A few years ago, when I was in sixth grade, Mrs. Harper introduced a ritual intended to stimulate the habit of reading.
Each time we finished reading a book we would write on a 3” x 5” index card the title of the book and whatever description would fit in the space. The cards were placed in envelopes stapled to the bulletin board, one for each student. I didn’t really need much stimulation, for among the boys in the class my envelope was always by far the thickest. Although I was, of course, a notably virile and manly twelve year old, the local public library aroused a certain visceral excitement and lust for the written word.
As a naturally introspective kid and an inveterate reader, books had an abiding affect on my view of the world. Having invested so many hours in the privacy of reading, I shall now, as an act of immense generosity, offer a few quick notes (that might fit on those index cards) on the words that had the most notable effects on my curious little mind. They appear in the order that I happen to think of them:
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Yeah, I know that I’m leading with the obvious—a literary cliche for men of my generation—but so be it. I’ve read damn near every one of Kerouac’s words that was ever set in type. I have always felt a warm sense of familiarity and kinship with Jack (we’ve always been on first-name terms). He wrote simply and from the heart, risking moments of public inanity as he—inevitably—drank himself to an early grave. Jack is a favorite flannel shirt on a gray Saturday morning.
Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
First, it’s funny. Laugh out loud, holy shit funny. Heller says it all about how we humans organize ourselves. In the course of my mediocre corporate career I occasionally gave a tattered paperback copy to young co-workers so that they could save time in grasping the inherent absurdity of adults being serious.
John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, by Jean Edward Smith
OK, now we’re into obscure, idiosyncratic territory. This biography of the early chief justice struck me several years ago as a good read—feeding my addiction to middle-brow history—and then lingered stubbornly in a comfortable back room of my mind. In addition to his admirable personal qualities (e.g., intelligence, loyalty, independence) Marshall demonstrates the case for pragmatic moderation, as opposed to wind-in-the-hair romantic idealism. Marshall’s political moderation was a product of thoughtful appreciation—which in itself is an under-appreciated virtue.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Reminiscing in this bagel shop where I read Ulysses prompted today’s topic. I’ve already posted on this singular accomplishment (see “Reading Ulysses”). This dude is an indulgent soak in a sauna for the mind, if you’ll forgive the awkward metaphor. Joyce was so far ahead of his time that almost a century later we’re only just beginning to catch up. This work is a sort of conceptual IKEA product, but without the iconographic assembly instructions and without the constraint of only one version of the final product. Wending your way through Ulysses is like building your life: the pieces are spread out on the table, and you engage in a lot of chin-rubbing and thoughtful staring out the window to see how they may fit together.
essays, etc. by George Orwell
You know Orwell from reading 1984 and Animal Farm in high school, but I’ll opine that he’s even better in non-fiction. His essays are crisp and clear, and strike me as diligently honest. He could write about brewing a cup of tea in a way that makes you want to savor a cup of the stuff. That’s no small feat.
Simple and Direct, by Jacques Barzun
This paperback is slowly yellowing on my bookcase, beckoning for a re-read. The title sez it all: Professor Barzun understood the power and beauty of a simple declarative sentence. That’s good enough for me.
Well, that’s enough fodder for today; I don’t want to overburden you.
The act of editing my comments brings to mind a common theme among these seemingly dissimilar works. Each writer pursued his craft with a clear, fearless and unpretentious honesty that strikes a chord within the reader, or at least this reader. These writers are among my most intimate friends and I am grateful for that. Read them…