Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

My Photo
Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Monday, March 27, 2006

You Have to Live the Life You Sing About

[gary daily col. 52 February 2, 2003]

“If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.”

-Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till”

Black History Month 2003

People “who made a difference” can be found by simply opening a book of American history to any page. After a long struggle, historians today grant what should have always been obvious: African Americans are an important part of this group. They have contributed mightily to every aspect of American life. These women and men were “great” by any measure historians might use.

What is our nation’s music without the genius of Louis Armstrong or our literature if Zora Neale Hurston’s writings should be found missing? A taproot of investigative journalism is in the reports of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and our economic-political thought (and so much else) was enriched beyond measure by the works of W. E. B. Du Bois. These few are only representative of a host of justly famous African Americans. They helped to make America what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.

Greatness, however, is too often narrowly defined. Each February Black History Month serves to remind us that the past is also the story of a kind of greatness that can elude even careful historians. This absent story is that of the greatness of individuals doing what is right and often courageous, whether it be in the flash of one day or in dedication lasting over many decades. These are people who act in ways that change minds, change lives and even serve to play a role in profoundly changing history.

Historians, pressed by space limitations or hemmed in by standard assumptions on how to weight the actions and impact of individuals in the public arena, generally fail to find ways to weave these “invisible” heroes into the historical record. Black History Month is a good time to briefly recognize one of these unacknowledged heroes.

“Thar he,” were the words of Mose Wright in a courtroom in Mississippi in September of 1958.

Wright was testifying in the trial of two white men accused of removing his nephew Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy, from his house and brutally beating and killing the boy. The indictment read that young Emmett was killed by a shot through his ear. Till’s body was disposed of by tying a heavy cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbwire and tumbling him down a steep bank into the Talahatchie River.

Emmett Till was from Chicago. He was visiting the original home of his mother for the summer. It was his first trip to Mississippi, called by some “The Hospitality State.”

This gruesome murder took place in the summer of 1955. At a trial in 1958 Mose Wright put his life in danger and agreed to be a witness for the state. He was placed under oath. But more important than the oath he pledged on the “Negro” Bible (even the book of books was segregated in 1950s Mississippi), was a solemn recognition and choice coming from deep inside of Mose Wright. This slight man, five foot three inches tall, 64 years old, a sharecropper most of his life, decided for himself that it was time.

It was time to no longer turn away from the crimes of racism. It was time for personal courage to speak truth to power and intimidation. It was time to say to himself and then say to the world that the blood shed in support of slavery and the blood shed in support of segregation would not close up the mouth of Mose Wright. It was time to desert the false safety of silence. It was time to speak.

“Thar he.”

With those words, Mose Wright pointed out the two defendants who had entered his house and dragged Emmett Till into the night.

Here is how Murray Kempton, who attended the trial and was one of the finest journalists of that era, described the significance of his act:

“If it had not been for him, we would not have had this trial. It will be a miracle if he wins his case; yet it is a kind of miracle that, all on account of Mose Wright, the State of Mississippi is earnestly striving here in this courtroom to convict two white men for murdering a Negro boy so obscure that they do not appear to have even known his name.”

Striving as they might, there would be no miracles. The State of Mississippi failed to deliver justice in this case. After deliberating all of an hour and ten minutes, the all white male jury found the defendants not guilty. A few months later Look magazine purchased the former defendants story. Now “free” men, they admitted to murdering Emmett Till.

During Black History Month, we all, every one of us, can be moved by lives such as Mose Wright’s. Here is an individual who acted with conviction while surrounded by hostility and without the expectation of fame and recognition.

Strange isn’t it how some people continue to be blind to the inspirational benefits that fill the story of African Americans in our nation’s history? Mose Wright’s life moment offers something everyone can aspire to achieve.

If they have the courage to do so.

If they will remember Mose Wright.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Nickel and Dimed" Is the Book All of Vigo County Will Be Reading

[gary daily col. 51 January 26, 2003]

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." -- Mark Twain

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich is the book chosen to be the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection for 2003. The announcement on Thursday of last week at the Vigo County Public Library, the mover and shaker behind the program, made it official.

