Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Doctors who write

Amit Majmudar
Amit Majmudar of Dublin, Ohio, was among the featured authors at the 2014 Ohioana Book Festival, where he participated in one of the panel discussions I attended. The following year he was named Ohio's poet laureate. Besides poetry, he has also written novels, including The Abundance, and a number of published articles and short stories. Most of the time, however, this writer is referred to as Dr. Majmudar, for he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.

Both a medical career and a writing career require a great deal of devotion, not to mention time and talent. Yet  Majmudar is hardly the only doctor to also become a successful writer. Nicholas A. Basbanes mentions a number of them in his book Every Book Its Reader.  Some may surprise you. John Keats became a licensed surgeon before turning his full attention to poetry. Anton Chekhov once called medicine his "legal wife," while referring to writing as his mistress, Today his medical practice is all but forgotten. His patients are all dead, while his short stories and plays live on.

Other writing doctors mentioned by Basbanes include John Locke, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mikhail Bulgakov, W. Somerset Maugham and, more recently, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Michael Crichton and Ethan Canin.

Some doctors turned writers were not particularly successful doctors. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of these. He had few patients, which gave him plenty of time to write. Soon writing proved much more profitable than medicine.

Basbanes doesn't even mention A.J. Cronin, who had a thriving medical practice in London before developing an ulcer. His own doctor advised rest, and it was during his time off that he wrote a novel, which became a bestseller. He preferred writing, which was also less stressful, and he soon gave up medicine.

Other doctors who became famous as writers include William Carlos Williams, Robin Cook, Walker Percy, Khaled Hosseini, Abraham Verghese, Tess Gerritsen and dozens of others whose names are less recognizable. Gertrude Stein dropped out of medical school or she could be added to the list.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that highly intelligent people should be able to succeed in more than one arena. Yet somehow it just doesn't seem fair.

Monday, October 16, 2017

What to name the carpet

Finding myself waiting in a carpet store recently, I killed time looking at carpet samples. It is a huge store, but I stood in one spot for several minutes and examined scores of little squares, each different even if only marginally so. What struck me were their names.

Some of these names were suggestive of color or pattern: Graham Cracker, Pecan, Oat Meal, Speckled Doe, Aspen, Morning Tea, Wheat Field, Georgia Clay and Rawhide, for example. Others gave no clue at all as to what the carpet might look like: Delicate, Bird's Nest, Jet Set, Cannon, Wishing Well, Leather Strap, Kitten Whisper, Bride to Be, Fossil, Moose Antler, Angel Wings, Caviar, Swap, Poem, Bashful, Tahiti, Birdhouse, Fence Post, Sea Bean, Vigor.

Perhaps most curious of all were those with names like Vintage, Traditional and Natural. These names suggest there should be something familiar about them. Yet the patterns, frankly, were hardly distinguishable from those next to them.

Most of the names could have been assigned randomly, and perhaps they were. How, I wondered, do carpets get their names? Whose job is it to select an original name for each new carpet pattern? And how do manufacturers and dealers keep them all straight? Numbers, of course. Each carpet pattern has a number for official use, but names like Kitten Whisper and Georgia Clay are more likely to please the customer. Wouldn't you rather walk on Angel Wings than GR3877614?

Paint manufacturers must face the same difficulty. How does one find the right name for each shade of blue or brown? A quick web search turned up, from just one manufacturer, Linen Pink, Southern Belle Pink, Peppermint Pink, Terra Cotta Pink, Shell Pink, Italian Pink and Zephyr Pink. None of these should be confused with Dixie Dawn or Cameo Rose, both of which look pink to me.

Whosever job it is to think up these names, I'm glad it isn't mine. I recall the great difficulty my wife and I had finding the perfect name for our baby all those years ago. That's not the reason we stopped at just one child, but it would have sufficed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

More on reporters

Stanley Walker (1898-1962) was born and raised in Texas, but he made his name as a New York City newspaperman, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune for many years. He was also the author of City Editor, a best-selling book about the newspaper business published in 1934. Much of what he says about newspaper reporters, as I noted last time, is still interesting, and much of it is still relevant. Here are some more examples:

The job of reporter has heartwarming compensations. Sometimes it pays a living wage. Sometimes it is "a stepping stone to better things." Again it is a satisfying career in itself.

Employees in any field often get promoted "to the level of their incompetence," as the Peter Principle states, and this is especially true of reporters. Editors of all sorts normally get promoted out of the reporting ranks, but good reporters don't necessarily make good editors. A higher salary, rather than a promotion (with a higher salary) might be a better way to reward outstanding reporters. Some reporters never get promoted, and they may like it this way for, as Walker states, it can be "a satisfying career" with "heartwarming compensations."

No business on earth calls for more thought, or, to the pious, prayer.

This seems like a stretch to me, for surely there are many other businesses that stir one to both deep thought and prayer. Still Walker has a point. Reporting the news requires a commitment to truth and objectivity, as well as an appreciation that the stories one writes directly impact the lives of real people. The difficulty for reporters has always been that newspaper deadlines allow little time for either thought or prayer.

Women, wampum and wrongdoing are always news.

In other words, sex, money and sin. No argument there.

Of the four who wrote of Jesus, John was the only one who showed signs of being a lively, inquisitive reporter. He wanted to know things, and he asked about them.

I would compare John more to an op-ed columnist. Matthew, Mark and Luke reported the news, or the Good News, while John added insightful commentary.

There have been heartbreaking instances of this metamorphosis from plain reporter to hoity-toity specialist.... Somehow, however, the news is handled, usually by working reporters who take all news in their stride and do not fancy themselves pampered specialists.

Walker's strong feelings about beat reporters are hard for me to understand, for I was a reporter at a time when most reporters were specialists. I was the city hall reporter, and it was my job to cultivate  sources there in the city building and to know anything of importance that might be going on. I spent part of every morning and every afternoon talking with those who worked in that building. This would be impossible for a general assignment reporter to do, if that reporter also had to know everything going on in the county courthouse, the police department, etc. Yet in recent years, because of severe budget cuts and reporter layoffs, many newspapers have eliminated beats. Those few reporters they have are responsible for everything. Somehow I doubt Walker would have been any more pleased with this development than I am.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An ode to reporters

Stanley Walker
Although rarely read today, Stanley Walker's City Editor, published in 1934, was once a popular source of information about newspapers, especially New York City newspapers. The copy I found at a used book sale a few years ago was part of the 13th printing, published in 1938. I was drawn to the book not just because my own career was devoted to newspaper journalism but also because of the name of the previous owner inside the front cover: "Virgil A. Stanfield, Sept. 1938."

Stanfield, or Stan as he was known informally, was associate editor of The News Journal in Mansfield, Ohio, when I was hired as a reporter in 1968. That was mostly an honorary title, for Stan, once the managing editor, by then had little to do with the day-to-day management of the newsroom. He distributed the mail and wrote an occasional editorial, but mainly he wrote a column and a Sunday piece about local history. He officially retired at some point, and I can remember his retirement party, but he kept his desk at the paper and wrote his history column right up until his death. He used an old Royal typewriter after staff members had moved on to electric typewriters and then to computers. He showed up for work more regularly than most of us who were paid to be there and had an opinion on everything, which he was willing to share with anyone who stopped by his desk.

