Yesterday morning I lost a friend who didn’t really care much for what I do. He knew me from an earlier life where I ran a bookstore. When I had that job he was absolutely fascinated by my work. But when I closed that bookstore and I went to work for a publisher, he seemed disinterested in my new occupation.
My friend’s name is John Buck and he taught. He taught like few others. I know this not because I ever attended one of his classes, but because every Friday for almost ten years, John held his office hours in our bookstore. There I would watch him scan the shelves for bits of books he’d show his students to illustrate a point, or to show the painting the poem alluded to, or the line in the play that the poet re-worked. He read out loud, in a strong and articulate voice, practically singing the words—caressing consonants and with vibrato vowels. He didn’t recite, he performed literature, and his love of language was infectious. He turned struggling students into motivated listeners and thinkers, and he showed them how life and energy could spring from paper and ink.
John was not only generous with his students; he was also generous toward his booksellers, and not just by buying books. We loved having John at the store, but he didn't assume his mere presence was enough. He never came empty-handed on a Friday; instead he’d bring us all pastries, or fine cheeses, occasionally a cake, or sometimes even a six-pack. He claimed it was his rent. But it wasn’t necessary. The pleasure really was ours. He personified the love of literature and reminded us weekly why it was we struggled to keep that bookstore open.
For over thirty years John taught. And while I never registered for one of his classes, I hope I was a good student. I learned a lot from you, my friend. Now cracks a noble heart. I'm thinking today of the time you shouted at the radio on the morning we heard of the death of Andre Dubus, "Goddamn you, Death! You are an asshole."
You can read more about Professor John Buck in this profile of him published almost 20 years ago, back when I first met him.