“If All” initiatives are launched with hope and propelled by focused energy. “If All” aims at getting an entire community to read the same book. It promotes efforts that will help the community think about what they have read in that book and it provides individuals opportunities to sit down and talk about what they discovered in the book. Not many books are chosen or read with these goals in mind. It takes a special book to make such a program work --Nickel and Dimed is that special book.

What Ehrenreich does in this book (she refers to it as a kind of “experiment”) is go out into the country and become a low-wage worker. (It should be noted that at no time does she take a minimum wage job.) Her goal in this foray into immersion journalism is to simply report on her experience. Here’s how she puts it:

“So this is not the story of some death-defying ‘undercover’ adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did, look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fan fare and dithering.”

Ehrenreich works jobs in three parts of the country-- Florida, Maine and Minnesota. As mentioned, these are far from “death-defying” endeavors. Wal-Mart goon squads do not beat her up; the supervisor at a chain restaurant does not threaten to break her thumbs; house cleaning service henchmen do not escort her to the edge of the city with the warning, “You’ll never scrub toilets in this town again.”

But there are tensions of a different sort in this book--the subtitle of Nickel and Dimed hints at this: “On (Not) Getting By in America.” Those who have experienced the gnawing fears and the draining frustrations that come with working long and hard and never quite making ends meet know these tensions. Ehrenreich quietly yet movingly gets these down of the page.

Ehrenreich joins workers caught in a social-economic net that frustrates them at every turn. In very personal terms she tells the story of being caught in this net. She tells it with empathy, realism and touches that are memorable and often very funny. And there is not a maudlin or patronizing sentence in the book.

Her ventures into low-wage jobs in America reveal that this work and the difficulty of “Getting By” on the take-home pay from these jobs is hidden in plain sight from many Americans. She writes of work that often requires significant skills. She stingingly reports on the indignities she encounters and the corners she must cut as she struggles to “Get By.” She flounders and fails.

Readers who feel they must rush for the exits when a book threatens to become a catalogue of depressing statistics need not despair. This is not a book filled with numbers about, say, the homeless or single-mothers on welfare. And it’s not a book about bad luck or even bad decisions. It’s a book about someone you know or once knew, maybe one of your neighbors, or a relative, or you.

Our elected officials are aware of this world. But seeing it through the journalistic art of Ehrenreich may give them a fresh perspective. I ask Mayor Anderson and her staff, the Terre Haute City Council, and the Vigo County Council to sit down and spend a few hours with Ehrenreich in the world of the working poor. They should all become a part of the “If All” dialogue.

I will be calling them about their reactions to Nickel and Dimed and reporting back in this column.

I specifically ask that members of academic departments of management, sociology, and economics at our local universities study this book carefully. I ask them to perform a service to the “If All” community by using their expertise and reporting on the applicability of Ehrenreich’s personal journey, observations, and conclusions to circumstances in our community.

Their thoughts and critiques of the “If All” book will also be given an airing in the “Reading at the Crossroads” column.

Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in a chain restaurant, a housekeeper in a motel, as clean-up help in a nursing home, a cleaning person with a contract housecleaning company, and as a Wal-Mart “associate.” Using the local telephone book, I estimate that we have thirty-six motels, fifteen nursing homes, eight house cleaning agencies, two going on three Wal-Marts, and too many chain restaurants to count in our community.

If you know this work, if you work this work and can compare your experience to that described in Ehrenreich’s book, call or write me. I am most anxious to pass your thoughts on the “If All” book along to the readers of this column.

Right now the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection for 2003, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is available at the Vigo County Public Library. Pick it up, read it and I’m certain you will start talking about it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

“If All” Book for 2003 Chosen-No Injuries to Report

[gary daily col. 50 January 19, 2003]

“To choose is also to begin.” - Starhawk

Readers have a tendency to form strong opinions about favorite kinds of books. In the clumsy jargon of the day which requires everything from religion to recipes be seen through the prism of triumphant capitalism, they are moved by an invisible hand and take “ownership” or become “stakeholders” in what they read.

