Shelf Life

February 16, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Sarah M. Wells

Today, I began a book a writer friend of mine wrote over a decade ago (he published it 12 years ago, so probably it was written even more years earlier). I bought it in 2012 at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, where we met (I think for the first time?) and walked with Brian Doyle past tennis courts along thinly shaded asphalt paths in search of the auditorium. We took the long way (we were lost).

I have been meaning to read Quotidiana by Patrick Madden ever since, but it’s sat on my shelf, sandwiched between Mackall and Mairs, its spine uncracked, its pages still pressed together. Other books have been read and finished in the decade since I bought this, probably hundreds of books, even, but yesterday, when I finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers that reaches far into the universe and deep within the inner world of the mind, I wanted something else. Something nonfiction. Something meandering and pondering and humble.

Yes! Essays! That is what this mood demands. The higher priority to-read books that blink hopefully from their stack just to the left of my laptop are all nonfiction, but only two are essays, and one is Quotidiana. Perhaps it’s time for Quotidiana, I told myself.

Call it intuition, luck, serendipity, or the prejudiced eye of the mind’s hankering, but I think some books find us when we most need them. The spirit in a book might be quiet for a while, maybe years, maybe longer, before the spirit within us hears its beckoning.

What did I say? It’s been 12 years since Madden published Quotidiana, and I’ve owned it for a decade, yet today, the day when I’ve felt low and moody about writing anything worthwhile ever again, when I’ve spent days thinking I have nothing to say that is important, I’m reminded of the mundane, the quotidian, how much I love the essay’s humble hunt for meaning amidst the minor messes of our lives, the essayist’s meandering stroll through thoughts the way Patrick and Brian and I meandered our way around a college campus with no idea where we were going, knowing we’d know our destination well enough when we arrived, but even if we never arrived, the walk was enough.

I only pulled myself away from Patrick’s first few pages to write this, and then I think I’ll go back to it, because not only did I need the familiar “I” of the essayist to remind me how much I love to write like I think and think as I write, but I also needed to be reminded of shelf life.

My own essay collection / memoir has been out for almost two months. Why haven’t you all read it yet?! My book is forever before me in my mind. Who is reading it? When will they tell me about what they thought? Will they review it? Do they hate it and are embarrassed to say so? Are they avoiding reviewing it because they can’t be honest? Aren’t they ever and always thinking about my life and the story I decided to share, the way I am always and ever thinking about my life and the story I decided to share?

No, no they are not, silly girl. They are doing what you have done with hundreds of other books. If they bought it, they shelved it with the good intention of reading it someday, and promptly moved on to unload the dishwasher or enter the wi-fi password for one of their children’s friends. Even more likely they haven’t bought it at all, but maybe someday they will.

A book is not like a blog post, or a magazine article, or even an essay you published once in a journal. A book has shelf life. Its shelf life might be short, or maybe it will latch onto the coattails of time and ride along into other generation’s hands. Maybe its shelf life will be a decade. Maybe it will make it fifty years. Maybe it will find its way into a library where someone stumbles upon it and it calls to them. Or maybe its life on this shelf is for this moment.

The point is, you can only do what you can do to get the word about your book into the world. You can only show up, bring the self you put on the page, mention that you have a book, and hope it lands on their front porch in a brown package. From there, it’s up to the spirit that dictates which books one will read next. From there, it’s in the hands of the reader to discern when it’s time to read.

And once you’ve done all that showing up and being yourself and mentioning your book in the most humbly egotistical way possible, go back to the place you began. Keep writing your way into and out of your mind’s eye, forgetting how much you want to say something important and remembering instead that the most important things leak out of strange, mundane places, like cups of tea, or sweet potatoes, or cool spring walks with other writers in Grand Rapids. You never know, you never know until you show up, until you begin where you began, again.


Sarah M. Wells is the author of five books, most recently a memoir-in-essays, American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation. She is a freelance marketing content writer and also writes regularly for Root & Vine News and God Hears Her, a blog from Our Daily Bread. She lives in Ashland, Ohio, with her husband, a dozen fish, three children, two westies, and one bearded dragon named Joey.

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§ 8 Responses to Shelf Life

  • Peggy says:

    What a wonderful and timely reminder, as I was recently feeling a sense of guilt at the books by a couple friends that I have yet to read. Not to mention something to keep in mind when my own book eventually finds its way into the world (and on the shelves of my friends).

    I also love the remembrance about Brian Doyle.

  • dkzody says:

    There are layers of truth in your post. Books do have long life. A story told now may not resonate for years. That’s okay. Never stop writing.

  • Sara, I love this so much. Thank you for the reminder that in this fast-paced world, our books arrive for our readers when it’s time.

  • Reblogged this on Iris Graville – Author and commented:
    Today’s Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog post, “Shelf Life” by Sarah Marie Wells, touched me on many levels. First was her mention of attending the Festival of Faith and Writing a decade ago (I went in 2016). Wells wrote about meeting Brian Doyle (one of my favorite essayists) there. But the heart of the essay begins with her confession about buying Quotidiana by Patrick Madden at that festival and just starting to read it—this week!

    Wells says Madden is a friend of hers, and I suspect he doesn’t take offense at Wells’s admission. I recently received similar news from a friend who had just finished reading my 2017 memoir, Hiking Naked. If Madden’s like me, he’ll be delighted to know someone read his book, especially when reader/author Wells suggests books have “shelf life.” A life that we authors can’t control. As I await the March 22 release of my forthcoming book, Writer in a Life Vest, I especially appreciate this reminder from Wells:

    “The point is, you can only do what you can do to get the word about your book into the world. You can only show up, bring the self you put on the page, mention that you have a book, and hope it lands on their front porch in a brown package.”

    And for us readers, it’s worth looking at our shelves now and then; there’s probably a title there ready to come to life for us. And when it does, we shouldn’t hesitate to let the author know.

  • […] Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog post, “Shelf Life” by Sarah Marie Wells, touched me on many levels. First was her mention of […]

  • Sue Ferrera says:

    Sarah, I love this post, can truly relate as my book was published just a few months ago as well. Thanks for sharing these great thoughts and considerations!

  • I finally made it to Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing in 2018. What a treasure to meet so great writers. Also my alma mater.

  • Lisa Rizzo says:

    Thank you, thank you for this. We writers need to remember this.

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