I have started reading Walker's book, and although it describes a world barely recognizable today, I find much of it fascinating. Of particular interest is what he says about reporters. Although I was a reporter for only a few years at the start of my career, I was surprised at my own retirement party that most of the comments made about me had to do with my performance as a reporter, not with anything I did in the later stages of my career. This may suggest that reporting, more than any other part of the business, is central to newspapers. The editors, printers, ad reps, circulation staff and everyone else just serve supporting roles. And for all the changes in technology over the decades, the job has changed relatively little.

Most of what Walker says about reporters comes in a chapter called "Notes on a Noble Calling," which sums up nicely how he feels about them. He disputes the notion, fed by movies, that reporters are a hard-drinking, disreputable bunch of characters who will do anything for a story. He writes that if reporters from any newspaper were placed at the same dinner table as "the board of governors of the Racquet and Tennis Club" the contrast would favor the reporters. The others, he says, would be "lacking a certain urbanity and zip."

I don't know that this would be true with all reporters and all boards of governors. Reporters, in my experience, are as varied as other segments of the populations. Some are introverts who, though they might be terrific at their jobs, show little zip in dinner conversation. Some are slobs, while others are as sharply dressed as anyone you'll meet. I worked with two reporters, a man and a woman, who every day looked like models for GQ or Vogue. I rarely saw the woman wear the same outfit twice, and she wore heels even when covering crimes and traffic accidents in snowstorms. The young man always wore a nicely tailored suit and tie, even after other reporters were celebrating casual Friday five days a week.

Yet however they look and whatever their personalities, reporters keep their jobs because of their intelligence and their commitment to truth. So maybe they really would outshine any board of governors.

I'll share more about what Stanley Walker says about reporters in may next post.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Freud the fraud

It is this passion for the sharp edges of truth that makes Freud a hero.
Alfred Kazin, "Sigmund Freud, 1856-1956: Portrait of a Hero," Contemporaries

When literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote about The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones in 1956, words like truth and hero were not uncommon when Freud was under discussion. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest men in history.  The decades since, however, have seen an erosion of that reputation as letters and other documents that Jones, a Freud disciple, and Freud's daughter, Anna, tried to keep hidden gradually came to light. Now in 2017 comes Freud: The Making of an Illusion in which Frederick Crews shows that the famed psychoanalyst was anything but a hero and truth was the last thing he was interested in.

This book, less a biography than an expose´,  has little positive to say about Sigmund Freud, which may be its greatest flaw, for it suggests that Crews, like Jones, has an agenda.

Freud attended medical school even though he recoiled at the sight of blood and couldn't stand to touch patients. (Crews shows repeatedly that Freud was more a mental case than any of his later patients who came to him with psychological problems.) So the young doctor turned to research and then to problems of the mind. In whatever he tried, fame and fortune, not the welfare of his patients, were his major goals.

His practice of manufacturing data to fit his thesis in scientific papers began early. As a young doctor he saw cocaine as miracle cure, and he used it himself for much of his life. He wrote a paper about how cocaine cured a patient's addiction to morphine. What he didn't say was that not only didn't the treatment cure the morphine addiction, but it led to addiction to cocaine as well. Nevertheless he continued to suggest cocaine to patients.

Easy answers to difficult problems continued to be Freud's practice. For awhile he regarded every patient's complaint as a symptom of hysteria. Then he decided all his patients were sexually abused as children, probably by their fathers. Later he concluded they had all, since childhood, desired to have sex with their mothers or fathers. He told his own daughter this.

As with his cocaine paper, Freud often fudged his findings. He would write that his conclusions were based on many case studies even when there was just one case, and often that one case was himself. He never had many patients because most patients soon realized they were wasting their money going to him. Besides he was interested only in wealthy patients, and there were relatively few of them. Freud always changed the names of his patients in his books, not to protect them but to protect himself.

Crews says Freud was a Sherlock Holmes fan and that he modeled his case studies on Holmes stories, with himself as the hero, of course.

The author piles on the incriminating evidence against Freud. Will he succeed in destroying his reputation? I doubt it, for the illusion of greatness created by Jones, Anna Freud and Sigmund Freud himself remains strong. Most of what one reads and hears about Freud today continues to be positive. But that reputation is gradually deteriorating, and this book will help it along.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Writing as line dancing

In the real world, writing is more like line dancing, a social function with many partners.
Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools

I don't know why this particular writing tool, of the 50 Roy Peter Clark writes about in his book, surprised me so. After all, like Clark I come from a newspaper background. Newspapers require teamwork. As a reporter I depended on copy editors to catch my mistakes. When I was a copy editor I depended on other copy editors to catch the mistakes I missed and those I made myself, especially in headlines. As an editorial writer I depended on reporters to supply accurate information and an editor to bounce ideas off of. All journalists depend on reliable sources. Yet I had never thought of writing outside the newsroom as "a social function," anything at all like line dancing.

The image we typically have of authors is of people sitting alone at tables or desks transferring their thoughts onto paper or computer screens. What's social about that? Many writers are introverts who don't socialize much anyway, even when they aren't writing. One thing I like about blogging is that it is something I can do by myself, all alone, just me, nobody else. Yet even I must depend on others. This post, for example, owes much to Roy Peter Clark.

Most books published today, fiction as well as nonfiction, have acknowledgement pages where authors mention those who aided them in their project. These are their line-dance partners. Clark's acknowledgements go on for three pages and include a lifetime's worth of supporters, including elementary and high school teachers, people he has worked with at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), fellow writers and journalists who influenced him, his agent, those who worked with him at his publishing house, and many others. He concludes by saying, "Finally, I do believe that writing is a social activity, so thanks go to those closest to me." He then lists various friends and family members, even his dog.

Look at the photograph above. Each individual is dancing alone, yet together with everyone else. So it is with writing and, come to think of it, life itself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Will Eisner, pioneer

Will Eisner was a pioneer in both comic books and graphic novels, but that was only the beginning. He also pioneered the use of comics in education, and he devoted the middle part of his career to writing and drawing instructional booklets and posters for the armed services.

Then, too, Eisner was among the first to see comics as something that could appeal to adults as well as children and teenagers. He had little interest in superheroes, and when a couple of Cleveland teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster offered his company the rights to Superman in 1938, he turned them down. His own most famous character, The Spirit, had no superpowers and wore a hat, glasses and a business suit, not a cape, a mask and tights.

Finally he thought comics could be both art and literature, and he wanted both libraries and bookstores to place his books not among graphic novels but on the same shelves where one might find the works of Tolstoy and Faulkner. Instead of the word comics, because their was nothing comical about his best work, he preferred the term sequential art.

Michael Schumacher covers Eisner's remarkable career in his excellent biography Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics (2010).

Eisner was still in his teens when started his first art studio, and unlike most cartoonists, he proved himself an astute businessman. He hired talented newcomers such as Jules Feiffer and Bob Kane (later to create Batman) to work for him. He worked right up to his death in 2005 when he was in his late eighties. His later years may have been his most productive. Although his wife talked him into leaving his beloved New York City to live in Florida, he did not retire there but produced some of his most ambitious work, often autobiographical. He also became a mentor to younger artists just getting started in the business.

