I was recently contacted by a journalist for a national newspaper who wanted me to name a book I read as a child that left a lasting impression.
That’s a tough question for me, because I sense that my answer is never exactly what the questioner is seeking. I don’t have a poignant story about Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy, that glorious day when I suddenly knew that reading was for me, and forever.I can’t describe in loving detail the book I encountered as a fresh-faced welp. (Though I do recall loving Splish, Splash, and Splush.)
Nonetheless I did somehow grow up to become an author, and therefore my answer is, I guess, legitimate. It’s the only story I’ve got.
Here’s how I replied, limited to 150 words:
Born in 1961, I have no memory of my parents reading to me. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I grew up surrounded by six older siblings and they were (mostly) all readers. I guess I got the message by sheer proximity. As a baseball-mad boy in a world without ESPN, I devoured the sports pages in the daily newspaper. Those were the first writers I desperately needed. By age 13, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” It was funny and easy to read. There was no YA back then, my generation naturally graduated to Steinbeck, Bradbury, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Plath, whomever. “Breakfast” blew me away. Here was something as devilish as the kid in the back row, irreverent, rebellious, hilarious, wild. In a word, subversive. In those pages I first recognized the possibility that a book could be supremely cool. Thanks, Kurt.
No offense to any librarians out there, but I prefer to own books, not borrow them. I realize there’s a financial downside to my predilection, but what can I say? It feels good to support the industry, the book stores, the publishers, the authors themselves. If I can manage it, I don’t mind spending the money on books.
For starters, I like having them around, living in my rooms. Books make great furniture and, in a way, furnaces: they warm homes.
Secondly, I usually read with a pen in my hand. I underline passages, write comments, exclamation points, stars, notes and complaints. It is the dying art of marginalia, a direct reader-response. I can’t do that with library books, and Post-It Notes simply do not satisfy.
I’ve been on nice reading streak lately — have picked out some good ones. I just finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. Fabulously entertaining, and a celebration of science and the intelligence of man. A geek-hero who survives through his attitude, his determination, and his brilliant mind.
Before that, I read THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich. I loved it, every word. What a great writer. Seamless sentences, never a crack showing, and such human insight. A writer with soul. But I’ve got a problem and you can probably guess it: I borrowed the book from my local library and it’s past due.
I’ve been reluctant to return it, to drop it into the slot and hear the dull thunk as it hits the bin. Gone, gone, gone. My book no more.
One first-world problem is that I’ve been rereading, almost daily, the book’s perfect last paragraph. Over and over I return to it, stunned and speechless. That penultimate sentence, especially. What a beautiful evocation of lost innocence, the crossing over into something harder, more brutal and cold, adulthood and loss, “when we all realized we were old.”
I really didn’t want to let the book go, and maybe I’ll buy a copy for myself one day. In the meantime, I’ll type out that last paragraph here, so I’ll have it safely tucked away in the white, high-ceilinged halls of cyberspace. I don’t think there’s any spoilers revealed, it’s not that kind of book. A 13-year-old boy and his parents return home after a long drive.
Quick aside: I don’t play a musical instrument, but I love music. One of the things I’ve always envied about musicians is that they can play all these great songs, have those enduring melodies and fat riffs run through the fingers as they channel greatness.
That’s how I feel typing this passage from Louise Erdrich. Like I’m playing the guitar part from “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
How I wish that I could write as simply, as beautifully.
- – - – -
IN ALL THOSE miles, in all those hours, in all that air rushing by and sky coming at us, blending into the next horizon, then the one after that, in all that time there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger. My mother or my father drove, gripping the wheel with neutral concentration. I don’t remember that they even looked at me or I at them after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old. I do remember, though, the familiar side of the roadside cafe just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.
I met Donalyn Miller at a Literacy Conference in Ohio. She was the keynote speaker and I came away impressed, inspired, and determined to read her book, THE BOOK WHISPERER: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.
I started reading it yesterday, frustrated over my own 9th-grade son’s brutal, book-hating experience in advanced, 9th-grade English.
I underlined this passage from Donalyn’s book, page 18:
Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters — the saints and sinners, real or imagined — reading shows you how to be a better human being.
The book is filled with passages that make you want to stand up and cheer.
Anyway, this morning Donalyn Miller shared her enthusiasm over this fun bit of pop culture stardom:
Good for Donalyn Miller, good for Jeopardy.
