The first big boy book I remember reading was The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. As I recall it was a rather lengthy novel, 441 pages according to  The length didn’t seem to be a factor which even entered my mind when I checked it out from Pineville’s library, the Martin Library built in 1950.  I believe it was shortly after its opening that I checked out the Western.  As I recall, Wister’s tale was set in Wyoming and was filled with action, violence, hatred, revenge, love, and friendship.  It was a thing of glory for a boy of ten.  The elementary school didn’t have a library, but the Martin was within the same block, so my parents didn’t mind my visiting there after school.  I remember that I was a little awed by how quiet it was there among the books, and how no one, not even the librarian lady, who seemed ancient to me at the time, restricted my movements about the shelves.  It was a lot of freedom for a boy of ten.

I began life as a slow reader, and I know I’ll end life the same.  I’ve never read faster than 350-400 words a minute; Hell, that’s only about 7 times my speed of typing.  When I was a young fellow, I figured that Evelyn Wood’s speed reading would have swept the globe, and we would all be speeding through the written word at a 21st Century pace.  It didn’t happen.  Don’t hear much about Evelyn these days.  Now I don’t deny that some folks can read at an amazing clip, but I suspect that they are closer to freaks of nature than they are good students of Evelyn.    When it comes to reading, I’m more of a pack-mule than a thoroughbred race horse.

About the time I entered high school, I discovered a novelist whom I really liked.  Somerset Maugham was still alive and kicking when I was reading his writings.  He passed away in ‘65: I had been reading his works since ‘55.  Maugham was an English playwright, novelist, and short story writer.  I wasn’t much interested in his plays or, for that matter, anyone’s plays at that time.  His career as a novelist includes such works as Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor’s Edge.  The one novel I was most strongly drawn to was The Moon and Sixpence based on the life of Paul Gauguin, the French Post-Impressionist artist. You don’t have to think very hard or long to figure out why I liked this piece of writing.

While in high school, I became enamored with the writings of Aldous Huxley, another British writer.  Well, he was British but lived in the US from 1937.  Of course I read his novel Brave New World, which portrays a society dehumanized by mass production and Pavlovian conditioning, and I was greatly impressed.  It, along with Orwell’s 1984, are probably the only futuristic works I’ve ever bothered to read.  Huxley was still alive and writing when I first read his works.  In reading about him recently, it appears that he was a humanist, pacifist, Satanist, interested in parapsychology and philosophical mysticism.  Although he was a prolific novelist, playwright, short story author, children’s author, and poet, I was most impressed by his essays.  The one thing he wrote about which I vividly recall was psychedelic drugs.  I had never heard of them before.  To say that he favored them would be putting it mildly.  They sounded interesting, but, being a good Southern boy, I never experimented with them.  Thank you, Lord.

When I was in high school, Ayn Rand was a hit with me.    She promoted reason and rejected all forms of faith and religion.  She rejected collectivism and statism instead supporting laissez-faire capitalism.  To name just a few of the opinions she voiced: she was against racism, opposed affirmative action, supported legal abortion, opposed the military draft, against any form of censorship, against any restrictions on pornography, and against all taxation.  I recall that she proposed an alternative to taxation: a national lottery.  At the time I thought it was an outrageous idea and totally unrealistic.  Oh, well.  I liked her writing not because I agreed with her in all matters but rather because she made me think.  She was much alive in the 60’s and lived until 1982. She is still an influence among libertarians and conservatives.  A protester at a 2009 Tea Party rally carried a sign with the name John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged.  She is best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  Unless I’ve totally lost my memory, I believe I read both.  She was widely known for her philosophical system called Objectivism.  She described her literary style as “romantic realism.”  Crap, I thought I had coined the phrase.  Through my years I’ve often thought of myself as a romantic realist, not in my literary style but in my life.

I don’t recall who came first into my reading life, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  I think it was in my early days of college that I found them.  Let’s begin with Fitzgerald. 

