Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


What Now? By Ann Patchett




(Highly Recommended)




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Ann Patchett’s latest book, What Now? is based on the 2006 commencement address she gave at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. The title is one of life’s perfect questions: applicable to everyone at every age. No matter what commencement addresses you’ve heard over the years, chances are this one will make your top five or ten. What I found fascinating is that it almost didn’t happen. Patchett gave a copy of her planned address to her former writing teacher, Allan Gurganus, days before she was to deliver it. His advice: start over. Instead of avoiding the references to her own life, make that the core of the address. The result is superb. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 60-67:


Receiving an education is a little bit like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it's in you but it takes awhile to digest. I had come to college from twelve years of Catholic girls' school. At the time I thought that mine was the most ridiculous, antiquated second­ary education in history. We marched in lines and met the meticulous regulations of the uniform code with cheerful submission. We bowed and kneeled and prayed. I held open doors and learned how to write a sincere thank-you note and when I was asked to go and fetch a cup of coffee from the kitchen for one of the nuns I fairly blushed at the honor of being chosen. I learned modesty, humility, and how to make a decent white sauce. The white sauce I probably could have done with­out, but it turns out that modesty and humil­ity mean a lot when you're down on your luck. They went a long way in helping me be a wait­ress when what I wanted to be was a writer. It turns out those early years of my education which had seemed to me such a waste of time had given me a nearly magical ability to dis­appear into a crowd. This was not the kind of thing one learned at Sarah Lawrence or the Iowa Writers' Workshop, places that told everyone who came through the door just how special they are. I'm not knocking being special, it was nice to hear, but when it was clear that I was just like everybody else, I was glad to have had some experience with anonymity to fall back on. The nuns were not much on extolling the virtues of leadership. In fact, we were taught to follow. When told to line up at the door, the person who got there first was inevitably pulled from her spot and sent to the back and the person from the back was sent up front to take her place. The idea was that we should not accidentally wind up with too grand an opinion of ourselves, and frankly I regard this as sound counsel. In a world that is flooded with children's leader­ship camps and grown-up leadership semi­nars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following. Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it's one that you'll actually get to use on a daily basis. It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we're being prepared for. No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position. You're busy and so you ask somebody else to bring the water to table four. Someone else is busy and so you ask someone to clear the dirty plates from table twelve. You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help. It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren't really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups—you're ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody's ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It's what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.

It wasn't until I found myself relying on my fellow waitress Regina to heat up my fudge sauce for me that I knew enough to be grateful not only for the help she was giving me but for the education that had prepared me to accept it.

Patchett is a fine writer, and as shown in the excerpt, she offers wonderful prose in What Now?


Steve Hopkins, May 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2008 issue of Executive Times


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