Be it fiction or non-fiction, mystery or romance, biography or history, James Patterson, Inc. or Jack Kerouac, Beat - readers invariably have great difficulty in shucking off dedication to specific genre or authors. Ink from the pages of books read over the years runs through their veins. And they’re not shy about telling anyone what type of literary serum they take in their regular transfusions.

Keeping this in mind, imagine the problem of bringing a dozen devotees of the printed word together and charging them with the responsibility of choosing THE BOOK for “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book-2003." This is a difficult, demanding, yet exhilarating process.

Some communities detour around the committee step and allow a dictator to choose. At least that’s the word from Chicago. Mayor Daley supposedly handed down the title of his favorite read to a “Citizens Blue Ribbon Committee.” They quickly put a Blue Ribbon stamp of approval on his recommendation. It turned out well. His Honor’s favorite book turned out to be Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. However, choice by enlightened despot has since been abandoned in the Windy City.

New York City is the most notorious case of the “If All” process going haywire. A committee of educators, librarians and bookstore owners decided on Chang-Rae Lee’s complex and rewarding novel, Native Speaker. But wait! In one of those famous New York minutes, groups and individuals once part of the committee challenged the done deal. Letters to the editor and group manifestos flew from Harlem in the north to the Village in the south and spread east along this axis. Other titles, many other titles, poured forth.

More disturbingly, during this contretemps the whole concept of “If All” was challenged.

These challenges have been, I’m shocked to say, almost exclusively grumpy harrumphs from academics along the lines of, “Don’t tell me what I have to read!” As if scholar-teachers worth their salt are not constantly telling colleagues, students and the readers of their reviews what they should or should not be reading. As if suggesting that Professor X, Y, and Z read a single book that the entire community will be reading is not something worth doing, worth supporting.

I’m not certain an “If All” book in the Big Apple ever fell off the committee tree into the hands of readers. The anarchy created in Gotham’s attempt to select a book got so out of hand that Martin Scorcese is considering making a motion picture about it, “Gangs of New York-Part II.”

I am pleased to report the book selection for “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book - 2003" has been made and that the process went smoothly, civility reined supreme. A committee of librarians, academics, and citizen-readers (including this writer) sequestered themselves for more than two hours in a meeting room at the Vigo County Public Library last November and emerged with the “If All” title for 2003. Eleven books were considered. The list of eleven originated in the over fifty nominations received from local book clubs and individuals. (The VCPL website has the list of the eleven books the committee considered.)

Selection committee members read some or all of the books, consulted book reviews and commentaries. In general, we agonized about which one of these works would best serve to attract dedicated readers as well as aliterates to read and discuss the book. The strengths and the weaknesses of each book were reported and discussed. Votes were cast.

I can be no more dramatic than to report that at the end of that very intense meeting, no furniture was broken; no physical cuts or bruises were in evidence; no one stormed out of the room in anger. Rather, there were smiles of agreement and a good feeling that the book selected is a book which has the interest and the power to command the attention of the entire community.

See for yourself. Please make it a point to attend the Brown Bag Program that will be held at the main branch of the Vigo County Public Library this Thursday, January 23, 12:10-12-50 p.m. The “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” title for 2003 will be officially announced. Sheron Dailey will read selections from the book. Questions and comments on “If All” for 2003 will be entertained.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

“If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” for 2003

[gary daily col. 48 January 12, 2003]
"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
-- Mark Twain

I think it’s time to start beating the drums for “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” – the 2003 edition.

Perhaps you were hopelessly lost in the Mall of America parking lot or hypnotized by the flicker of 523 channels on your satellite TV and missed the “If All” 2002 edition. Like a fresh breeze coming off of Puget Sound this program wafted its way to and through the Wabash Valley. Very invigorating stuff.

Here’s what happened. Readers in the community voted on which of three books they thought all of Vigo County might read and discuss. The book chosen to be the “If All” selection for 2002 was David Guterson’s fine novel, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Guterson’s book was read widely and intensively. It became the selection of many book clubs in the community; it was discussed at open meetings sponsored by the Vigo County Public Library; copies of the “If All” book were available at all branches of the library and, thanks to a truly inspired idea (and with financial help), copies of Snow Falling on Cedars were also available on a “borrow and return” honor basis at several local coffee shops in Terre Haute.