Fitzgerald died a couple of years before I was born.  His heyday was the Jazz Age, a phrase attributed to him.  While in college I read This Side of Paradise which was set in the flapper generation, about the time it was published, 1919. Amory Blaine is the principal character of this lengthy three-part novel.  It’s rather sad: love found and lost, friends’ betrayals, et cetera; just the right formula for a young fellow like myself.  Of course I read The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and numerous short stories by Fitzgerald, but This Side of Paradise was always my favorite.  Later I read about his wife Zelda  and his “friend” Ernest Hemingway who referred to Zelda as “insane.”  Fitzgerald’s life could not be described as a  happy one: again, an element which sparked my interest.  I’m certain that today at my mature age that I would not be nearly as intrigued by This Side of Paradise or Fitzgerald as I was as a young college student.

How could a young man not be influenced by Ernest Hemingway: he projected himself in his life and in his writings as a man’s man.  I remember when he died in ‘61 the victim of suicide by shotgun.  When I discovered that his father had died the same way, I was less mystified.  It’s nearly impossible to separate Hemingway’s life from his fiction.  A few months after graduating from high school, he was off to Italy where he volunteered as a World War I ambulance driver.  Of course, he was wounded.  That was the beginning of a life of adventure for him.  His novels include A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea among others.  He was a prolific writer of short stories; "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,”  “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Killers” are among my favorites.  It’s Hemingway’s lean writing style which as much as his subject matter appeals to men.  My favorite of all of his writing was The Sun Also Rises.  As a youth, it was difficult to resist Hemingway.  As an old man, my fascination for bull fighting, deep sea fishing, and shooting elephants has dimmed.  But one can not deny that Hemingway was a genius of the simple sentence.

I mentioned earlier in this essay that in high school I wasn’t interested in plays...anyone’s plays.  In college, I, of course, studied the plays of Shakespeare.  I found that I liked the idea of Shakespeare more than I actually liked the plays of Shakespeare.  My feelings about plays changed for me probably late in college and during my time in the service.  Eugene O’Neill was the first playwright to garner my attention.  I remember reading Desire Under the Elms and The Iceman Cometh; I liked O’Neill’s works, but it was  Tennessee Williams who was a fascination for me.  Stimulated by the many movies made based on his plays, I began to read his original works.  Sometimes his works are referred to as Southern Gothic.  I don’t know if this was correct or not, but it always seemed an appropriate tag.  Being that Williams was from the South, his plays were usually set there, and they definitely dealt with unusual, grotesque, and flawed characters and quirky situations which naturally seem to evolve out of the dark oaks of the South.  I could almost feel the humid air of the South in my nostrils as I read his dramas.  The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth are plays you may recognize from the movies made of them.

The fellow who is probably the most Southern of all writers is William Faulkner.  He was born and reared in Oxford, Mississippi.  He grew up listening to stories told to him by his elders.  He listened to stories of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Faulkners.  He absorbed the Mississippi sense of humor, the Southern characters, timeless themes, the tragic relationships of blacks and whites, and stirred them in his mind to produce the most profound of literature.  You can not read Faulkner without being constantly aware that you are reading “literature.”  He wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays, and screenplays.  Many of his stories were set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha.  Some of his best known novels are The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August.  He was a prolific writer of shorter stories; “The Bear” is my favorite.  It was a part of the novel Go Down Moses.  You can’t get much more Southern than this tale: a seemingly immortal bear, Old Ben; a tiny fyce dog with no sense of mortality;  Lion, a huge and brave Airedale mix; a death scene that sees the demise of Old Ben, Lion, and one of the hunters, mix in race, the destruction of the forest by loggers and greed, bravery, dark secrets, et cetera, and you have a reasonably good Southern Gothic tale.  Faulkner’s writing made me feel the South in my bones as no other writer.  He’s the only one who makes me homesick.

Over those early years, I read a lot of different fictional offerings.  The ones I’ve mentioned are the ones which have stuck in my mind over the years.  After I began to teach, my attention turned more to works of nonfiction, but there are a couple of books that are worth mentioning.  One is Leon Hale’s Bonney’s Place.  If you live in Texas and have spent any time at all in rural beer joints, you’ll be able to relate to the setting and characters of this tale.  The other book worth mentioning is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  The title is based on Jonathan Swift’s, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”  Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of this work: be ashamed of yourself if you never read it.

I consider the authors of the books I read when I was young to be my surrogate fathers, uncles, older brothers or sisters giving me guidance in helping me realize what I believe and how to live my life. Increasingly our world is one in which more people get their entertainment and information through visual images.   It’s difficult to imagine how a visual image could be my wise uncle.  But, maybe, that’s just me.


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