It’s funny, isn’t it? That’s a real touchstone in America today. An undeniable sign that you’ve arrived and made your mark. You become a clue on Jeopardy!
Donalyn is also a founding member of the Nerdy Book Club, which you should definitely follow. Seriously, I insist.
I have an uncomplicated relationship with the books of Stephen King.
For the longest time, I ignored ‘em.
The problem was two-fold:
1) for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to them in high school, which was too bad, because of what happened next;
2) next, I went to college and got educated.
College can mess you up. I was a Lit major, trying my hardest to be a good student and a sublime writer, and for the most part that meant dealing with IMPORTANT BOOKS and LITERARY WRITERS and DIFFICULT TEXTS. I don’t regret any of that — it’s where I learned to love books, and I enjoyed many great teachers — but I wish somebody said, “You know, don’t underestimate the value of a good story.”
It sound ridiculous, of course, since “a good story” is only everything.
But it took me a long time to grasp that plain fact. My head was in the clouds; my nose was in the air.
In college, I learned a lot, and later in life I had to unlearn a lot.
So I’ve come to Stephen King late in life. And now that I’m here I am filled with great respect for the man and the writer. I previously wrote about his excellent book on writing, titled — wait for it — On Writing. I’m not an expert on these things, but I found it to be the best, most relatable, no-nonsense book on THE JOB (& CRAFT) of writing as anything I’ve come across before or since.
I’m currently reading 11/22/63, King’s great novel about time travel and a man who seeks to change history by thwarting the Kennedy assassination.
Here’s a few lines from p. 150, which struck me as great advice and, for a writer with my flaws and proclivities, an essential reminder. Maybe it will help you, too?
“In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This . . . and this . . . and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.”
I posted this long ago, but thought I’d hurl it into the maw of the internet once more just in case you didn’t catch it the first time around:
Here’s a quick recap of Stephen King’s 12 guidelines:
1. Be talented
2. Be neat
3. Be self-critical
4. Remove every extraneous word
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
Before I rubbed the sand from my eyes, before I drank a cup of coffee, before I got dressed, I read this poem by William Stafford. Then I read it again, out loud, to my wife, before she rose from bed. Then I went downstairs, saw that the day was sunny and crisp, and that a dusting of snow covered the lawn.
I promised myself to be awake to the day.
Isn’t that something?
“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
Later I found this reading of the poem by a guy named Dale Biron. Not exactly how I hear it, but a pleasure nonetheless, because it’s always best when the words are heard, familiar units of speech floating on meaningful sound. Have a great day, people. Recognize the fact!
I suppose I should get to work, stop wasting time, eh? But here’s Stafford himself, 46 seconds long, reading “Scars.” Ah, poetry.
It’s that time of year when our local, weekly farmers’ market moves indoors and, obviously, the product changes. These markets really are a summertime thing. I’ll be sad to see the empty parking lot on Saturdays outside the middle school where the market used to be.
My wife, Lisa, who is often a few years ahead of me in all things Cool & Progressive, was an early adopter. She valued local foods, loved our farmers’ market, and loathed to miss it. And I was like, “Okay, sure, I’ll tag along.” All cynical and whatever. But I learned over time that I enjoyed being there, running into folks, seeing my neighbors, goofing around, buying things . . . or not.
In a passage from his devastating, essential, must-read book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben helped clarify for me what it was that I was experiencing at these markets, and maybe why I liked going so much:
Often a farmers’ market is the catalyst — not just because people find that they like local produce, but because they actually meet each other again. This is not sentiment talking; this is data. A team of sociologists recently followed shoppers around supermarkets and then farmers’ markets. You know the drill at the Stop’n’Shop: you come in the automatic door, fall into a light fluorescent trance, visit the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the store, exit after a discussion of credit or debit, paper or plastic. But that’s not what happens at farmers’ markets. On average, the sociologists found, people were having ten times as many conversations per visit. They were starting to rebuild the withered network that we call a community. So it shouldn’t surprise us that farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy; they are simply the way that humans have always shopped, acquiring gossip and good cheer along with calories.
Of course, McKibben has bigger things on his mind, and rightfully so. He recognizes this local, strengthening network as a catalyst, a foundation for political expression & action, for coordinated effort, and, yes, justice. In short, when people get together, it’s a good thing. So I want to thank all those folks who have worked so hard to bring the market to my little ‘burb in Delmar, NY, and the thousands like them around the country. You done good.