This program was initiated by the Vigo County Public Library and supported by the Friends of the Library, Terre Haute Tribune-Star, WTWO-TV, Arts Illiana, Indiana State University, and a number of local businesses and community organizations. Again, thanks to all for their support.
Adding to the success of “If All” as a community wide project was Indiana State University’s decision to make Guterson’s book their Summer Reading Program selection. This meant that all incoming students in the fall of 2002 were encouraged to read the book before taking up residence in our Crossroads community.

Many students participated in group discussions of the book during the first year orientation week. Snow Falling on Cedars was used as a required reading in a number of courses at ISU. The Summer Reading Program also sponsored a free showing of the movie based on the novel. This was screened at the Indiana Theater and everyone in the community was invited to attend.

The Indiana State University Speakers Series (free and open to the public each and every year) brought the distinguished Asian-American poet and educator Lawson Inada to campus to speak and discuss his poetry and the meanings of his experiences in a World War II government internment camp. (For the few of you who have not yet read this gripping historical novel, one of these camps play an important role in the story.)

Some people, for whatever reasons, chose not to read the “If All” book in 2002. Some of these are aliterates.

Aliterates are those who can read but throw away a personal skill and art by choosing not to read. They turn their backs on opportunities they cannot begin to imagine. They fail to apply the key of reading to the lock in the door that opens to realms of thought and feeling not available through any other form of communication. Aliterates are sealed in cells of narrow experience. These cells are filled with the treadmill paraphernalia of tired ideas and stale emotions.

“If All” is about using the key of reading to move people out and beyond the cells of sameness and the self-incarceration of the mind and the spirit. This is the drumbeat “If All” moves to.

Hard work made the first ever Crossroads of America reading extravaganza a booming success. It served to bring people together who otherwise would never meet. The program easily lived up to Terre Haute Mayor Judy Anderson’s official proclamation supporting the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” initiative.

Parts of the Proclamation read as follows:

“We recognize the printed word in the form of books as being artistic and intellectual vehicles which can transport us to worlds we may never visit and introduce us to people and ideas we might otherwise never meet or know.”

“We also understand that part of the magic of reading good books is that they reintroduce us to ourselves and to those we love and respect.”

“We understand that in reading the works of literary artists we experience life from perspectives which stretch our imaginations and touch our emotions. And that when we finish reading a book of quality our habits of thought take on new shapes and wrinkles. Thus our lives are enriched.”

“We live in a place we call the “Crossroads of America” and find it fitting to recognize that reading and books is also a “Crossroads” of minds and spirits and feelings.”
For 2003, “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” has changed in details but not in purpose. The selection process for choosing the “If All” book has been streamlined. Next week’s column will describe these changes and provide some insider information and observations on how the new process worked in practice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Memories in the Mind and on the Page

[gary daily col. 48 January 5, 2003]

"What do Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy and Ted Williams have in common?"
-Ira Berkow quoting a newspaper story

What year was it?

Sitting high up in the upper-deck of Comiskey Park on Chicago’s south side, it might have been 1950. A kid with kid friends at the ball game. It was the wrong ball game. I was a Cub fan surrounded by White Sox antagonists. But the White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox in a double-header that day. I might act the mindless fan cheering for the lumbering Hank Sauer and the Cubs, but I was no fool. Seeing the Red Sox meant seeing Ted Williams.

Williams didn’t disappoint. The next day sports writers filled their columns with the clichés I grew up on and loved with a shallow and intense blindness. They reported on how the “Splendid Splinter” had “poled” two home runs into the “far reaches” of the upper-right field bleachers. Who won those two games? Who cares? The “Splendid Splinter” put one of those homers only a few rows from where I was sitting. I don’t quite remember it like it was yesterday, but it’s all too fresh to have happened over fifty years ago.

For the past seven years the Sunday “New York Times Magazine” section runs an end of the year feature that “look[s] back at noteworthy lives that ended in the last year.” Mistitled “The Lives They Lived,” it really serves as a vehicle for some fine writers to speak to readers about how these individual lives seized and stimulated their imaginations.

