My Book List (concluded)

          Over the years I have maintained a list of books I have read. It’s out of curiosity, but also because I remember too little of what I have read and thought it would be useful to have a list. This being the end of the year and the beginning of another annual book list, I thought I would look over at least part of the list to see what I might remember about my reading.

          The first book on my list, recorded in 2012, is by Joan Hess, Misery Loves Maggody. A note I made says that it is an Arly Hanks Mystery. Not surprisingly, I do not remember anything about the plot of the mystery. I seldom remember plots for more than a few weeks after finishing a mystery, but I am surprised that I recall Maggody as being set in Arkansas and that Arly Hanks was a small-town sheriff or police chief. Also to my surprise, I remember buying the book at a Lot for Less store, which carries all sorts of remainders from clothes to breakfast cereal to sheets. I was addicted to this store for a long time. Since it was on my route from the subway stop to my office, it was only natural that I went there regularly, buying lots of things I did not need because they, as the name implies, cost lots less than elsewhere. On occasion, the store had books, and on occasion I bought one there–like the Hess book. I enjoyed the Joan Hess mystery, but that was, according to the computer’s find function, my first and last encounter with her and Ms. Hanks.

          As I glance down the first year’s entries, however, I have no idea how I obtained many of the books. For example, after Misery Loves Maggody comes Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which a note indicates consists of three novels published from 1960 to 1965 and was made into a BBC series with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. I can’t believe that I bought this giant paperback which still sits on my bookshelf. I probably found it as a giveaway sitting on a neighborhood stoop. I can recall little about the book other than I thought it odd that a country, I think in this case Romania, would accept a king who was not born, raised, or otherwise being of the country and did not even speak the language.

          As I glance at the listings from over a decade ago, I have zero memory of many of them. For example, Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper. I noted “M.D. Hit Man.” That seems memorable but apparently not to me. More surprising is that I have no memory whatsoever of Naguib Mahfouz, The Mirage. A note tells me that the author was an Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner. Surely the book had an important literary impact, but not a lasting one on me.

          That first year’s list also indicates that some of my book habits had changed. Every fourth book or so a decade ago was on audio. I had begun listening to audiobooks in my running days.

          I had at first resisted audiobooks while running. A runner, I thought, should have an unimpeded experience and absorb only the ambient sounds. I felt superior to those on the Prospect Park road who had buds in their ears. After a year or so of running, though, I changed. I was then in a phase of if you are going to do something you should do it compulsively. I was spending a lot of time running my 40, 50, or 60 miles a week, and there seemed to be less and less time for anything else. So I bought a Walkman, or probably a knockoff, and started listening to NPR shows. Then after another year, I broke down and ordered from Books on Tape. I had assumed that listening to a book could not hold up to reading the print version. I soon found that was only partially true. Some books, I felt, were best read by oneself. Many were good in both print and audio versions, and there were some, I was convinced, that were better in the audio form (I felt that about the moving Growing Up by the amusingly astute observer of America, Russell Baker.) Audio continued into 2012 even though the running did not. While they have now dropped to the wayside for me, audiobooks were a regular part of my life for a long time.

          I at first also resisted Kindle. Turning pages seemed more satisfying than poking a screen, and with a printed book, it was much easier to go back and find the clarifying passage I did not remember. I read a few e-books a decade ago, but not many. That changed during the pandemic.

My country library is a member of an e-book consortium, and I started getting more and more e-books while quarantining. Then I expanded my horizons and got them from the New York Public Library, and a bit later from the Brooklyn Public Library. (Brooklyn, of course, is part of New York City and most NYC municipal institutions are citywide. However, for whatever reason, when the five boroughs were consolidated into one New York City in 1898, the Brooklyn Public Library remained separate from the New York Public Library.)

Of course, there is a lot to be said for being able to get books without leaving the couch, but I still find one major drawback with e-books — you can’t mark them up. I often underline or write in the margins of printed versions of the nonfiction I read. Sometimes I go back to look at my notes in these books. I know that something similar can be done with e-books, but I have not learned how to do it as efficiently as I do with traditional books.

          While the lists eleven years apart indicate a shift away from audiobooks towards e-books, they indicate a consistency in library browsing for new nonfiction. A longstanding habit has been to turn to the right after entering my small, public country library. The metal bookshelves there hold in separately labeled sections new fiction, mysteries, biographies, and nonfiction. Sometimes I may browse for a novel or a fiction, but every time I look at the biographies and the nonfiction for a topic that might be of interest. If I find such a book, I will give it a go even though I may not have heard of it or its author before.

