On the Record

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a character named Sixo remarks of his lover, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” A similar sentiment occurs to me whenever I read a book that really resonates with my own thoughts on life, the universe, and everything. Usually books of this nature are memoirs or collections of essays, and usually my response to these books is, “Yes! Exactly!” In short, when I read such books, I feel as if I’ve truly met a friend of my mind–a friend who can put into words what, in one way or another, I’ve gathered or otherwise intimated about the issues that matter to me. Some examples of such books include Kurt Vonnegut’s Wampters, Foma, and Granfalloons and Palm Sunday, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, and Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (except for his thoughts on country music). This list is now joined by Martin Shepard’s On the Record.

That my mind finds such a friend in On the Record is not surprising. Shepard’s outlook, outlined in this volume in a style reminiscent of free-form jazz, is informed by the same humanist tradition that informs the work of many of my favorite authors. Indeed, at the heart of On the Record is a sense that, as humans, we are required to treat each other with respect and dignity–and that, in this same vein, we should also challenge ourselves to lead the lives for which we’re best suited. This isn’t, of course, to say that On the Record is a self-help volume at all; throughout the book, Shepard admits to a general distrust of anyone claiming to be a guru or to have all of the answers for anybody. What he does, however, is allow the details of his own biography to exemplify a life well lived.

The key to personal fulfillment, it turns out, is not to look to an outside code or prescription (e.g., the so-called American dream that keeps us chasing our tails in the eternal, vertiginous pursuit of more) for a definition of success. Rather, we need to define success on our own terms. At the same time, however, we need to recognize that we’re all part of a larger global community. As Shepard notes, “We are all citizens of planet Earth, and this should be our basic allegiance, for our fates are interdependent.” Though this attitude may appear somewhat “touchy-feely” at first glance, it’s ultimately the most pragmatic advice anyone can give, particularly in light of the precarious situation in which our species finds itself as a result of a century or more of selfish living. For the sheer sake of survival, the human race needs to become acquainted with the notion that none of us operates within a vacuum, that we all lead interconnected lives, that our actions (surprising as it may be) have consequences.

Buoying On the Record is the reality that the consequences of our actions can actually be positive and that even the best-laid plans can always use a little push from the serendipitous forces of the universe. In other words, people can do good in the world, especially when they’re open to fate dealing them the occasional good hand. For Shepard, this openness has led to a firm and fruitful relationship with his wife, a strong sense of connection to a handful of friends (or, more generously, soul mates), and the creation of his enduring contribution to the literary world, The Permanent Press publishing company.

Ultimately, On the Record amounts to an exhortation for us to go out and live our lives in a way that is self-motivated without being selfish, and responsible without being beholden to an external code. We should be “good” citizens because we want to be, not because someone told us to, and we should strive to be our best because each of us only gets one life. Though it may be a message we’ve heard before, it’s about time we start listening.

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