This photograph, known as “Earthrise,” was taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission while in orbit around the moon.
I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s book, Eaarth — that’s not a typo, by the way — and he has a nice passage about the taking of that photograph, and it’s “heart-catching” perspective on our fragile planet.
I’ll type it out for you:
In December 1968 we got the first real view of that stable, secure place. Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, the astronauts busy photographing possible landing zones for the missions that would follow. On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to roll the craft away from the moon and tilt its windows toward the horizon — he needed a navigational fix. What he got, instead, was a sudden view of the earth, rising. “Oh my God,” he said. “Here’s the earth coming up.” Crew member Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took the photograph that become the iconic image perhaps of all time. “Earthrise,” as it was eventually known, that picture of a blue-and-white marble floating amid the vast backdrop of space, set against the barren edge of the lifeless moon. Borman said later that it was “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was simple black or white. But not the earth.” The third member of the crew, Jim Lovell, put it more simply: the earth, he said, suddenly appeared as “a grand oasis.”
But we no longer live on that planet. In the four decades since, that earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet.
I basically took the summer off from blogging, so feel a little wobbly about it, my palms sweating on the handlebars, not sure I remember how to do this. I don’t know what happened, exactly, just somehow tired of the “James Preller” corporate thing. Ha. Mostly, I wanted to concentrate on other writings, as I’ve been deep in a new series that I’m writing for Feiwel & Friends. It won’t launch until The Fabled Summer of ’13, but I’ve nearly finished the third book in the series.
NOTE: I just reread this and had a chuckle about that “nearly finished” line. It only signifies that I’m an old pro when it comes to deadlines and editors: a manuscript that has not yet been handed in is always “nearly finished.” Any writer who says otherwise is a fool and a boob.
As for my new series, it feels like I’m that kid behind the snow fort, busily stacking up a supply of snowballs. Can’t wait to fire ‘em out there. More on that topic another time.
I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time guy, but I’m now reading three very different but equally remarkable books concurrently: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem, and Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor.
Normally I don’t do that to myself, the three-books-at-once bafflement, but the mixture of long novel, short nonfiction, and poetry seem to complement each other nicely.
I have a long and sordid relationship with poetry, and I’m especially happy to find this sweet collection by Keillor, based on poems featured on “The Writer’s Almanac.”
Writes Keillor in the introduction:
Oblivion is the writer’s greatest fear, and as with the fear of death, one finds evidence to support it. You fear that your work, that work of your lifetime, on which you labored so unspeakably hard and for which you stood on so many rocky shores and thought, My life has been wasted utterly — your work will have its brief shining moment, the band plays, some confetti is tossed, you are photographed with your family, drinks are served, people squeeze your hand and say that you seem to have lost weight, and then the work languishes in the bookstore and dies and is remaindered and finally entombed on a shelf — nobody ever looks at it again! Nobody! This happens often, actually. Life is intense and the printed page is so faint.
Keillor, as curator, has a point of view. He likes poems that tell a story, poems that are direct and clear, that don’t sound too “written.” Poems that communicate. He quotes Charles Bukowski, “There is nothing wrong with poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”
And I put a big star in the margin when Keillor described his former English major self — a tender self I identified with, all those lessons that have taken me so long to unlearn, the bad habits of academic thought, “back when I was busy writing poems that were lacerating, opaque, complexly layered, unreadable.”
I have a file drawer jammed full with opaque and unreadable poems.
Now I see that as my writer’s quest, this effort to write clearly (and yet, even so, to write interestingly, to achieve moments of “lift off”), to overcome my own big stupid fumbling ego, those temptations to craft “look at me!” sentences that dazzle and bore readers. Perhaps that’s the great gift of writing for children of all ages. They don’t go for the bullshit. You can deliver any kind of content — really, there’s nothing you can’t say in a children’s book — but please don’t overcook it.
One last phrase from Keillor, in praise of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton and, for that matter, all Good Poems:
“They surprise us with clear pictures of the familiar.”
So that’s how I’ve vowed to begin my days, by reading a few poems each morning. To sit in the chair, coffee at hand, and try on the silence. My favorite from today was Charles Simic’s “Summer Morning.”
You might enjoy it, too.
As a final treat, here’s Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart,” a poem by Charles Bukowski. Full text below.
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight