The joy of good books
BY MICHAEL PUTNEY
Can we put aside politics for a moment and talk about something that gives us joy and hope, sorrow and dread, pleasure and pain, challenge and reward, sometimes all at once? I’m talking about books, the pleasure of reading them and the people who write them.
People like Richard Ford, the excellent American novelist who came to Books & Books in Coral Gables (a low bow to proprietor Mitchell Kaplan) the other night to read from Canada, his latest book. And, yes, Ford says he does like going to Canada because it’s a tonic change from the frenetic pace in the United States.
“I like crossing the border and going there,” Ford said, “because Canada is less hectic. America is an exigent place.” An exigent place. Ford talks like that. Writes like it, too, which is one reason why I like and admire his work. His trilogy about a character named Frank Bascombe, a sportswriter turned Realtor, is among the best works of fiction in English written in the last 25 years.
The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land tell us about ourselves and our times, our many shortcomings and occasional successes, in ways we desperately need to know. They cohere and make our own inchoate lives less so. They create their own world even as they complete ours. They succeed as works of literature — sorry if that sounds high-falutin’ — and as accurate reflections of the times we live in. They’re full of the zeitgeist.
Of course, being Frank Bascombe’s contemporary and spiritual doppelganger may have something to do with my empathetic reaction. But I recommend Ford’s books to anyone. Independence Day, which won a Pulitzer Prize, would be a good place to begin.
Ford is a lanky guy in his mid-60s with the remnant of a Southern drawl — he was born in Mississippi, grew up in Arkansas and now lives in New Orleans. I see him as the rightful heir to the legacy of another New Orleans novelist, the late Walker Percy, whose Moviegoer remains one of the touchstones of my life.
Ford’s main character, Frank Bascbombe, is the spiritual heir of Binx Bolling, Percy’s charmingly ineffectual, distanced observer who still speaks to me nearly half a century after I met him. That’s the thing about books — the important ones stay with you forever. They change us.
“What are you reading?” is a question my friends and I ask each other all the time. Trading recommendations and discussing books is an essential part of those friendships. I’ve just finished and can highly recommend Pulphead, a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, who has somehow found ways to incorporate the techniques of fiction into reportage. He does so in a brilliant portrait of Michael Jackson, about whom I thought everything that needed to be written had been.
Then there’s Sullivan’s portrait of a Christian rock festival that is both moving, funny and fascinating — and without a trace of condescension because, it turns out, Sullivan had his own “Jesus phase.” Good fiction? I loved Chad Harbaugh’s The Art of Fielding, a beautiful take on the half a dozen or so disparate characters whose lives intersect at a small Midwestern college. Yes, there’s plenty of baseball, too, but in the same way that Moby Dick involves whales. There’s a connection between them, too. The college’s baseball team are “The Harpooners.”
I remember many years ago buying my first car at a used car lot in Oakland, Calif., from a nice enough guy who wanted to know what good were all the books I was reading up the street in Berkeley. “How are any of ‘the classics’ ever going to help you in real life?” he wanted to know.
It’s a perfectly good question and one that will forever be asked. Here’s the answer: We can’t say precisely how, but the best books do help us. Guide us, teach us, inform us. And the life they contain is sometimes more vivid, mysterious and wonderful than life in the workaday “real world.”