An example. Here’s one of America’s finest living novelists, John Updike on the baseball legend Ted Williams. He’s describing Ted Williams’ swing. No, that should be: “The Swing.”

“When an athlete or opera singer or exhilarating personality dies, it is the live performance we remember, . . . perceived from however far back a row in the audience. The [Williams] swing--the coiled wait, the popped hip, the long and graceful follow-through that left his body yearning toward first base--was a grand motion, never a lunge or hasty fending or a minimalist Ruthian swat; it took up a lot of space and seemed fully serious in its sweep.”

Many decades after that afternoon in Comiskey Park, on a trip to Key West, Florida, I was hit hard by a hunger attack for Key Lime pie. Serendipity. Within a mile I spotted a sign modestly announcing the most famous, the most authentic, the most sought after Key Lime pie in the Keys. (If you want to look for it, I think it was on Marathon Key.) I pulled into the lot of this coffee and pie shop. It was barely the size of a modest two-car garage. The pie lived up to the road sign hype.

And there were extras with the pie. The walls of this fine establishment were filled with many photographs signed by Ted Williams. Williams in uniforms--his Red Sox flannels and in his military fighter pilot gear of two wars, The Big One, WWII, and The Forgotten One, Korea. I read that Williams once crash landed a burning plane and escaped from it just minutes before it blew up. When asked about his frightening experience by a reporter he said, "Hell, yes, I was scared." I believe him, but it’s still hard for me to imagine this guy ever being scared of anything.

Photographs also showed Williams in his fishing uniform. He was an obsessive, world-class fisherman. It turned out Williams’ fishing camp was in the area. No bonefish was safe when he was on the nearby waters. Williams was a regular at this great Key Lime pie stop. The guy behind the counter described him as easy going, relaxed, a nice guy. None of that “Terrible Ted” stuff the press loved to hang around his neck. At least that’s what the pie man told me. I trust him. He had the pictures on the wall and the signs on the road had been backed up by the pie on the plate.

I’m saddened now when I think of Ted Williams cryonically frozen somewhere off in the desert reaches of Arizona. I’d rather think back to one of those fishing pictures hanging on the knotty-pine wall of his neighbor’s pie shop. I remember one that was the standard issue fisherman pose, a trophy type denizen-of-the-deep-hanging-on-a-hook shot. In the picture Ted Williams looks intense, but satisfied. In profile, the fish stares out with one great eye, either surprised or proud at having given it all up to someone of the Splendid Splinter’s stature. That’s probably how many a pitcher felt after Ted Williams gracefully lashed their best pitch against an outfield wall or into the stands.

Most of all, I like to look at photos of The Swing. But now I also have the words of John Updike. Only an artist of Updike's caliber could dissect that swing yet keep it whole. He freezes the tension, the motion, the classic grace of The Swing in words and endows it with a dynamic equipoise. It's Updike's words, not the photograph, that show us the Williams swing as a work of art. A fluid picture replayed in our mind's eye--the "long and graceful follow-through," the lean athlete's body "yearning toward first base."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Three Years and Counting

[gary daily col. 53 submitted but never published February 9, 2003]
“I hate war: it ruins conversation.” - Bernard de Fontenelle

This hadn’t happened to me in many years.

Growing up in Chicago and posing as a surly teenager, I would hang out on the corner of 63d and Kedzie with my “gang.” It was not uncommon for a car filled with equally disenchanted youths to roar by and yell something in our direction. I don’t remember hearing, “Have a nice day.” from them. We usually extended the conversation by flashing a series of arm, hand and finger signs in the direction of the fast departing vehicle. And with that the dialogue came to an end.

A similar “conversation” took place in the early 1960s while I was walking along, almost minding my own business, in front of Halverson’s Real Estate Office on the south side of Chicago. I was with a group of people who were carrying signs stating hopeful truths such as: “Equality Means Equal Housing” and “No Blockbusting In Chicago Lawn.” A few very agitated people standing nearby aimed a few untoward remarks in our direction. My response, as vocabulary challenged as theirs, was stifled by the leader of our modest “march.” I think she said something to me like, “Don’t ever talk to people like that.” She was right, but I really wasn’t trying to talk to them.