Oddly, Schumacher repeats, almost word for word, the same sentence on page 306 of his book: "With any luck, his books might finally escape the comic ghetto and find their way to the shelves of serious literature." At this point in the biography, that seems like the ideal sentence to repeat for emphasis.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A couple of strays

If you have seen the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation you already know the basic plot outline of Joshua Max Feldman's new novel Start Without Me: A man and woman, who under ordinary circumstances would have little in common, temporarily discover in each other the only person with whom they can communicate and reveal their true selves.

In the movie, the lonely pair are stuck in Japan, relieved to find another American to talk with. In the book, the two people meet on Thanksgiving, which in its own way can produce loneliness in some people.

Adam was once a promising musician whose career was cut short by alcoholism, which also contributed to his strained relationship with his family. Now recovering, he returns East to spend the holiday with relatives. It does not go well, and within hours he flees into the cold, not sure what he will do next.

At the airport he meets Marissa, a flight attendant with problems of her own. She is on her way to spend Thanksgiving with her husband and his family. But she has been unfaithful with an old boyfriend and has just learned she is pregnant. She doesn't want to get an abortion, but her husband is black and the boyfriend is white. To add to her stress, her father-in-law has political ambitions and has had a private investigator tailing her, so he already knows about the boyfriend. When she visits her mother, herself an alcoholic, the situation proves even worse than what she encounters at the home of her in-laws

Adam and Marissa spend most of the day together, revealing to each other both the best and worst truths about themselves. Feldman manages to make it believable that, no matter how many times the two part, they always somehow come together again. He describes them as "a couple of strays." They are two people loose with nowhere to go on a day when everybody is supposed to be somewhere.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tools not rules

So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Writing in Reading as a Writer, Francine Prose says she taught creative writing classes using rules until she realized the best writers broke those same rules on their way to creating masterpieces. Anton Chekhov's classic short story "The Lady with the Dog" is famous for breaking rules.

Another writing teacher, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, puts the focus not on rules but rather on tools. His valuable guidebook for writers of all kinds, amateurs and professionals alike, is Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, published in 2006. The word essential in the subtitle is unfortunate, for it implies something mandatory, and thus a rule. A tool, on the other hand, is something that may be useful sometimes, but not always. A handyman doesn't necessarily use both a hammer and a screwdriver on every project.

In St. Petersburg I once heard Clark speak on the subject of writing, and he spoke at length on a six-word sentence written by William Shakespeare in Macbeth and discussed early in this book: "The Queen, my lord, is dead." He noted that Shakespeare might have ordered the same six words differently, "The Queen is dead, my lord" or "My lord, the Queen is dead." So what makes Shakespeare's order the best one? Because it places the subject of the sentence near the front, where it usually works best in a clear sentence, and saves the key word, dead, for the end, where it will have the most impact.

Roy Peter Clark
"Order words for emphasis" is the second tool in Clark's toolbox. Others include "Activate your verbs" (but notice Shakespeare chose a passive verb for his sentence), "Fear not the long sentence," "Vary the length of paragraphs," "Work from a plan" and "Learn from your critics."

Clark advises against reading his book in one sitting, although it may be short enough for some readers to accomplish this. A carpenter in training cannot master all the tools in the toolbox at the same time, and neither can a writer in training, and that includes anyone who opens this book. I took his advice and read one chapter a day, but that still may be too quickly to master many of these tools. Many take time both to digest and to implement, such as that one about learning from one's critics. Even the best writers may never master that one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A novel with detours

Michael Frayn's Headlong (1999) turns alternately from comic novel to lively art history and back again. The novel is terrific, except for those repeated interruptions, and perhaps the same could be said for the art history, if art history were one's purpose for reading a novel.

The story concerns a British philosopher, Martin Clay, who with his wife, Kate, flees to the country to work on his book. She has her own project to work on, plus a new baby to occupy her. No sooner do they arrive at their county house than they are invited to dinner by Tony and Laura Churt, who have a motive other than pure neighborliness. Tony wants a free appraisal of some art he claims was given to  him by his deceased mother. He also wants help selling the art for maximum profit without having to pay the commission to someone like Sotheby's.

The Clays don't want to get involved, that is until Martin glimpses what he becomes convinced is a missing Bruegel masterpiece. Never mind that his wife is the art expert, Martin wants to do this on his own. He concocts a plan to acquire the painting for a fraction of its worth and sell it for a fortune. He convinces himself this would not be cheating Tony Churt but rather a public service.

Of course, things get complicated. For one thing, Laura Churt mistakes Martin's interest in the painting for an interest in her. Why else would he keep coming to the house while Tony was away?

Yet the biggest complication turns out to be all that art history that Frayn inserts into the novel. Although this is a work of fiction, the history appears to be true. If so, it is good stuff, at least for anyone with an interest in art history. For those of us just interested in the story about the Clays and the Churts, it proves an annoying detour.

With less history this could have been a first rate comic novel. With less plot it could have been a first rate art history.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Precious objects and holy spaces

But when all is said and done, holding a printed book in my hands can be a sacred experience -- the weight of the paper, the windy sound of pages turning, like a breeze. To me, a printed book is like a cathedral or a library or a beach -- a holy space.
Anne Lamott, By the Book, edited by Pamela Paul

Anne Lamott
In the same book, E.L. Doctorow refers to paper books as "precious objects." Doctorow and Anne Lamott are authors, so of course they love books, yet clearly this feeling that books are holy spaces or precious objects goes far beyond those whose livelihoods depend on them.

A recent post on Jane Friedman's blog, ( reports that sales of paper books went up again during the first half of 2017, 2.6 percent over the same period in 2016. Meanwhile ebooks have "lost about $1 billion of their value as a format for traditional publishers since 2013." Since that year ebook sales have been in decline, even though many of us during that same period have been fearing that traditional books will disappear from the scene, obsolete in an age when virtually everyone carries an electronic object in their hands capable of downloading almost any book anyone might want to read.
E.L. Doctorow

Also in By the Book, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, confesses she prefers paper books to ebooks, even though her career is in the tech industry. "I travel with an iPad, but at home I like holding a book open and being able to leaf through it, highlight with a real yellow pen, and dog-ear important pages," she says. Thus it is the sensory experience of holding a paper book, as well as the almost mystical experience that Lamott and Doctorow speak about, that keeps people buying books they can hold in their hands, when ebooks offer convenience and economy.

All this suggests that books, the old fashioned kind, will be around for awhile yet.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Admiring Woody Allen movies

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall
Not even Woody Allen admires all Woody Allen movies, as we learn from reading Woody Allen: Film by Film by Jason Solomons, an analysis of every movie (up to Irrational Man, 2015) Allen has ever had anything to do with as director, writer or actor, and even documentaries made about him. One thing I like about this book is that while Solomons doesn't admire every Allen film either, he finds something admirable about most of them.

Some people who review films give the impression that, in general, they don't like movies at all. Solomons isn't like this. He loves movies, and Allen movies in particular. Like a parent with a misbehaving child, the offender may disappoint but doesn't alter the love.

Dianne Wiest Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey
with director Woody Allen on the set
 of Hannah and Her Sisters
If anything, Solomons may use too many superlatives, and not just with the widely acknowledged Allen masterpieces like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Hannah and Her Sisters "is about as perfect at Woody Allen gets," he says. Crimes and Misdemeanors is "perhaps the most skillful and soulful picture of his career." He calls Radio Days "one of his funniest." And so on.

