January 1, 2015

COMMENTARY: The Books that Make the Man

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 literary influences.

“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 Action,” 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.

“Ordinary People,” by Judith Guest. My favorite coming-of-age novel, featuring an influential life lesson: “Some things happen just because they happen.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” 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.

“The Crack-Up,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The rise and fall of a Great American Author, with Fitzgerald himself as Gatsby.

“In Our Time,” by 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 trying not to write like Hemingway. Authentic. Innovative. Influential.

“The Dubliners,” by James Joyce. The story, “The Dead,” overwhelmed and overwhelms me.

“Bright Lights, Big City,” by Jay McInerney. This is the book that made writing look easy – which, of course, it is not. This novel itself features some marvelous complexities.

“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.

“Pentimento,” by Lillian Hellman and “A Moveable Feast,” by 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.”

“The Hours,” by Michael Cunningham. Reading this book, I began to unlock the mechanics of how novels actually work as made things.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” by Edward Albee. The Great American Play of the 20th Century.

“A New Path to the Waterfall,” by Raymond Carver. These poems by the modern master of the short story are rich in clarity and tenderness.

William Faulkner’s Nobel prize acceptance speech. These brief remarks serve as an artistic North Star for anyone called to write.


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