November 15, 2022

These Precious Days

Nonfiction - Essays
2021 Harper
Finished on November 7, 2022
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding)

Publisher's Blurb:

“Any story that starts will also end.”

As a writer, Ann Patchett knows what the outcome of her fiction will be. Life, however, often takes turns we do not see coming. Patchett ponders this truth in these wise essays that afford a fresh and intimate look into her mind and heart.

At the center of These Precious Days is the title essay, a surprising and moving meditation on an unexpected friendship that explores "what it means to be seen, to find someone with whom you can be your best and most complete self." When Patchett chose an early galley of actor and producer Tom Hanks' short story collection to read one night before bed, she had no idea that this single choice would be life changing. It would introduce her to a remarkable woman–Tom's brilliant assistant Sooki–with whom she would form a profound bond that held monumental consequences for them both.

A literary alchemist, Patchett plumbs the depths of her experiences to create gold: engaging and moving pieces that are both self-portrait and landscape, each vibrant with emotion and rich in insight. Turning her writer's eye on her own experiences, she transforms the private into the universal, providing us all a way to look at our own worlds anew, and reminds how fleeting and enigmatic life can be.

From the enchantments of Kate DiCamillo's children's books (author of the upcoming The Beatryce Prophecy) to youthful memories of Paris; the cherished life gifts given by her three fathers to the unexpected influence of Charles Schultz's Snoopy; the expansive vision of Eudora Welty to the importance of knitting, Patchett connects life and art as she illuminates what matters most. Infused with the author's grace, wit, and warmth, the pieces in These Precious Days resonate deep in the soul, leaving an indelible mark--and demonstrate why Ann Patchett is one of the most celebrated writers of our time.

Last night, I fell asleep composing a fan letter in my head to Ann Patchett. I have often thought of sending such a letter to several of my favorite authors, usually the moment I finish one of their terrific books, but I never follow through. Maybe this time I will.

I have always read more fiction than nonfiction, but when I pick up a nonfiction book, I gravitate toward memoirs and essays. I have read and loved several of Ann Patchett's novels, but These Precious Days is my first venture into her works of nonfiction. Anna Quindlen (Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), Nora Ephron (I Feel Bad About My Neck), Laurie Colwin (Home Cooking), Barbara Kingsolver (Small Wonder), and Kelly Corrigan (Tell Me More) have written some of my favorite collections of essays. With over two dozen sticky notes littering my copy of These Precious Days, Patchett has joined ranks with that group of amazing authors. 

Typically, a book of essays has some great pieces along with some that don't resonate, but that doesn't hold true with These Precious Days; I loved each and every one of the twenty-two essays, as well as the introduction and epilogue. Like Quindlen, Ephron, Colwin, Kingsolver, and Corrigan, I would love to spend an afternoon, sipping a glass of wine while chatting with Patchett about her bookstore (which I visited last spring while visiting my daughter in Franklin), her novels (and the importance of good cover art), Nashville, Tom Hanks, and why we don't need four colanders and thirty-five dish towels. I would ask her about her favorite authors and which of their books she would recommend. (I love how she wrote about The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, not just touching on Welty as an author, but speaking specifically about a few of her stories.) 

As I gulped down essay after essay, hopelessly ignoring my inner voice that kept telling me to slow down and savor them, I caught myself thinking about the connections I felt to this woman I had never met. Her husband had a heart scare that turned out not to be a heart attack. But the fear of loss was real, and a fear that I know all too well.
I remember again how valuable he is, how lucky we are. Karl isn't having a heart attack. Byron didn't know what might have caused the pain. Indigestion? Stress? It didn't matter. Karl is beside me. The meeting I'm missing doesn't matter, and Sparky is fine with his dog friends at the bookstore. For as many times as the horrible thing happens, a thousand times in every day the horrible thing passes us by. A meteor could be skating past Earth's atmosphere this very minute. We'll never know how close we came to annihilation, but today I saw it--everything I had and stood to lose and did not lose. Thanks to this fleeting clarity, the glow from the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling of this small cardiac recovery room lights up the entire world. 
I spent over a decade working in bookstores and can wholeheartedly agree with the joy of handselling:
As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you hand that book to someone else and say, Here, you're going to love this. I always thought that sharing the books I loved with my students, requiring them to read those books, was the biggest perk of being a teacher. But at the bookstore, people who actually want my recommendations walk through the door all day long. The students were captives, the customers are volunteers.
Patchett writes about her personal experience with book jackets (and titles) that didn't live up to her expectations.
"Never judge a book by its cover" is a good way of saying that people shouldn't be evaluated on the basis of looks alone, but the adage doesn't apply to actual books. Where books are concerned, covers are what we have to go on. We might be familiar with the author's name or like the title, but absent that information, it's the jacket design--the size and shape of the font, the color, the image or absence of image--that makes us stop at the new releases table of our local independent bookstore and pick up one novel instead of another. Book covers should entice readers the way roses entice bees--like their survival depends on it.
I doubt I'm the only reader guilty of judging books by their cover art. While working in the bookstore, I could tell which face-outs would grab someone's attention and which would be quickly dismissed. I was thrilled when my husband's recent book was published with such an appealing cover. If only I were still working in a bookstore where I could place copies on the new release table, faced out on the appropriate shelf, and stacked neatly near each cash register. Oh, how I'd love to hand sell this book during the Christmas shopping season! Would Ann Patchett be drawn to Rod's beautiful book? And if so, would she pass it on to Tom Hanks? It never hurts to dream!

