I love to read them. I love to hold them in my hands as their stories and mysteries unfold for me with the turn of every page. I love to own them and to see them on the shelves of my bookcases. I especially love old books, the older the better, especially surprising little tomes from the 19th and early-20th centuries, often found for a few dollars at tag sales and library sales, books with solid, tooled covers over thick, luxurious pages, and engravings protected by sheets of vellum that have survived the journeys through the decades, many inscribed to recipients long, long gone.
I love books for the stories they tell and the worlds they open to me. And I love the people who write the books that I love so much. Some, of course, more than others.
Take F. Scott Fitzgerald. I fell in love with his Great Gatsby the first time I read it in high school. I loved it for its passion, for its power, for its evocation of a lost era (I was, I think, born a nostalgic), and, mostly, for its prose. (Although as much as I loved the book, I couldn’t–at the time–quite wrap my brain around why Jay Gatsby had it so bad for Daisy Buchanan. I mean, let’s face it, Daisy was a vapid twit, a thoughtless rich girl who could easily fit into a contemporary reality show. The Real Housewives of East Egg, anybody? But, I guess what Emily Dickenson wrote is true: “The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care.”)
I’ve probably read and reread The Great Gatsby close to twenty times since then; it’s a book I go back to every year or two, particularly when looking for an infusion of inspiration. It’s the book that made me love “Literature” with the capital-L pretentiousness familiar to every college English Lit major. It’s the book that lead me to other books, by Fitzgerald and by his contemporaries and by those who inspired his generation of writers, as well as those inspired by them. Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner. Sherwood Anderson. Norman Mailer. Graham Greene. J.D. Salinger. Gore Vidal. Joseph Heller. Pete Hamill. Michael Chabon. Philip Roth!
I’d always been a reader, but most of what I read up until then was fantasy and science fiction (and comic books)…which isn’t to take away from either genre. I believe great swaths of both can stand beside the best “Literature” has to offer, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. And next to Fitzgerald my favorite author is Jack London, whose great adventure tales like The Call of the Wild and White Fang pale in comparison with the depth of character and richness of The Sea Wolf and his two breathlessly brilliant autobiographical novels, Martin Eden and John Barleycorn.
A good story is a good story. Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm novels (27 of them–and a reported unpublished 28th–between 1960 and 1993), wasn’t trying to write literature; he was churning out pulp-inspired paperback originals to meet a specific market demand, but he was a hell of a storyteller and a balls-to-the-wall prose stylist. Elmore Leonard, who learned his craft toiling in the same paperback vineyards of the 1950s, was a similarly powerful writer whose work took decades to be accepted as “literature.” William Goldman, James Goldman, Frederick Exley, Rex Stout, Dennis Potter, Isaac Asimov, Ed McBain, Tom DeHaven, Damon Runyon, Madeleine L’Engel, Sidney Taylor, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald…what difference does it make what genre they were writing in as long as their stories touched me, made me think, or made me cry? William Faulkner settled it once and for all in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “…The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
So, yeah, I love books, both for their physical form and emotional content…and for the path they led me on that brought me to a place where now I get to write them as well.
Talk about a love story with a happy ending!