Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Winning and Books


[gary daily col. 10 March 21, 2002]

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
-- Mark Twain

Did Vince Lombardi really say, “Winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing.”? Too bad someone wasn’t around to choke off the second sentence in that statement. If they had, the level of superfluous disappointment in the land would be reduced considerably. Winning, no doubt (I’m writing this before the event), was also a subject on the minds of our celluloid celestials at last week’s Academy Award presentations. I’ll bet an Oscar Mayer wiener that at least three of the winners spoke of everyone nominated being a winner–and that at least one of the three was sincere.

Everyone loves a winner, right? So I would suggest that if you haven’t won anything lately, if you have somehow been overlooked in the avalanche of prizes and awards, trophies and certificates of merit, medals and letters of recognition, and all the other bric-a-brac and documents of achievement which pour out into the world each year, month and day, don’t despair.

I’m sure something is bound to be coming your way, if only in the form of a form letter announcing that, yes, you have been selected as part of a distinguished and exclusive group from across the nation for inclusion in an “Outstanding Americans” commemorative yearbook. Just send along 25 bucks and a list of your outstanding and distinguishing achievements and you will be included in this very exclusive volume.

Prizes and expansive pronouncements are cast on the waters of life like potato chips at a cheap buffet. Not much in the way of real nourishment there, but who can stop eating the stuff?

And consider the alternative–the “L-word.” “Loser” is that part of our vocabulary that bubbles up from the adolescent stew of life; it’s the dark side of the “everyone loves a winner” mirror. As kids we can’t stop staring into it, doubting ourselves. This can seep into too thin spirits and, like cigarette smoke in a restaurant, foul even the simplest of life’s experiences.

If you’ve been searching for my point, it’s this: There are just too many synthetic, self-congratulatory, commerce-related hype and hoopla competitions out there searching for winners. With Vince, we all desperately want to be the winner; barring that, we’re ready to go Hollywood and blithely declare that we’re all winners.

This winning thing has Americans by the throat.

Having vented on a general level, let me clarify and distinguish in regard to a specific case, one which runs against this grain–a truly no winners and absolutely no losers case.

Today is the last day you can vote for the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection. Ballot boxes will be collected at dawn tomorrow; the votes will be guarded by armed librarians of the Vigo County Public Library; the count will be conducted by the upstanding citizens who serve on the “If All” committee.

The “winner” will be announced at a public meeting to which one and all are invited. This grand announcement program will be held at noon, on Thursday, April 18, in the main branch of the Vigo County Public Library.

Winner” is placed firmly in the cold tongs of inverted commas to indicate that this writer is not at ease with the bold, naked, and unnuanced term–winner. I hope people will think about the selection chosen, how it came to be chosen, about the other two selections as well, and most of all that none of these books are “winners” or “losers” in any conventional sense.

Three books were up for the public’s votes, but to my mind there was no race, competition, poll, or any other type or kind of contest. The authors of these works--Barbara Kingsolver, Kent Haruf, and David Guterson--deserve better than to be thought of as participants in some kind of mean, personal, or sweaty struggle for victory and accolades.

We voted for the “If All” books not to determine which work is superior. Votes cannot measure creative merit; votes cannot definitively rank these books. The depth of ideas expressed, the scope of emotions touched, the sense of place emerging on the page, truths found in the characters and the choices they make in these books provide readers with an ineffable something going beyond the shallow simplicity of the scoreboard.

The “If All” committee instituted and is proud of the unique “readers vote” element in this program because this element of democracy served to foster discussion and involvement. I congratulate those of you who made it a point to vote because this indicates you’ve given yourself the opportunity to ponder questions and understandings that have nothing to do with the hollowness of “winning” and a lot to do with the fullness of thinking, feeling, and living.

You’re allowed to say with Vince, “Winning isn’t the most important thing. . . .” and really mean it.

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