More recently, I have started doing comparable browsing at convenient branches of the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries. They, too, have new nonfiction sections, and rummaging in them has led to much of what I now read. Eleven years ago the browsing at the country public library led me to such books as Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Jonathan Eig, Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, and Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, and others, none of which I probably would have bought to read. This year the browsing in the various public libraries has led me to William Elliott Hazelgrove, Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick, Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, and Porter Fox, Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.

          When I look over the 2012 list, I see mostly random reading except perhaps for several books about lawyers and our criminal justice system. I was then in the midst of volunteer work with a couple of public defenders’ offices, and perhaps I had some fantasy about writing reflections about those experiences. If so, nothing came of it.

          This year’s list does have a few spots of direction. I was advising a senior at Columbia University writing an honors thesis centered on the January 6 insurrection, and I read several books so that I could advise him better. These included Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction; David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy;and Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

In the years since I started the book list, I became a member of a history book group that now directs some of my reading. For example, among other books this year, we “historians” read Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing; Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War; Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York; Philippe Sands, East West Street; Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History; Report of Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States; and Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

What got the most focus from my reading in 2022 was Iceland. I read novels by Halldór Laxness and Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, many mystery stories written by Icelandic writers, and several nonfiction books about the country. These added enjoyment and perspective to my trip when I was there and afterwards.

I am lucky to have friends and family who are discerning readers and make good recommendations. Mostly, however, my reading seems aimless except that I tend to avoid certain genres. I seldom read romances, although this year, wanting to get a better understanding of the phenomenon, I read a book by Colleen Hoover. I avoid science fiction, although I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and one of his novels sits on top of a stack of books I plan to read in the coming months. I don’t read fantasies, although I feel as if I ought to know Harry Potter and the Hobbit. It has been years since I read a graphic novel, and even longer since I read a western. Every couple years I attempt poetry but never make it to the end of a volume.

I do wonder why I read. I read few books closely. I remember well only a few of the books I finish. I do get some fodder for this blog from my reading. It produces the “First Sentences” I occasionally post. Sometimes the reading gives me an idea for a post or a quotation to use. But I don’t read as if I am researching for the blog or anything else. I read because I read.

I think back to a clerk who had waited on me several times in a ten-day span at the local bookstore. She said, “You read a lot.” I replied, “If you don’t have a life, you should at least read.”

And I continue to keep my book list. I have made the first two entries for 2023: James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (obtained from the new nonfiction section of the Brooklyn Public Library) and Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing (obtained from a sale at the Barrett Friendly Public Library.)

Where Have All the Writers Gone?

          Good writing is good writing is good writing. Or at least we might think that, but perhaps not really. I have enjoyed a certain writer at one stage of my life but not at another. Of course, sometimes a book was too hard when I was young, but I later saw greatness in it. Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter fall into that category. Assigned in high school, they were both dreary chores and probably unfinished ones. Decades later I tried again and realized why they were classics. They are great books.

          Sometimes my appreciation for a book has depended not on the quality or difficulty of a book or a writer, but on my own life cycles. Dickens is not hard to understand, but I hated and then avoided reading him when young. Then, because the spouse had to read it for a Victorian literature class she was taking, I picked up Pickwick Papers, and its laugh-out-loud funniness got me to go to his other books. Each summer for two decades when I had more time for novels, I eagerly read one of his books. I placed Dickens as the second greatest or most important writer in English after Shakespeare. Then, perhaps fifteen years later, I sought to reread Bleak House, a book I had regarded as marvelous. I couldn’t do it. This did not make me think that I had misjudged Dickens or the book but only convinced me that I was at a different stage in my reading life and Dickens did not now fit into it. I once read, for example, that you should read Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, that Thomas Wolfe) in your youth or you won’t be able to read him at all. So far, I have not read him, and youth is far behind me.

          Sometimes I recognize that a book must be great but does not suit me. I have read War and Peace three times (you are entitled to think that I must be crazy) and I have never understood its touted excellence. I accept the world’s opinion that it is great, but not for me. Some books I have tried to reread and wondered why they were ever considered good. For example, I plunged into Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms recently and thought that it was amateurish and simply awful.

