COMMENTARY: The Books that Make
Robert Charles and I were lucky to begin the New Year in the
company of three dear friends: Jeffrey Osman, Joe Wade and Ed Underhill. They’re
friends who have inspired and shaped my thinking for more than 30 years now. (That's a photo of Oz and Joe Wade taken a few years back at Andy's Jazz Club.) At
one point during our New Year’s Day lunch in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, Oz
asked us to recall an early book, painting, or piece of art that influenced the
man each of us has become. The first thought that came to my mind? Listening to
Studs Terkel’s radio interviews, which my Father listened to late at night on his
bedroom clock radio. Oz’s good question sparked some deeper thought than he
might have imagined – or expected! And so, I offer this list – a litany of two-dozen
“The Whales Go By,”
by Fred Phleger. Published in 1959, the year I was born, this is the first book
I remember. My Dad would read the book to me at bedtime; having worked his
regular job at the post office plus a moonlighting job tending bar, Dad would
routinely fall asleep as he read the book aloud. I would then climb out of bed
and ask Mom to ask Dad to move to his own bed so I could go to sleep.
“A Wrinkle in Time,”
by Madeleine L’Engle. I believe it was our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Levis,
who read aloud this book to our class at Mark Twain Elementary School. (I also
attended Jack London Junior High School. How lucky I was to attend public schools
named for great authors.)
The Trinity: “Holy
Bible: Catholic Layman’s Edition,”
edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell and
published with the Imprimatur of Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago
(Elaine Stritch’s Uncle, by the way); “The
Making of the President 1960: A Narrative History of American Politics in
by Theodore H. White; and “Union
House, Union Bar: The History of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees and
Bartenders International Union,”
by AFL-CIO Matthew Josephson. I did not
grow up in a house filled with books. In fact, aside from two sets of
children’s encyclopedias and one set of “condensed” classics, I recall only
three books in my parents’ home. The first is the Holy Bible, Chicago Catholic
version – which, in part, reminds us that an indulgence of three years is
granted if one reads Sacred Scripture with great reverence for at least 15
minutes each day. The second is “The Making of the President 1960” – Dad was a staunch
Democrat in those days; these days, like so many, Dad votes Republican. I don’t
recall my Mom ever voting. The third book is “Union House, Union Bar” – Dad was
a union man, too. I have kept these three books, moving them from home to home
as if they are precious belongings. In fact, they are
precious. In so many ways, these three early books remind me
who I am – or, at least, from whence I came.
by Judith Guest. My favorite coming-of-age novel, featuring an influential life
lesson: “Some things happen just because they happen.”
“To Kill a
by Harper Lee. Another book filled with essential life
lessons. (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from
his point of view.”) Plus, our study of the novel in school awakened me to the
literary mysteries of structure and theme and poetic prose: “When he was nearly
thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Harold Robbins novels
I discovered a stash tucked beneath my brother’s bed and read them quickly,
devouring the racy sex scenes.
“The Thin Man,”
by Dashiell Hammett. This sleek, masterful novel showed me – and continues to
show me – how a page-turner can be a work of art.
“Done in a Day: 100
Years of Great Writing from The Chicago Daily News,”
edited by Dick Griffin
and Rob Warden. Journalism as literature – and done on deadline. This
collection of newspaper writing underscores the power of storytelling and
became a touchstone book for me as I studied and practiced journalism.
“Heart of Darkness,”
by Joseph Conrad. I struggled the first two times I read this book as a school
assignment. By the third time, I realized I was reading a masterpiece. By the
fourth time, I realized I was reading about life.
“The Great Gatsby,”
by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My vote for the Great American Novel of the 20th
Century. So many passages contain such enduring poetry while the tale itself
neatly encapsulates the Great American Dream, for better and for worse.
by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The rise and fall of a Great American Author, with
Fitzgerald himself as Gatsby.
“In Our Time,”
Ernest Hemingway. How influential was Papa? Tobias Wolff has said that if you
are writing in America today you are either trying to write like Hemingway – or
to write like Hemingway.
Authentic. Innovative. Influential.
by James Joyce. The story, “The Dead,” overwhelmed and overwhelms me.
“Bright Lights, Big
by Jay McInerney. This is the book that made writing look easy –
which, of course, it is not. This novel itself features some marvelous
“The Norton Anthology
of Short Fiction
,” edited by R.V. Cassill. The perfect place to “meet” Sherwood
Anderson, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield,
Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Ambrose Bierce, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Chopin,
and the three masters: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver.
Hellman and “A Moveable Feast,”
Ernest Hemingway – a one-two punch that thoroughly romanticized for me the idea
of being a writer.
“The Journals of
Andre Gide – Volume One: 1889-1924.”
My friend Kevin Grandfield introduced
me to Gide’s writing back in grad school in the fiction writing program at
Columbia College Chicago. Re-reading the dog-eared pages and underlined
passages in this well-studied volume elicits a flood of memories, filled with
equal amounts of nostalgia and hope. “And at your feet, on the other side of
your writing-table, all Paris,” I underlined at a time when I was just
beginning to navigate my way in and around Chicago, returning as an adult to my
childhood roots. “I suffer absurdly from the fact that everybody does not
already know what I hope someday to be, what I shall be; that people cannot
foretell the work to come just from the look in my eyes.” If that’s not
graduate school yearning and ambition, what is? “Giving yourself your word to
do something ought to be no less sacred than giving your word to others.” If
that’s not sound advice for life, what is? “It’s not enough merely to create
the event most likely to reveal character; rather the character itself must
necessitate the event. (See Coriolanus, Hamlet.)” If that’s not sound advice
for writing, what is? And the journal’s central, lasting piece of advice: “Dare
to be yourself. I must underline that in my head, too.”
Cunningham. Reading this book, I began to unlock the mechanics of how novels
actually work as made things.
“Who’s Afraid of
by Edward Albee. The Great American Play of the 20th
“A New Path to the
by Raymond Carver. These poems by the modern master of the
short story are rich in clarity and tenderness.
Nobel prize acceptance speech. These brief remarks serve as an artistic
North Star for anyone called to write.