15 Books: My Mentor

The cover of Alec Wilkinson's touching book
William Maxwell on the cover of Wilkinson's memoir.

Sorry for the once-again abrupt halt in activity, just as I was getting going. There was a death in the family that sent things haywire for a while, and that’s all I say.

Now, back to 15 Books after the jump, with an entry I read three years back and have not been able to shake since.

A couple months ago, I gave in to a Facebook meme wherein I was asked to list 15 books that have stuck with me in some way, shape or form, without regard to how having those books on your list will make you look.

Here I present to you my 15 Books, one per day, with a little bit of accompanying commentary.

14: My Mentor: A Young Writer’s Friendship with William Maxwell

With this memoir chronicling his apprenticeship and friendship with his father’s best friend (who also happens to be The New Yorker‘s greatest fiction editor), Alec Wilkinson moved me to tears. The first two thirds of the book give us the story of Wilkinson’s decades-spanning friendship with William Maxwell, peppered with anecdotes about Maxwell’s own life. The final third covers in excruciating detail a single week that began with the death of Maxwell’s wife, and ended with the death of Maxwell himself.

This is one of the most elegantly, powerfully written books I’ve read in years. Every word and every sentence flows, every paragraph hits its mark. Wilkinson’s voice is so calm, so warm, so fatherly that at moments you can’t help but experience pangs of the same affection that he felt for his mentor. And perhaps it’s because I read it on a plane after sitting in a hospital room and watching a loved one die in front of me, but I needed to put the book down every several paragraphs in the final third.

In a world saturated with books that offer advice on writing, Wilkinson’s book about his own writing coach displays an approach few other writers are likely capable of: Just tell a story, and tell it well enough that people who want to learn the craft can glean from it with ease. A fine example of a moving story well-told.

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