I can hardly wait to read Patchett's previous work of nonfiction, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I bought while visiting Parnassus last spring. She is such an exceptional writer!


  1. So much of your post speaks to me...There are many authors who write both fiction and nonfiction. I don't know why, but I always tend to prefer their nonfiction. I wonder if you have a preference.

    So much of your post speaks to me...I know that feeling of wanting to write an author a fan letter. I earnestly wanted (still want!) to write Jane Gardam a fan letter after I read her young adult novel, especially when I saw that she was born in 1928 and might not be with us much longer. I wanted to tell Madeleine L'Engle how much A Wrinkle in Time meant to me, but she had already passed by the time I got serious about writing. I did actually write Robert Pirsig a letter, and, oh my gosh, he replied in the margins of the very letter I sent him. I hope you will write Ann Patchett.

    So much of your post speaks to me...I, too, had the joy of handselling books, though I'm not sure if it is the same word if used in a library. There I was delightfully free of the constraints of money; kids could take all the books they wanted or even none if that was their choice. A bookstore would be an amazing place to work, too, talking books all day with other people who love them as much as I do.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment, Deb. I've been feeling sad that so many of my favorite bloggers are no longer posting (or commenting) and wondered if maybe blogging has run its course. Then your chatty comment popped up and gave me hope that it's still worth writing about the books I've read. Thank you so much!

      When I think about authors who have written both fiction and nonfiction, I would say that I enjoy both and don't have a preference. I do plan to send write to Ann Patchett, and hope that my letter finds its way to her. I hope you will write to Gardam!

      You and I both had wonderful jobs, talking about books to a willing audience, didn't we? There are days that I miss that, but I do love retirement just as much.

  2. I have not read any of Patchett's nonfiction but all her books are on my Overdrive wishlist. I have thoroughly enjoyed the fiction books I've read that were written by her. I believe that's Bel Canto, State of Wonder, and The Dutch House. Bel Canto was beautiful on audio. And who doesn't love Tom Hanks reading anything (The Dutch House)? I wonder if that's why he's mentioned in this collection?

    If you've read State of Wonder, you might like to read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote one chapter about that book and her personal connection to it. It's an interesting story.

    1. Jen, I'm pretty sure Bel Canto was the first book by Patchett that I read (and LOVED). I've also read State of Wonder, Dutch House (on audio), Commonwealth, and The Magician's Assistant. I'll give Big Magic a try since I've enjoyed books by Elizabeth Gilbert's. Thanks for the rec! Oh, and Patchett mentions Hanks because they had an event together to discuss his book Uncommon Type. She eventually becomes friends with his assistant, who undergoes chemo while living in Patchett's home. That essay is very touching. The cover art of her book was created by Sookie (the assistant). I loved this book!

  3. I'm glad you liked this one a lot. I thought the audiobook read by the author was wonderful. She has both a bit of humor and heart in many chapters and she likes dogs! knitting, and books! That Suki chapter gutted me totally but she tells it so well.

    1. Susan, I may listen to the audiobook when I'm ready for a reread. I enjoy watching her on Tuesday Laydowns (for Parnassus) on Instagram. She always includes one of the dogs that hangs out in the store. :) Yes, that chapter about Sookie really tugged at my heartstrings! Especially when someone started to sing All My Loving (Beatles).

  4. Great review. Like you there was no slow savoring of this one. The only reason I didn't get through it quicker was that I was already nearly finished with one book when I started reading it and I took the chance to start New Year's Day with a read of a Charles Schulz art book a friend bought for me. Essay books, short story collections...I just tear through them. The only patience I've been able to show is with poetry collections, and that is only because it is an easy ritual to read one or two a day, preferably in the morning. Glad to see you enjoyed this one as well. You should check out both of Anne Fadiman's essay collections. I've also really enjoyed Sloan Crosley's essays.

    1. Thanks, Carl. It's definitely one that I'll read again. Thanks for the rec for Sloan Crosley's essays. I've read Anne Fadiman and enjoy her, but not nearly as much as Patchett!


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!