Gratitude and goodbyes

Our connected world can be bittersweet, with daily reminders of time passing, momentous occasions celebrated, vacations spent, meals enjoyed, companions met and partings taken. This past month, I lost a beloved teacher, Alan Cheuse. Here I want to pay a small tribute to his spirit and life’s work.

You may not have taken note, but if you’re an NPR listener, you have heard Alan Cheuse’s soft, intense voice offering book reviews, almost breathlessly sifting through the best prose plucked straight from literary and popular presses. For more than 25 years, Cheuse contributed literary reviews, commentaries, and profiles to “All Things Considered.” Nobody could wrap up a two minute critical piece as tightly and passionately as Alan. A writer, prolific reader, thoughtful critic, dedicated teacher, and generous mentor, Alan died, from injuries sustained in a car accident, on July 31.

Several years ago, I reconnected with Alan online via social media. We hadn’t spoken for 30 plus years. He asked, “What are you working on these days?” and time melted away.

From his obituary in The New York Times: “‘Live as much as you can, read as much as you can, and write as much as you can,’ Mr. Cheuse taught would-be authors. He practiced what he professed.” I met Alan as a college freshman. Together we read Gilgamesh, Homer, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertude Stein, John Gardner… myth and language, archetypes and dream symbologies, metaphor and simile. I learned to look beneath simple tales for universal meaning and experiences, to recognize and build the arc of a story (stories have shapes!), and to revel in the glory of language.

“It’s OK to write. Find your story and tell it.” I still hear his words of encouragement. Nowdays when I need inspiration, I dust off and polish Alan’s persuasions like treasure from those youthful days.

I asked Mr. Cheuse recently if I sounded too much like a librarian in one of our online conversations. We were talking about the end of the “Mad Men” series on television and, of course, he shared some reading recommendations. I’d been burbling about how my job involved technology as much as literature, and how libraries were reaching out to build reading and thinking communities online, as well as at our physical locations. “Not at all, more like an astronaut. Hope you have the e-text copies of my books in your electronic stacks…” was the signoff.

As sad as his passing is, I am just one of many students and listeners who feel the lingering presence and carry knowledge, inspiration and a bit of Alan in my heart. You can read two recent Cheuse novels from our collection and find a sampler of Alan Cheuse’s critical pieces on NPR.

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