Flash forward a few years to the streets of New Brunswick, New Jersey. I remember almost equal numbers of anti-war marchers and flag waving anti-demonstrators lining the route that day. We chanted the somewhat silly slogans of choice, ditties such as: “Hey, hey, LBJ / How many kids did you kill today.” The bystanders, lacking poetry in their souls, yelled back at us, “U. S. A. Love it or Leave It.”

As we marched, I glanced over at veterans standing in the now tight uniforms they had pulled out of the backs of closets for the occasion. (Mine had inexplicably shrunk to a size too small to wear that day.) These vets flashed arm, hand and finger signs at us. I gave back as good as I got. None of us thought about draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and singing, “All we are saying . . . .” That would come many years and many body bags later.

These distant chords of memory were touched about a week-and-half ago.

I was standing on the corner of 7th and Cherry at noon. A dozen or so like-minded souls stood next to me. It was a cold January day. My only purpose was to wave a hand painted sign announcing to the drivers passing by that “War IS Terrorism.” I was stamping my cold feet and hoping once again that maybe this sensible flash of good sense would cause someone to think about the direction the nation is heading. It seemed like the thing to do.

A few reporters came by to ask questions and TV cameras filled ten minutes of tape so that 15 seconds might find its way onto the tube that evening. We were about ready to declare victory, put away the signs and look for a hot cup of coffee. Then a car lurched up Cherry Street, slowed almost to a stop, and rolled down the window. A face livid with anger filled the window frame. What I heard from that face was, as in my Chicago experiences, not entirely clear. If pressed, I would quote the words coming from the purple face in this car window as: “Blah, blah, blah . . . VX gas . . . blah, blah YOU DUMB &%$# [expletive deleted]!”

I had the presence of mind not to revert back to my gang response of the past. My gloved fingers and my mouth remained silent. And a good thing, too. Among our little band of anti-war demonstrators were at least two nuns and a local minister of the gospel. Our group also included a Viet-Nam vet, a retired school teacher and a student or two--a sprinkling of the usual suspects when it comes to standing up against war, poverty, and injustice. Most of those assembled would not have appreciated a coarse and inarticulate response on my part.

It all made me think again how many people stand mute and uninformed when it comes to decisions being made about war. Understandably they want to trust their leaders to know more than they do. But some of these same people, for whatever reason, feel the need to curse and jeer at anyone who questions those leaders, challenges the decisions being made, refuse to be led in a direction they judge to be strategically flawed and morally bankrupt.

If you can’t handle challenges to authority on high, you should ignore my pointed reminiscing and criticisms and go directly to reading the following books.

For the strongest argument that can be made favoring the war (but not the rush to war), try Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Match this with John R. MacArthur’s Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War so that you will have a more critical perspective on what you hear and read about the war should it take place.

And finally, read Thucydides’ The PeloponnesianWars, especially the short section known as “The Melian Dialogue.” That’s the part about democratic Athens embracing a policy of “might makes right,” a policy the Athenians followed to their eventual destruction.

If you read and think about any of this, there will be no reason to give a second thought to anyone who might come by and call you a “Dumb &%$#.”

Monday, March 20, 2006


[gary daily col. 47 December 29, 2002]

“You can anticipate slow but steady progress and a calm pleasant life ahead if books were the main feature of your dream.”
-The Dreamer’s Dictionary: From A to Z

During this time of the year magazine and newspaper articles recommending books abound. These reviews of the year list books that won prizes or books that are notable in quality, design, or sales. And, being a celebrity-crazed culture, books that are the favorites of someone whose name might possibly be recognizable to at least five people living west of the Hudson River are also duly noted. Therefore, we might be informed that Donald Trump read Lemons Are My Best Friends and Condi Rice appreciated the self-help work, Lies I Told My Teachers.