I love it that Solomons loves such gems as Radio Days and Alice that get little attention from other critics when they are ranking Allen's best movies. Solomon's doesn't try to rank them. To use the parental analogy again, it would be like ranking one's children.

Allen, now in his 80s, has been making movies since the mid-Sixties at a rate of about one a year. Few of these movies have been box office hits, and few even have been critical favorites, although Allen has had amazing success on Oscar nights, especially in the screenplay and best actress categories. The parts he created have sweetened the careers of many actresses, especially Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino and Cate Blanchett.

Although his best years seemed to be behind him after such box-office flops as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop and Whatever Works early in the new century, Allen surprised his critics with masterful films like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine in his old age. He's still at work, and who can say what other surprises he may have left.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Organized chaos

When we bought a spacious three-bedroom home in the city in the late Seventies, I claimed the unfinished attic for my expanding library. Even with all the stuff that normally accumulates in attics, there would still be plenty of room for lots of shelves and lots of books. Or so I thought at the time. As the decades passed and my books continued to multiply (the result of both my purchases and the fact that publishers sent me a number of books each week for possible review), the available shelf space gradually disappeared. So that led to stacks of books on the floor, stacks that get so high they sometimes topple. See the photograph for a glimpse of a small portion of my library.

To anyone else this looks like clutter. And in fact it is clutter, but to me it is beautiful clutter. I am never more content than when I am reading amid this clutter. The photo shows the view from my reading chair.

As unorganized as my library may appear, there actually is some order to it, and I can usually find the book I am looking for quickly, even if I may have to move stacks of books to reach it. I actually use several different organization systems.

1. Fiction is shelved alphabetically by author.

2. Stacked fiction, mostly novels still unread, also reflects some alphabetical order. The stacks shown in the picture include an F stack (written by authors whose names begin with F), a G stack, an HIJ stack and a JK stack.

3. Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs are shelved in alphabetical order according to their subjects.

4. Other nonfiction is grouped according to subject, more or less. History is here, natural history over there, sports in this corner, show business on that shelf, etc. As books accumulate, this order becomes more and more disorderly.

5. Books are also sorted according to size. Mass market paperbacks are shelved separately from hardcover and trade paperback books, again with the fiction kept apart from the nonfiction. Large books, whatever they happen to be about, are kept on shelves big enough to accommodate large books.

6. Unread nonfiction is kept mostly in stacks behind my reading chair. These stacks lack any order whatsoever, which is not all bad. I never know what treasures I might find when I dig into them.

When we bought a Florida condo a couple of years back, it provided a modest amount of additional book space but also more complication. No matter where I happen to be, I never have access to my entire library. Usually that's not a problem, but sometimes I want a book that happens to be a thousand miles away.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Organizing books

The more books one owns, the more important organization of those books becomes. Also, the more difficult it becomes.

If your personal library consists of just 20 books, or even 50 or 100, there's not much point in sorting them according to author or topic. You will always be able to find the book you are looking for with ease. As libraries expand, however, it becomes necessary to order them in some way, even if it's something as basic as fiction here, nonfiction there.

Hannah Gerson, in an article she wrote for The Millions ( in July, suggests 10 ways to organize a bookshelf: chronologically, by date published; by color; artful piles; by subject/genre; geographically; in order of importance and/or goodness; secretively; alphabetically; randomly and autobiographically.

Most of these suggestions make no sense at all to me. A random organization is really no organization at all. Shelving books according to their publication date would soon become a burden, especially if you happen to own more than an armful of books. Imagine returning from a used book sale with 20 volumes and having to find where on your shelves they belong. And how would you find a particular book you are looking for?

By "secretively," she means placing the spines of the books toward the wall. She says this would make it difficult for anyone to borrow your books. Or it could prompt curious houseguests to take virtually every book off a shelf to see what the "secret" is. And again, how would you find the book you are looking for?

Placing books in "artful piles" or sorting them by color has more to do with decor than books. If that is where your priorities lie, then go to it, but why are you reading book blogs?

Autobiographical shelving, Gerson says, was suggested by a character in Nick Horby's novel High Fidelity. The idea is to order your books in a way that makes sense to you but nobody else. Books you read while you were in college might go on one shelf, books in the early years of your marriage might go on another and those from your child-rearing years on still another. We can often remember when and where we read particular books, so this method may actually work for some people. Not for me, however. There are just too many books, many of them still unread.

Shelving books geographically might also work for some people. If a book is about Africa or is a novel set in Africa, then place it on the African shelf. The trouble is, some books are about several different areas, or no area at all. You could shelve it according to where the author is from, but some books have two authors from two different places. This system just seems too complicated to be practical.

Ordering your books by their quality or importance might be workable, except that it would require a value judgment each time you place a book on a shelf. Ranking 100 books might be fun, but a thousand books or more? And what do you do with those books you have yet to read?

That leaves ordering books by subject or genre, the most sensible of the 10 ideas. Gerson herself says she uses this one, although some books don't seem to fit into any category, so she just stacks them in a miscellaneous pile.

Maybe next time I'll write about my own method of library organization.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Literature both contemporary and historical

As I like to say, all literature is contemporary literature. It is read and preserved by those to whom it continues to speak.
Scott Turow, foreword, By the Book

Scott Turow
These words by Scott Turow, the author of popular legal thrillers, could serve as a definition of literature: stories that speak to every generation. Some stories don't even speak to their own generation. Others speak only to the generation in which they were written but have little to say to later ones. Real literature has staying power. It speaks anew to each succeeding generation, although what it says is not necessarily the same to each generation. Thus, as Turow points out, it seems contemporary, however old it may actually be.

It may even take a few generations to discover whether a particular book qualifies as literature or not. Some novels are widely read and appreciated when they are first published, but then are quickly forgotten. Sometimes these books are rediscovered and their literary value recognized years later. With most books, however, once forgotten, always forgotten.

A few weeks ago I read Anthony Trollope's 1879 novel Cousin Henry. The fact that the book remains in print indicates somebody recognizes its literary value. And I found, as I wrote in my review (July 24), that the story spoke to me, even though it was about people in a different time and place and about a situation, a contested will for the inheritance of a large estate, that I will never experience. Even so I could relate to these people and their attitudes and behavior. It seemed contemporary to me.

If all literature is contemporary literature, as Turow argues, I would add that all fiction is historical fiction. When Cousin Henry was written, it was a contemporary novel. Nearly 150 years later we read it both as being about us now but also about a culture that no longer exists. Historical writers today may attempt to capture something of 19th century England, but Trollope did that for us while writing about his own time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Working mother

Working mothers sometimes have to take their kids to work with them, which can become problematic when a mother works as a police detective. When I reviewed the first book in Michael Hiebert's Alvin, Alabama series of mysteries, Dream with Little Angels (April 11, 2014), my objection was that Detective Leah Teal took her 11-year-old son Abe to too many crime scenes and interrogations to be believable. Even a bad mother would be unlikely to do this, and Leah is portrayed as a good mother.

Abe is 12 years old in the second novel in the series, Close to the Broken Hearted, and while he remains a main character and the narrator of much of the story, both Hiebert and Leah show better sense in keeping the boy, who thinks he's a better detective than his mother, away from most of the action. However, both Abe and his older sister, Caroline. happen to be in the car when their mother gets the call that sends her rushing to the novel's violent climax.

