Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"For the Love of Books," Ronald Shwartz: 115 writers name their favorite books

Here's a grand rainy-day idea: Ask 115 writers to write about their favorite books. What author wouldn't spend five or six pages babbling on (okay, carefully crafting) a reply about some obscure title they obsessively read as a child, or the effect of a book casually chosen that hit them like a thunderclap? Which writers, exactly, did they desperately first try to mimic? With some choice replies achingly absent -- no one expects J.D. Salinger to break his career of silence at the age of 90 -- For the Love of Books is still a fascinating and sometimes confounding pleasure.

For the Love of Books collects the stories of these 115 writers' literary educations: some are funny, many serious, and a great number surprising. John Barth's love of fable underpins his mention of The Thousand and One Nights; I wasn't expecting Kurt Vonnegut's debt to The Book of Genesis: "It's very interesting to have an origin myth, and I certainly wouldn't want to live without one." More than a few replies are echoes of near despair: books in which the writer finds a talent so monumental that they almost gave up their own writing altogether. And many of the replies open the reader to authors whose works may still be a puzzle, or yet to be read. From Pete Hammill comes mention of an unfamiliar novel also noted by Barth and Thomas McGuane:

"Epitaph of a Small Winner, by Machado de Assis, is another great novel, set in Brazil and written in Portuguese. I have maybe seven different versions of it. What's extraordinary is that it was written more than a hundred years ago yet it's so incredibly modern. First, the writing is so clean, and so about life -- it's written from the point of view of being dead. And it also has this very modernist sense that there is a collusion between the writer and the reader that's directly in the text. It's the kind of book I am incapable of writing. ... (Machado) was trying to capture, it seems to me, some essential truth about human beings ... he's saying that individuals are capable of stupidity and folly but then, in the end, you cherish them anyway. There's a warmth to the book, a kind of awed sunniness in Machado that I personally connect to." 

Elmore Leonard admires Hemingway, but admits cheerfully that "Papa was the wrong guy to imitate"; then he discovers his narrative voice in the books of Richard Bissell: "The novel that hooked me was High Water. The story is set on a tow-boat pushing eight barge-loads of coal from St. Louis to St. Paul, up the Mississippi on a flood tide." What Leonard learns from the rough-and-tumble characters of Grease Cup and the Ironhat is to develop affection for his characters, and not to take writing books too seriously: "I've learned it has to be fun or it isn't worth doing."

John Irving admires the Dickensian novelists Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass ("I even gave Owen Meany the same initials as Oskar Matzarath, in homage to the master"). No surprise that Frank McCourt recites the opening questions from the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. A surprising number list The Great Gatsby and Look Homeward Angel. Of Thomas Wolfe: "not much talked about these days," Sven Birkirts notes, "and the consensus seems to be that the novels are word-zeppelins, acres of hot air over which an outer skin has been stretched ... " Still, it was Wolfe's "cloud of romanticism (that) persuaded me I wanted to be a writer -- a novelist." Wolfe's "word-zeppelin" of a book also makes the lists of Mark Strand, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut.

From John Updike to Dave Barry, even a random glance at For the Love of Books will reveal some gem: Gertrude Stein gets her expected, modernist due, and then there'
s the fond mention by one author of Archiecomics. (Guess who.) The book is a joy-ride through contemporary literature: you may not understand Pete Hammill's esteem of Bomba, the Jungle Boy at the Giant Cataract, but here he is describing the excitement of meeting a a mutual fan:

"There couldn't be two American writers more different than me and Louis Auchincloss, but we know each other and we both have this Bomba, the Jungle Boy thing. Not long ago I ran into him in the middle of some big event at the Museum of the City of New York and he says to me, 'Pete, old boy. Do you have Bomba, the Jungle Boy at the Swamp Death? I just found a copy.' The people in our immediate vicinity thought we were insane or putting them on. But it was dead serious."

In his introduction Ronald Shwartz admits that compiling this book, while a work of deep interest and literary pursuit, was not easy. "Some correspondents were just this side of surly ... some were demure, like John Gregory Dunne ... then there were those who declined, redeclined, then acceeded, then redeclined again, and finally succumbed over the course of nine months." One of the more fascinating aspects of the book is the bibliography, which lists all the titles mentioned in the text, as well as who recommended them.

It's the reader's own to discover who likes what, who disparages whom, and who at the age of fifteen found a copy of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio translated into Hebrew. And some contributors just can't leave without a slash of the poison pen; On the Road gets a faint-hearted pass by the curmudgeonly P.J. O'Rourke: "not very good, either ... but so completely American that, by comparison, Walt Whitman sounds like a windy, ancient Greek. Made me think even I could write." Take that, Jack!

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