But I do not take a cynical view of this list mongering. These year-end graded catalogs of books are not just marketing ploys. I prefer to see them as guides. Guides can be interesting in and of themselves. And possibly instructive. Recommended lists can on the one hand valorize reading choices we made in the past; or, contrarily, they can serve as easy targets, sniffed at and then dismissed with great self-satisfaction. Lists can also motivate. I have several lists with many titles I’ve circled, promises sincerely but unrealistically made to: READ THIS BOOK NEXT WEEK.

These roll calls of book recommendations can be put to more fanciful uses.

Using the "New York Times Book Review” 2002 lists of “Notable Books,” as categorized under the headings “Fiction and Poetry” and “Nonfiction,” I was motivated (who knows why) to run a computer “Find” search on each list for the words “love” and “war.” If you’re not familiar with these lists, I should mention that they consist of the book title, author, publisher and price and a thirty to fifty word summary and comment on the book. The results: “love” is mentioned 22 times; “war” is mentioned 22 times.

This mechanical analysis may be made to prove once again that we live in precarious and coarsened times. I wasn't surprised when I found that the 22-22 tie was achieved in a lopsided way. The 22 mentions of “love” came solely from the “Fiction and Poetry” category--these imaginative works bowing to the ways of the heart. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed, or is it hardhearted, “Nonfiction” books found no room at all for “love.”

Current works of fact would seem to rule love out of their mix of truth. On the other hand, novelists and poets would appear to live in a never-never land where the ignorant armies that clash by night are personal and cultural and never military in nature. Should the Bush II Oil War erupt in 2003 it’s a safe bet poets will go to “war.” Alas, it is problematic if “love” will ever manage to brighten the pages of works by economists and policy wonks.

I’d prefer to spin this simple survey along the lines that it proves nothing except that my favorite quote from George Orwell’s 1984, “Sanity is not statistical.” continues to have legs. More reasonably, it’s fair to conclude that the whole business of writing short paragraph blurbs on long and complex books is an art form that will generally remain stuck in an age of hyper-adolescence, full of gush and high hopes and weak on reason and balance. It must be a major embarrassment for the writers of many of these blurbs to review their sound bite support for books they hyped two or three years earlier.

There is one kind of end of the year book list I particularly enjoy. It’s the not-ready-for celebrity-status author’s list. (“Not-ready” in the sense that our society is not yet ready for these writers and their works.) In a “Books of the Year” section of The Times Literary Supplement (the British grandmama to all present day literary reviews), two favorite writers, Joyce Carol Oates and Julian Barnes, revealed a few of their picks for the year.

Oates is a writer and a reader who has perfected the capacity and talent of easily breathing in books and just as easily exhaling exquisite works of both fiction and nonfiction. She makes it look easy. Love and war and the wars within love and anything and everything in between can be found in one or more of the 48 novels, 9 nonfiction works, and 42 collections of stories and plays she has published as of Dec. 29, 2002, 9:00 am.

In her “Books of the Year” contribution, Ms. Oates mentions a “diary-novel” by Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas. Translated and reissued last year, she describes it as being a “little-known Swedish masterpiece . . . both naturalistic in its social details and surrealist in [its] haunting effects.” Where does she find these unknown masterpieces? Makes me want to read it; and makes me want to read even more Joyce Carol Oates.

In his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (a book on my all time personal favorites list) Julian Barnes sweeps the reader through fictional musings ranging from a stowaway woodworm in Noah’s Ark to perfecting one’s golf game during a stay in eternity. I was very anxious to see what such a mind has been reading.

He has praise for Captives, a work of history on the British Empire by Linda Colley. Barnes notes, “At a time when a version of Islam and a version of the American Empire are making unwelcome history, this is also a book wise in its topicality.” He also plugs E. H. Carr’s study of 19th century Russian philosophers and revolutionary émigrés, The Romantic Exiles. He points out that this title is currently ranked 151,343 in the listings based on sales. This fact serves to underline Orwell’s truth again.

Many of us live by the duties implied in lists: “To Do,” “To Write,” “To See,” even “To Read.” This practice can threaten to turn lists into life. When the reading of books is approached as a listed duty to perform, something to be gotten out of the way and finally checked off as a task completed, those books will be stripped of much of the magic they contain. The only thing worse than this is not reading books at all.