The story centers on Sylvie Carson, a young mother who has been emotionally disturbed since Preacher Eli accidentally killed her younger brother years before. Now the preacher has been released from prison, and Sylvie claims he is harassing her. Strange things are happening at her home, open doors and odd noises, and Sylvie keeps calling the police department to complain about Preacher Eli. Only Leah believes these complaints are not just in Sylvie's imagination.

Meanwhile, Abe and his friend Dewey provide comic relief, playing with their wooden swords and spying on Preacher Eli while disguised as trees. A subplot involves discoveries about Abe's father, who died when the boy was very young. Hiebert gives us a compelling story and lots of small town Alabama atmosphere. What's hard to believe this time is not children being taken to crime scenes but the fact that the author hails not from Alabama but from Canada.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Not so easy A

Although I devoted my career to newspapers, my college major was actually magazine journalism. The toughest journalism class I took was magazine writing because the professor didn't give A's. Only magazine editors gave A's. To get an A in the class a student had to sell an article to a magazine, then show the acceptance letter or the check to the professor.

A few days ago, in a vain attempt at housecleaning, I happened upon the articles I wrote for that class and the rejection letters I received from magazine editors. Most of the latter were form letters probably sent out by the dozens each day to frustrated writers, although the one from Dick Kaplan, managing editor of Pageant, at least said, "Please forgive this impersonal reply." Henry W. Hough, editor of The Poetry Forum, said, "Sometimes we send back good poems because we're overstocked at the moment." Such phrases seemed somehow reassuring even though they were in form letters and so meant absolutely nothing. Most letters, like those from Redbook, P.S. magazine, the Diners Club Magazine and The Reader's Digest, weren't even signed but just came from "The Editors." Somebody at December Magazine simply wrote the word "SORRY" on a 3-by-5 card

The best rejection letter came from David E. Kucharsky, news editor of Christianity Today, who wrote, "Thank you for letting us see your manuscript on the dormitory Chaplains at Ohio University. It is interesting enough, but I doubt if there is enough significance here on a broad scale. Space pressures are such that we are not able to handle the more local issues." At least I knew that what I had written was actually read by somebody and rejected for a good reason.

As for the other rejected articles, one was called "Saucers, Sea Serpents and Such," another "Edison and the Aeroplane" and another "You Don't Want to Keep This Job You Got," which is what a kindly police chief told me after he picked me up for attempting to sell encyclopedia in his town, in which door-to-door sales turned out to be illegal. I took his advice and quit the job that night.

The rejected poems included the following:

how are you
said one
in greeting

fine thank you
said the other
in suffering

i'm glad to hear that
said the first
in passing

Yet not all my efforts were rejected. On Jan. 12, 1966, Paul Fromer, editor of His, a Christian magazine aimed at college students, wrote, "Thanks for your sensitive article 'The Gift of Shyness.' We want to use it and I am enclosing a check." The article was short, just one page in the magazine, and the check was small, just $7.50, but it was the first money I earned as a journalist and, more importantly, earned me an A just before the semester ended.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The great big American novel

The "great American novel" is a form which Americans respect, not only because it seems equal to the "grandeur" and size of the country and the universal implications of its history, but because in some way its looseness, its broodingness, its very size seem about to yield up the secret, the essential truth of American life.
Alfred Kazin, "The Great American Bore," Contemporaries

Alfred Kazin
For decades in the middle of the 20th century, the idea of the great American novel referred not so much to literary greatness as size. A great novel had to be huge, or so we can assume from the thickness of so many of the novels being produced by American writers of this period. Literary critic Alfred Kazin examined this assumption in his hard-hitting 1958 essay "The Great American Bore."

Most of those hits were directed at John O'Hara and his massive novel From the Terrace which had just been published. I don't know that I have ever read a book review as negative as this one.

Kazin called the novel "mercilessly repetitive and meaninglessly detailed."

He said it "makes no great demand on anyone's mental faculties."

"There is no plot, no dramatic unity of any kind to enforce suspense or even tension," he wrote.

The book, he said, "is simply a large piece of American history in our time, ripped out of the reference books."

Mostly Kazin focused on the novel's length: "Nine hundred pages! Nine hundred pages of characters who appear for a paragraph and are forgotten; nine hundred pages of rapacious females who talk about sex like college sophomores discovering that 'sex is nothing but sensation anyway.' Nine hundred pages of detail about rich men's stables, what workmen ate for lunch in a Pennsylvania steel mill in 1900, of careful notations about lemon phosphates and who was mad at whom and who slept with whom, and what people ate at a prep-school lunch in the 1920s ..."

O'Hara was not alone in churning out these massive, door-stopper novels. Kazin refers to Thomas Wolfe, Irwin Shaw, James Jones and other writers. He could also have mentioned lesser writers such as James Michener, Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins and any number of others from that period when bigness seemed to equate to importance or value or even greatness in the eyes of publishers, readers and even the authors themselves.

Long novels are still being written, of course. I usually read one or more such novels each year. Sometimes they seem padded, other times they tell stories equal to the length of the books. Yet when I enter a bookstore today, as I in fact hope to do later today, I don't have the sense that size dominates story in the books I see on shelves and tables. Great American novels are still being written, but great size no longer appears to be the primary objective.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Novel instructions

The failure of Tender Is the Night never stopped hurting him. So when he inscribed copies of the book, he would give people instructions on how to read it.
Matthew J. Bruccoli, quoted in Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas A. Basbanes

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Honors English at Ohio University in 1962 meant skipping freshman English and instead taking sophomore-level classes in American literature. One of the many books we read in these classes was F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. Meanwhile a roommate took freshman English. One day I heard him raving about The Great Gatsby, another Fitzgerald novel that had been assigned by his professor.

I thought Tender Is the Night an OK novel, more interesting than some we read but hardly the best either. And I never heard anyone in my class praising it the way my roommate praised Gatsby. For the first time I felt a pang of regret at being stuck in honors English while other freshmen got to read Gatsby.

Since its publication in 1934, Tender Is the Night has failed to generate as much excitement as The Great Gatsby (1925). It hasn't sold nearly as many copies. Critics haven't given it as much attention. Movie producers haven't been as eager to turn it into films. The late Matthew J. Broccoli, once the foremost expert on Fitzgerald and his work, told Nicholas A. Basbanes that the failure of Tender Is the Night broke the author's heart. He so obsessed about the book that he decided he had structured it wrong. At the time of his death a copy of the novel was found that had been torn apart, the chapters reordered in a way that, in Fitzgerald's view, made the novel easier to follow.

When he inscribed the book, he began to include instructions that the reader begin reading at page 151, then go back to the beginning. Later Fitzgerald's revision of the novel was published, but it was received by critics and readers with no more enthusiasm than the original.

Instructions on how to read a book are not uncommon in nonfiction. Writers will sometimes give us an outline of the book in their introduction, even to the point of telling us what each chapter is about and summarizing the main points. They may go as far as to suggest that certain chapters can be skipped altogether because they contain mostly technical information that won't interest every reader.

In fiction such advice from an author is rare, considered a no-no except sometimes in first-person narratives where the advice seems to be coming not from the author but from the fictional narrator.

A notable exception is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, at the beginning of which Mark Twain placed two notes. The more famous one says, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." In the second he explains the various dialects he uses, adding "I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

Most of us, I'm sure, have read novels that we wish had come with the authors' instructions on how to read them.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Something greater

Books are writers' way of becoming something else, something more, something greater.
Anna Quindlen, By the Book, edited by Pamela Paul

Anna Quindlen
The above comment by Anna Quindlen comes in response to a question about which writer, living or dead, she would most like to meet. Like the question of what books we would most like to have with us on our proverbial desert island, this is something serious readers may sometimes like to ponder. Others may fantasize about a dinner with Hollywood stars, famous singers or their political or military heroes, but for some of us our fantasies are more likely to revolve around literary heroes. Wouldn't we love to have a face-to-face chat with Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or some other great writer?

But Quindlen recognizes the risk in this. What if, as would most likely be the case, the person did not measure up to the work? What if Twain were in one of his dark moods or the reclusive Dickinson declined to utter a single word in response to our questions or Shakespeare turned out to have an unpleasant personality? Would we gain more from this experience than we would lose?

Don't most of us view our work as our way of "becoming something else, something more, something greater"? Whether we build birdhouses, bake cakes, sing arias, program computers, sell cars or write novels, we want the result of our labor to make us seem better than we are. Our work may have imperfections, but they are probably not as obvious as the imperfections in ourselves. Quindlen suggests focusing on the written work, not those who wrote it.

If meeting Dickens or Austen is something we can only imagine, reading the biographies of these and other writers is something we can all do. To follow Quindlen's logic, it is something we should avoid, however. The writers we read about may not measure up to their work either. I have read numerous literary biographies and I know this to be true. Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Pauline Kael, to cite just three examples, were not as admirable as their writing. This could prejudice us against their work, but should it? Would you cease to admire the beauty and workmanship of your own home if you discovered the architect or builder was a despicable human being?

Making oneself into a better person is difficult, and we may settle for "becoming something else, something more, something greater" in the work we do.

Friday, September 1, 2017

War comes to England

It is the unexpected note that makes the poem.
Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

A major war impacts everyone in a country at war, and one thing Helen Simonson's fine second novel The Summer Before the War (following the popular Major Pettigrew's Last Stand) accomplishes is to show this impact at every level of society in England in 1914, from the upper classes to the outcast Gypsies.

It seems a perfect summer when Beatrice Nash, Simonson's central character, comes to Rye in Sussex to become the new Latin teacher. Agatha Kent, wife of a British diplomat, has stuck her neck out advocating for Beatrice, when others favor a male teacher. And Beatrice is prettier than the ideal female teacher, for women are tolerated as teachers at that time only if they are spinsters. Beatrice promises to remain unmarried, a promise she regrets after she falls in love with Hugh, one of Agatha's nephews who is training to become a surgeon.

Another nephew, more favored by Agatha than his cousin, is Daniel, a promising poet with a reputation for getting into trouble and, with Hugh's help and his own charm, getting out of it. Of course, we readers know before they do that these bright young men will soon be going to war, as will others of Simonson's characters. Despite what the title suggests, war comes before the midway point of the novel.

Rye was something of literary hotbed at the time this story takes place, the area being home to Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, E.F. Benson and others. Simonson's Henry James stand-in is  Mr. Tillingham, an aging American writer who has been living in England for many years. Tillingham outlives James, who died in 1916, but otherwise seems closely modeled after the great writer. Beatrice herself is an aspiring writer, so along with the poet Daniel, Simonson's characters capture something of the flavor of that time and place.

Simonson gives her readers one major surprise and a few minor ones. Yet on the whole her novel, as enjoyable as it is to read, seems predictable. The "unexpected note that makes the poem" may be the only thing lacking.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A for effort

Joseph Caldwell
Swine-herding, he discovered, had more similarities than he had suspected to the writing of a novel: an unremitting commitment, an unrelenting discipline, an uncertain outcome, and, ultimately, the unpredictable prospects when the time for marketing arrived.
Joseph Caldwell, The Pig Goes to Hog Heaven

All writers are underrated. They're all trying to do their best. It's hard to finish a book.
Nicholson Baker, By the Book,
edited by Pamela Paul

Nicholson Baker
Writers, like everyone else, would like to receive an A for effort. One reason most authors have a low opinion of literary critics is that those critics, charged as they are with evaluating the final product, fail to appreciate the effort that went into that product. (Of course, book reviews take a bit of effort, too, even if not nearly what goes into writing the book under review.)

The above lines from novelists Joseph Caldwell and Nicholson Baker reflect the difficulties and uncertainties that go into writing a book, any book. It represents a huge investment of time for an uncertain reward. In this sense, all writers are underrated, as Baker puts it. (He later, oddly enough, makes an exception for William Shakespeare, who he says is overrated.)

Just a few pages later in his novel, Caldwell peeks into the mind of another character and has her say, "Just because I wrote a novel doesn't make me a writer. Who can't write a novel if she's got half a head?" This is a comic novel, but Larry McMurtry is serious when he says something similar in one of his memoirs. He writes about how difficult screenplays are to write but that he can turn out a novel with ease.

Perhaps when one has written as many books as McMurtry has, the process becomes easier. I suspect that most writers, however, would choose to agree with Caldwell, in his initial comment, and Baker. "Writing is hard work," they would say. "Give us a break."

Monday, August 28, 2017

The joy of rereading

The joy of reading is in the rereading; this is where you get to know the world and characters in deep and rewarding fashion.
Walter Mosley, By the Book, edited by Pamela Paul

This statement by mystery writer Walter Mosley qualifies as overstatement, for most readers can find joy in reading a book the first time. If not, why bother reading it a second time? And how often do most readers reread a book anyway?

Even so, Mosley's statement contains a good deal of truth. Rereading can enhance the joy to found in books, or at the very least repeat the joy or perhaps remind us of the joy we once felt reading it, even if, now at a different stage of life, we no longer experience the same joy.

Mosley compares a reader rereading to a writer rewriting. Most authors do rewrite their work, or at least some of it, even if just changing a few words here and there to make it better. Even the best writers don't always get it right the first time. In much the same way, readers don't always get it right the first time. We miss things, such as symbolism or foreshadowing that becomes more apparent on a second or third reading.

It is much the same way with movies. The first time we watch a film, we are mostly just interested in the story. We may not notice certain details that become more significant in subsequent viewings. Last week, for example, I watched an independent film called The Station Agent for the third time. Only then did I catch the significance of the title or realize what a train symbolizes in the film. Never before had I experienced the same joy in watching the movie. I think this is what Mosley is talking about.

He also compares reading a book for the first time to a first date. On a first date, you do little more than get acquainted and discover whether the relationship is worth continuing. With respect to books, that "second date" may take years to come about, although a few people make it a point to reread a favorite book once a year.

Second dates can sometimes be more disappointing than first dates, of course. This summer I reread Wild Times, a sprawling western saga by Brian Garfield, and found it not nearly as enjoyable as I had remembered it. The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis seemed more intellectually challenging than when I read it in college, although it still offered joy and I was glad I had returned to it.

In recent years I have reread such fiction as J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote and Jesse Stuart's The Land Beyond the River, as well as such lighter fare as Donald E. Westlake's Dancing Aztecs and James Grady's Three Days of the Condor. Each rereading brought joy at least equal to the first time.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Presidential reading

John Adams
Nicholas A. Basbanes devotes most of one chapter in Every Book Its Reader to the reading habits of U.S. presidents. (He also discusses the reading habits of British royalty.) On the basis of an interview with David McCullough, a biographer of John Adams, he rates Adams the most dedicated reader of all presidents. Adams didn't just read and reread many books, but he made comments on almost every page he read. Sometimes he left almost as many words in the margins as were printed on the page to begin with. His son, John Quincy Adams, was also a serious reader, even if not up the standard of his father.

Basbanes says Jimmy Carter could read at a faster clip than any other president. Theodore Roosevelt was famous for taking boxes of books with him on his hunting trips. He gave books a higher priority than food. The purpose of the trips were to hunt for food, but books weren't likely to be found in the wild.

In a New York Times Book Review essay at the end of the Clinton administration, Harold Evans wrote that 22 of 42 presidents had been bibliophiles. That's slightly more than 50 percent, an impressive number and far in excess of the population at large. But that depends on how one defines bibliophile and how one determines how much someone, such as a relatively obscure 19th century U.S. president,  actually read.

Harry Truman at his desk.
There does not appear to be any correlation at all between how much a president read and how successful his presidency was, or between level of education and success in the White House, or even between education and fondness for books. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had little formal education, but he was an avid reader who memorized much of Shakespeare. He was among the greatest presidents. Harry Truman, another serious reader, was the last president not to attend college, but another outstanding president.

Herbert Hoover was highly educated and a reader, but his presidency could hardly be termed a success. Ronald Reagan was no reader, but he served two terms with distinction. Carter, for all his reading prowess, earned much less distinction.

Some president have been famous for their light reading, John F. Kennedy for his fondness for James Bond and Dwight Eisenhower for his western novels. Yet both read much more serious books, as well. Eisenhower was a devoted student of history, especially military history. There may have been no major battle in history that he hadn't read about and studied in detail. If his reading didn't make him a better president, it certainly helped make him a better general.

Many presidents, Kennedy and Eisenhower among them, have also written books. Theodore Roosevelt was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, including those hunting trips. Carter and Richard Nixon, among others, have also been writers, especially after their White House days were over. Of all presidential memoirs, those of Ulysses S. Grant continue to receive the highest marks.

Among the standard questions Pamela Paul asks in her New York Times Book Review feature By the Book, and reprinted in her book of the same title, is what book the president should be required to read. The responses were diverse, everything from Shel Silverstein's Don't Bump the Glump! to Fifty Shades of Grey to Team of Rivals to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. There have certainly been exceptions, but it appears most presidents have not needed required reading lists.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Still more surprises

Pamela Paul's collection of her By the Book interviews from The New York Times Book Review was full of unexpected things. Here are a few more.

Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley believes it's sinful to keep books after one has finished reading them

If that is true, I am among the greatest of sinners. I have always believed that almost any book worth reading is worth keeping. But here is how Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, puts it: "I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little or no profit almost all of my books. ... After I have read, reread, and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I'm not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity."

OK, there are several things about that statement that surprise me. 1) Why is it more "sinful" to keep a book than to sell it for "little or no profit"? 2) How does one sell used books for profit anyway, unless they are rare books or were free in the first place, such as review copes? Perhaps Mosley's name on a book, whether he wrote it not, enhances its value. 3) Isn't pride, such as for giving away books, itself a sin? 4) If Mosley keeps a book long enough to read it three times, doesn't that require keeping a book for a long time? And if a book is worth reading three times, why not a fourth? 5) Most books, if taken care of, will outlive us all. So most will eventually find their way back into circulation. Why hurry the process? 6) Why would it be more sinful for a book to sit on my shelf than somebody else's shelf? All books spend most of their lives on shelves, not in readers' hands.

Sebastian Flyte and Franny Glass as role models?

Certainly Sebastian Flyte from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Franny Glass from J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey are memorable characters from literature, but they are also extremely tortured characters, not the sort I would expect to be literary heroes. Sebastian is tortured by wealth, privilege, his mother's insistence on Catholic conformity, his own homosexuality and his alcoholism. Franny suffers a severe breakdown, whether spiritual or mental, in the two related Salinger stories. Yet Andrew Solomon says he identified with Sebastian in his youth, and Donna Tartt says she identified with Franny Glass when she was in her teens.

Harriet the Spy was a favorite childhood book for Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen

None of the women interviewed mentioned Harriet as a childhood literary hero, but Chabon and Franzen did. Yet I was interested whenever certain children's books received multiple mentions, demonstrating the influence such books have had on literary careers. Among those stories future storytellers loved were A Wrinkle in Time (mentioned perhaps more than any others) the Narnia books, Little Women, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte's Web. Of course, most children love these books, so perhaps there is no surprise here after all.

Monday, August 21, 2017

More surprises

I wrote last week (Aug. 16, 2017) about my surprise that several authors interviewed in By the Book give what Michael Connelly calls "a short leash" to books by other writers. But that was just one of the surprises for me in Pamela Paul's collection from The New York Times Book Review, which she edits. Here are some others.

J.K. Rowling doesn't read fantasy

You might expect the author of the Harry Potter books, one of the most successful fantasy series in literary history, would be a reader of fantasy novels written by others. But apparently not. This may be why the Harry Potter series strikes readers as being so unique. She didn't, deliberately or not, borrow ideas from others.

The book that had the greatest impact on Richard Dawkins was The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

It shocks me that The Black Cloud, a science fiction novel I read as a teenager, could have had a significant impact on anyone's life. It wasn't very good, and Dawkins admits as much. At least as a work of fiction it wasn't very good, but Hoyle was one of the major astronomers of his day, and Dawkins said he "learned more science from it, at a formative age, than one ever expects from a work of fiction."

The novel may also have been important to Dawkins because, like himself, Hoyle was an outspoken atheist. Although he coined the phrase "the big bang," Hoyle rejected the idea of the big bang to explain the origin of the universe, preferring the theory that the universe has always been either expanding or deflating and will continue to do so forever. Just as some Christians reject the big bang theory because it is inconsistent with the book of Genesis, some atheists reject it because it is consistent with Genesis, namely the idea that everything had a beginning, out of nothing.

James Patterson admires James Joyce

Somehow I wouldn't have expected James Patterson, whose many thrillers are among the best-selling books of our time, to read, let alone idolize, James Joyce. Yet he says, "Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce and Gunter Grass are important to me because their writing made it crystal clear that I wasn't capable of the write stuff. Those three dream-killers are still among my favorites."

So apparently, if he had his druthers, Patterson would prefer to write great literary works that few people read than thrillers that millions of people read.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Clear glass, stained glass

"Good prose is like a window pane," George Orwell once wrote. That is, it should frame the view from that window without obstructing that view. You see the world through the window, not the window itself.

David McCullough
That analogy seems more apt for some kinds of writing than for others. When we are reading history or biography, for example, or a front-page newspaper story, we are more interested in the information being presented than in the way it is being presented. That's why a writer like David McCullough is so popular. Whether he is writing about John Adams or the history of the Panama Canal, his prose is crystal clear, allowing even readers of no special intelligence to understand what is going on and stay interested. The reader is able to see the picture McCullough frames without being distracted by flowery or obtuse prose. His style is effective because, until we stop to think about it, it is invisible.

