Yesterday I was awed once again by the resources that are at my fingertips thanks to the two library systems to which I have access. During an idle moment at work, I was browsing on the Graywolf Press website. Prominently displayed there is a write-up about Charles Baxter's soon-to-be released The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. I was already aware of this book and I'm keen to get my hands on a copy. But somehow, until I read the write-up on the website, I hadn't known that Baxter had written an earlier collection of essays on writing, also published by Graywolf, titled Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. I checked the online catalogue of my university library to see if they had a copy of the earlier collection, to tide me over until the new one comes out. Indeed they did and, alongside it, an anthology of essays by various writers co-edited by Baxter titled Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Later in the afternoon, when I left for home, I stopped in at the library en route to the bus stop and checked out both.
I dipped into Bringing the Devil to His Knees first. I have a long commute—a bus, two subway lines, and a streetcar—so I made reasonable headway in the book along the way. By the time I reached the streetcar portion of my journey, I'd begun Jim Shepard's essay on what he refers to as "the tyranny of the epiphany in the short story." I was intrigued by Shepard's essay, but it soon became apparent that the bulk of it was given over to a detailed reading of Robert Stone's "Helping," a short story that I hadn't yet read. Better to put it aside, I thought, until I could read the story for myself first. I closed the book and got off at my stop which is right in front of my local branch of the public library. (Very convenient, is it not, that my daily commute is bracketed by libraries?)
It's a small branch with a small collection. The library staff invariably manages to get whatever books I want shipped to me there from other branches with good cheer and astonishing efficiency. But there's no guarantee of finding any particular book sitting on the shelf, so I had no reason to suppose that I would find Robert Stone's stories there. Still, it was worth checking. Lo and behold, there it was: Robert Stone's Bear and His Daughter. Perhaps I should have bought a lottery ticket right there and then. Instead, I gleefully carried my bounty of books straight home and read "Helping" twice. It truly is a brilliant story and it demanded immediate rereading. Then I returned to Jim Shepard's essay and read it all the way through better equipped now to savour his insights.
What's the point of this post, apart from singing the praises of my beloved libraries? If you haven't yet read Robert Stone's "Helping," I highly recommend it. A few months ago the Literate Kitten posted a list of short stories that she and her readers deem must-reads. Add "Helping" to that list. Then read Jim Shepard's essay on it to add more layers to your appreciation of the story. Me, I'm looking forward to reading more of Stone's stories, and to reading the rest of the essays in Bringing the Devil to His Knees, and, of course, to reading Charles Baxter's two books on writing, the search for which initiated my latest library odyssey.