But what I have been thinking about recently are those writers who were considered good or important and clearly had an impact on “letters” but who fell out of favor while other comparable writers continue to be read. Sometimes such writers “disappear” for a while and then seem to reemerge. Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Wilkie Collins may fall into such a waxing and waning category. Others, perhaps George Gissing and John P. Marquand, just ebb.

          So my game for you: Name the ten, or twenty-five, or even fifty best or most important American writers of the twentieth century. Did your list include the writers who won all of these: a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a National Book Award for a different novel, and two Pulitzers for drama? It’s a trick question. There is only one who won them all, but your list probably did not include him: Thornton Wilder. We overlook him even though many of my generation read the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey, an innovative, powerful work. And many of us have seen or read or even acted in his innovative, powerful play that won a Pulitzer: Our Town. On the other hand, I have never seen his other Pulitzer-Prize winning play, The Skin of our Teeth, although I would have liked to have seen the original Broadway cast of it, which starred Frederic March and Tallulah Bankhead. Some years back, I found that the Barrett Friendly Library had a copy Wilder’s The Eighth Day, which won the National Book Award four decades after Bridge won the Pulitzer. It is very good, and that made me wonder why he wasn’t read more these days. Even so, I did not seek out more of his output or reread Bridge, and perhaps it is telling that I could not recently remember the title of The Eighth Day nor could I tell you a lick about it other than I remember it is a good book. These thoughts came back when I plucked Theophilus North, Wilder’s last novel, published when he was 76, out of a leave-one-take-one book kiosk. I enjoyed reading it and read more about Wilder, an astonishing man. In addition to the Pulitzers and the National Book Award, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Letters and the Presidential Medal for Freedom. He knew many languages and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll House was running on Broadway when Our Town opened. He wrote The Matchmaker, which had a long Broadway run, and its adapted version, Hello, Dolly, played even longer. He wrote a famous screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock, and his friends included both Sigmund Freud and Gertrude Stein. And with all of these accomplishments few of us would think to place him on our list of great American writers.

          Theophilus North is set in 1926 and reads as if it is a slightly fictionalized segment of the author’s life. In the summer of 1926, Theophilus, our narrator, a graduate of Yale, has left his teaching job at a prestigious prep school in New Jersey (Wilder had taught at Lawrenceville and graduated from Yale) and heads off to Newport, Rhode Island, near where Theophilus (and Wilder) had been stationed in World War I. Importing archeological ideas from ancient Troy, North tells us his theory of nine cities of Newport—early settlers, seaport, playground for the rich, local workers, and so on. North spends the summer teaching tennis to and tutoring youngsters and reading to the elderly. Each chapter is a short story, with some of the same characters popping up in many of them. Each story has a similar structure. A problem or a mystery crops up, which Theophilus resolves. Although those helped are grateful, he always rejects pay or any hint of future consideration. The book explores the various posited Newport cities but does not have any central plot or moral or theme. Each chapter could stand on its own. This made for satisfactory, episodic reading. A chapter a day is the way I approached it.

          As I was reading, I kept thinking that Theophilus North reminded me of something else that I read, but at first could not place it. It was not the dissection of a time or place as in Updike’s Rabbit novels. It was not the intertwined short stories of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was not his contemporary or semi-contemporary authors writing about American themes, like O’Hara, Bellow, or DeLillo. Instead I realized it reminded me of another episodic book that I am currently reading: The Second Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer, a collection containing three Rumpole books that had been separately published. Each Rumpole book consists of short stories, but, as with Theophilus North, characters recur and incidents from one story are referred to in another. The Rumpole stories are similar to Theohilus not only because of the first-person narration, butalso because at the beginning of each story a problem or mystery is presented and by the end the situation is neatly resolved by the narrator. Both North and Rumpole, the well-worn barrister, have pockets of erudition;­­ North has a vast knowledge of literature and languages and Rumpole knows bloodstains, Wordsworth, and judges. But given the choice, I would take Rumpole over North. Wilder has created a character that seems too good to be true, while one can imagine Rumpole existing because, although an idealist, he is flawed. North is a prig; Horace Rumpole has self-deprecatory humor and a wife who at least slightly terrifies him. I would like to have a glass or three of Chateau Fleet Street at Pomeroy’s with Rumpole because I might not only enjoy the conversation, but I also might learn something more about human nature. I can’t imagine having a drink with North unless I wanted to learn more about him.

          And while I am in awe of all that Thornton Wilder accomplished, I am also in awe of all that John Mortimer has done.