Many writers of fiction are also like this, tellers of vivid stories that seem to flow effortlessly and naturally along, as if the writers themselves had almost nothing to do with it. I am currently in midst of Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War, and Simonson strikes me as this kind of writer.  She plays no tricks with time, like so many modern writers, but tells her story in chronological order. She never tries to be obscure or flashy. She may win no literary prizes, but readers love her stories and, whether they realize it or not, appreciate her window-pane prose.

P.G. Wodehouse
Yet sometimes we want stained glass, not clear glass, in our windows. Sometimes we appreciate the glory of the author's language as much as, or more than, the author's story. A case in point has to be P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote dozens of novels, and the plots, while interesting, are often pretty much alike. Usually young love stands in jeopardy in some way. An older person, normally an aunt or a gruff father, stands in the way. Some wise person, such as Jeeves in the Bertie Wooster novels or Uncle Fred or Galahad in the Blandings novels, concocts a convoluted plan to save the day, but not before there are numerous hilarious complications. Yet we read Wodehouse novels just to delight in how he tells these stories.

I recently finished Galahad at Blandings, published in 1965. Among the stained-glass gems in this novel are these:

"Lady Hermione did not strike her brother with a bludgeon, but this was simply because she had no bludgeon."

"He was standing in the middle of the room with something of the air of a public monument waiting to be unveiled ..."

That's the kind of prose one notices and wants to read a second or third time to savor. Other novels I've read recently have also had lines good enough to make a reader stop.

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson: "We pass through a den that died and got embalmed way back in 1967, down a dingy hallway, past a pink-tiled bathroom."

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett: "Only in art were there cliches, never in nature. There were no ordinary human beings. Everybody was born with a surprise inside."

Headlong by Michael Frayn: "Then the door's open, and we're in the middle of a genial battle to squeeze past a lunging tangled slavering amiable mass of dog."

Most of the time we prefer our reading matter, like our homes, to come with clear windows, but sometimes, as of a Sunday, we enjoy a little stained glass.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Something for everyone

I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren't very good, and there's no reason they should be.
Richard Ford, By the Book

Richard Ford
While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews published in The New York Times Book Review, I was surprised how many published authors, like Richard Ford, quickly put down books that don't immediately grab their interest. I would have expected that professional writers, who expect other readers to give their own books a fair chance, would be more tolerant of books written by others.

Jonathan Franzen said, "Most books I pick up I put down without finishing." "I put down at least a book or two a week," James Patterson said. "My time to read is too short," said Michael Connelly, "so I only give a book -- any book -- a short leash. It's got to draw me in quickly." E.L. Doctorow said, "Sometimes I put books down that are good but that I see too well what the author is up to."

Joyce Carol Oates
At the other extreme is Colin Powell, former secretary of state and an author in his own right, who said, "I find some greatness in every book." Joyce Carol Oates said she was trained to view disappointment with a book as a character flaw on the part of the reader, "a failure to comprehend what others have clearly appreciated." Ford actually made a concession to this viewpoint when he added to his own comment, "sometimes I return to a book I've left unfinished and discover -- pleasurably -- that it was I, not the book, that was unsatisfactory."

Pliny the Elder once wrote, "No book so bad but some part may be of use," which would seem to place him in the Powell-Oates camp.

My own view lies somewhere between the extremes of most books are good and most books are bad. It is expressed in the title of a 2005 book by Nicholas A. Basbanes, Every Book Its Reader. This comes from Five Laws of Library Science, written in 1931 by S.R. Ranganathan. Two of these laws are Every Reader His Book and Every Book Its Reader.

Perhaps this is a romantic idea, like saying, "There's someone out there for everyone," but I find it appealing. Even the self-published book that never sells a single copy has its reader, namely the person who wrote it and thought highly enough of it to pay to get it published.

The writers and others whose reading profiles are presented in By the Book reveal an amazing variety of reading tastes. Books that excite some of them, turn off others. That variety is multiplied many times over among the rest of us readers. For each of us there is a book somewhere that will speak to us, and for every book there is someone who will respond to what it says.

While searching for that one ideal book, each of us, like Richard Ford, has every right to put aside those books that fail to interest us, even if, as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, the fault lies more with us than with the books.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Making a family

No one here talks like me or gets my references or knows the songs I know. I don't look like any of them. Even my bond with Joya was based on not belonging here.
Joshilyn Jackson, The Opposite of Everyone

Paula Vauss views breaking up families as her specialty. A divorce lawyer in her mid-30s, ever resistant to starting a family of her own, she continues to be plagued by guilt for the 911 call she made as a girl that led to a prison sentence for her mother on drug charges and her own stay in a home for girls. Although later reunited with her mother, their relationship was rocky after that, and she left home in her teens and hasn't spoken to her mother in years

But now a young man named Julian shows up at her office and reveals he is a younger brother she didn't even know she had. He was born while her mother was in prison and given up for adoption. Then comes a letter from her mother revealing she is dying of cancer and has another daughter, Hana, now 10. Paula finds she has a family, whether she wants one or not. But can she, of all people, find a way to locate Hana and bring it together?

Joshilyn Jackson, the author of The Opposite of Everyone, begins every chapter with Paula's reflections on her youth, when she could "measure the years of my childhood by my mother's boyfriends," and especially that terrible period spent in the orphanage. Clearly those years weigh heavily on her, and the feeling she's had all her life, that there is nobody else like her, persists. Yet she makes unexpected discoveries, not only the two siblings but also that Birdwine, her alcoholic boyfriend, is burdened by his own broken family and that even some of the girls she despised in that home have, like her, managed to make something of their lives. Rather than being the opposite of everyone, she is actually not so different after all. "There were more of us," Jackson writes. "The world was full of us, the leftovers and the leavers, the bereaved and the broken."

Jackson weaves a powerful story offering hope that both broken families and those broken by families can be restored.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The place to go in your head

Writing is a job, a talent, but it's also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.
Ann Patchett, Truth & Beauty

Novelist Ann Patchett identifies three qualities that make a writer.

Ann Patchett
First, writing is a job and should be viewed as such. That means working hard to earn the expected compensation, whether that be a book contract, royalties, a magazine sale, a weekly paycheck, public recognition and respect or simply the satisfaction gained from a job well done. Many published writers, Patchett included, don't believe there is such a thing as writer's block. One writer calls it laziness block. A job requires work whether you feel like it or not, or maybe you are in the wrong occupation.

Second, some talent is required. Some people with little writing talent have had several books published, simply because they worked hard and got lucky. Others have a great deal of talent but never seem to get around to actually writing anything. Yet the best writers are those with a natural gift for putting their thoughts down on a page, as well as the determination to follow through.

The third quality is one often overlooked, that imaginary friend in your head. Not all writers are introverts, but so many of them are because writing is lonely work, and introverts don't mind being alone for long hours at a time. In fact, they prefer it. Extroverts need other people to bounce off ideas. Introverts can do this more easily within their own heads. It comes natural to them.

"Writing is talking to oneself," Alan Bennett has said, and so it is. You say it in your head to see how it sounds, then transcribe it to written form. Readers are just other people eavesdropping.