wednesday, February 2, 2022

These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett: A Near-Perfect Essay Collection

Ann Patchett is one of my all-time favorite writers, mainly because she writes with amazing warmth. It's her superpower, and she brings it to bear clearly in her new essay collection, These Precious Days

Patchett explains in the introduction why she wrote essays during the pandemic, instead of fiction: Fear of death. She says while writing any novel, she considers what would happen to her fictional universe and all her beloved characters if she dies before it's finished. They would be wiped out too, and you get the sense she considers this the greater tragedy. And so she couldn't focus on writing fiction during the pandemic because "What was the point of starting if I wasn't going to be around to finish?" She mentions she wasn't more afraid of dying during the pandemic than any other time, but that during the writing all her novels, thoughts of death were nearly constant. 

But essays? "Death has no interest in essays," she says. And so we're all the luckier for it that she wrote these wonderful pieces during the pandemic. Each one is smart and funny and sincere and just generally a joy to read. There's not a dud in the bunch, a nearly impossible trick to pull off in an essay collection. Most essay collections are just that: a collection of disconnected pieces that appeared elsewhere and are published together to make a buck. But these feel intentional and thematically connected. Which, to use a tired cliche, means we get a book that is greater than the sum of its parts.

My favorite in the collection is an essay titled "There Are No Children Here." It's a series of 20-some vignettes all about Patchett's decision not to have children. I loved this piece for its gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) chiding of people who are always up in her business, asking her why, or suggesting she's missing something, or are in disbelief someone would consciously make that choice. She explains why she thinks people interpret her choice as a value judgment on theirs, as if both choices aren't equally valid. When someone knows you've purposely chosen not to have children, they sometimes see that as looking down your nose at their own decisions, because something that's not important to you is to them. Of course that's not the case (well, usually). Patchett writes that she thinks about this the same way as her choice not to eat meat or drink. When someone asks her if she minds if they order a cheeseburger, she says "Not unless you're going to make me eat it." Live and let live, basically.

The title essay These Precious Days is another highlight. It's about how she picked up Tom Hanks' story collection in the middle of the night, and through a series of very fortunate events, wound up with Hanks' personal assistant Sooki as her long-term houseguest during the pandemic. But Sooki became way more than just a houseguest, she became a dear friend. And they spent much of the early days of the pandemic together, as Sooki was undergoing cancer treatments in Nashville, and they are both just trying to figure out how to live in a new reality. 

Without exaggeration, I can faithfully say that this is one of the best essay collections I've ever read. Honestly. I loved this book a wholly indecent amount. Many of these essays are less than 10 pages, and I'd read one or two per day, always looking forward to taking a break from what I was doing and giving myself an Ann Patchett Essay Treat throughout the day. I can't recommend this more highly. 

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