05/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Doing Things Badly

Some of our best writers are masters of the paradox, of taking conventional wisdom and showing us how illogical, inconsistent, and how often absurd is such wisdom.

For example, when G.K. Chesterton wrote that, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly" I think he was worried about the tendency of modern people to pay good money to see other people do for us what we ordinarily enjoy doing for ourselves. He was thinking about things like singing, dancing, making love, and playing games. It is paradoxical that we make millionaires out of ballplayers because they can do very well a thing that we love -- or used to love -- doing ourselves, however badly. Similar things can be said about singers, dancers and porn stars. Why in the world do we pay enormous amounts of money to hire out our singing and dancing and love making when we can have so much more fun by doing it ourselves?

Wendell Berry -- the farmer-writer-poet-activist from rural Kentucky -- reported a parallel paradox in his fine book What are People For? Here, he writes about small town schools and the often explicit message they give students to "make something of themselves" by blowing out of the old home town as fast as they can to discover the real world of big cities, big jobs, and big money. The implicit message is that they won't really amount to much, or become really real, if they invest their futures in the place where they are born. Paradoxically, we ride our kids out of town on an attitudinal rail while simultaneously spending fortunes to attract businesses, tourists, retirees and any old Yankee with fifty cents in his pockets.

Michael Saara's novel about the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, has a character named Fremantle who notes that "Southerners are the most polite people I have ever met, yet they carry guns and knifes wherever they go, and all the time." This is not by itself paradoxical. We know that literature about the heavily armed -- medieval knights, cowboys, and Japanese Samurai -- is also notable for the elaborate rituals of courtesy and politeness contained therein. In Lonesome Dove, for instance, Gus McCrae hangs his friend Jake Spoon, but with an apology:

"I'm sorry it's us, Jake," Gus said. "I wish it was someone else."

"Hell, don't worry about it, boys," Jake said. "I'd a damn sight rather be hung by my friends than by a bunch of strangers."

The paradox here is that the population of the United States is heavily armed -- but with the exception of the French, is also possibly the rudest society on earth, however courtly are our literary exemplars. For all our armaments, we Americans are hardly occupied with pleasantries such as "excuse me" or "I'm sorry."

This is probably because our many gun control laws are laws in name only, unless one takes aim at an employee of the Federal government. Here the laws are very specific and enforced with vigor. It is possible if not probable that you could shoot your neighbor dead and get off with a wrist slap. On the other hand, to so much as wing an egg inspector from the Department of Agriculture invites eternal visitation by all the furies of hell. As the marvelous novelist and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, "When we outlaw guns only the government will have guns."

One thing worth doing badly -- and doing well -- is the writing of a book. I am always delighted when a self-published writer comes into the shop and (almost always sheepishly) says, "I've written a book and I wonder if you would like to sell it for me?"

Of course, and absolutely.

It is every bookseller's pleasure -- and our obligation -- to support, to nurture, and to help find an audience for the independent voice that will not be stilled by market forces, publishing companies, critics, or inhibition. These are writers who are to be honored for doing for themselves what we should not always hire out: singing, dancing, making love, playing games -- and writing books.