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The Touching That Lasts

January 8, 2007

Next week, we’ll talk about Marsha and Lawrence Brady’s calligraphic art now showing at the library. Right now, I want to talk about another kind of expert writing.

I just finished reading Kent Nelson’s new book, “The touching that lasts.” I’m so impressed that I don’t know where to begin … but I will.

The book is a collection of fourteen stories without a false note anywhere. One must dig deeply to produce even the slightest authorial conceit. I laughed when I read of a suburban development named Dutch Elm Village and assumed it was a purposeful smirk by the author, but now I don’t know. It’s so true.

These stories read as if they have no author. This is proof of an expert hand. It is very difficult to do. It requires wisdom and self-effacing purpose. This accomplishment puts Kent Nelson in the class of the best Chinese artisans whose work is recognized but whose names are unknown, because they never signed their work.

Yes, the book cover says “Stories by Kent Nelson,” but nevertheless. I remember reading “Eventide” by Kent Haruf with the same appreciation. I remember noticing a single flat note — no, a sharp — in the repeating of an excellent but nowadays rare word, “outsized.” I’d thought, “Why didn’t someone notice that?”

As I read into “The touching that lasts,” I became aware that I had not noticed yet a single defect, and so I became hyper-aware. If you know that Kent Nelson is an expert bird-watcher, for example, then you might expect to find some padding where birds enter the stories. But no. Their appearances are perfect.

In many great works of art, the genius is in the seeing rather than the telling. Most of the work happens before the story is written or the painting is painted. I know that a tremendous amount of work went into producing each perfect, final version of these stories, but the core of the art was perfected in a lifetime of observing and understanding … perhaps, of living.

Kent Nelson has also had a lifetime of perfecting the writing craft. I read a quote that is pertinent to Kent’s accomplishments. It appears in the book “Style: lessons in clarity and grace,” by Joseph Williams, and is from Nietzsche: “It takes less time to learn to write nobly than to learn to write lightly and straightforwardly.” Kent has written and published a large body of work, and the skills he has honed are wielded here to impressive effect.

I can’t bring myself to discuss the stories in any detail. It would be unfair to taint or dilute your reading of them. They are wide-ranging in place and circumstances, and in main characters. There are first-person stories with both male and female narrators.

Something someone said had me expecting the stories to be bleak. The book jacket describes them as “heartbreaking.” I think that misses the point. Of course there is some sadness, but mostly it is the sadness of change. Kent’s stories are clean and clear, but a reader can bring much to the emotions in them. Some of them are truly hopeful.

Another quote from the book “Style: “But clarity and brevity, though a good beginning, are only a beginning. By themselves, they remain bare and bleak. When Calvin Coolidge, asked by his wife what the preacher had preached on, replied, “Sin,” and, asked what the preacher had said, replied, “He was against it,” he was brief enough. But one hardly envies Mrs. Coolidge.”

I envy anyone just starting “The touching that lasts.”


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