I’m a baby boomer. When I studied literature in high school and went on to university, the “holy trinity” was made up of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. As for poets, I knew one name: Robert Frost.
I was shocked, in Dr. Torciana’s Modern British and American Lit course, to find myself studying, of all things, Irish history! The small green island had produced both William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. Some knowledge of the country’s history was essential in grasping Yeats’ major poems. There was a world beyond my own country’s borders, and it appeared that one tiny nation had taken it by storm, at least as far as Western literature went.
I also read Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s great, short novel Things Fall Apart—its title was taken from a Yeats sonnet. I now had a dim idea that there was a world that lay beyond the West. But only a dim one.
In my thirties I wrote an essay called “The Literary Heritage of a Still-Young Writer.” By then, I’d gone way beyond those early confines. My life had found its way into the mystical-spiritual lane, and I’d discovered Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, and Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, Saint Francis, and many other beautiful and powerful novels)*, three mighty spiritual warriors who were also great artists. There was also J.R.R. Tolkien. I’d been hearing a lot about Frodo and Middle-earth, and had attempted the Lord of the Rings trilogy a number of times, without success. On hearing that Meher Baba (my spiritual Guide) had had Tolkien’s epic read aloud to him, and had characterized it afterwards as “an exact description of the spiritual path,” I tried again. This time, the kindling took. I spent two or three enchanted weeks living on Middle-earth, and ever since, have wished my memory could be erased so that I could go on that journey for the first time again!
When Gladys Spratt, the kindly and wise librarian at the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, read the essay before giving it a number and assigning it to the pamphlet cabinet, she wryly asked me, “Don’t you read any women authors?” Only then did I realize, with shock, that the reading that had fed and inspired me so had neglected more than half of the world’s population! I had grown up in a world of male bias, and had not been particularly prone to looking outside the box, or rocking the boat, until the box itself started to collapse in the late ‘60s, and the boat began to thrash me into a bit of wakefulness!
Today, it’s a much different literary world! For one thing, cultural diversity and its effects have largely blasted away the homogenous canon long adhered to by white, middle-or-upper-class professors and critics. There’s no longer much of a semblance of a single audience, either. Rather, there are dozens of audiences for literature geared to various genres, ethnicities, and tastes.
The world of self-publishing has also taken off as more than a vanity press, as I’d realized it would upon reading a short New York Times article in the late 1990s. The article described a newly-invented, on-demand machine that could print even a single copy of a book. With that, publishing would no longer be limited to a huge press run that cost a fortune, and an author would no longer need to be an adjunct of a publishing company with vast amounts of capital.
My taste, however, long retained elements of the specific form of “the good life” inculcated in my youth. Going into my forties and fifties, I was running out of books by my favourite authors. However, I continued to be guided by a “New York Times” or “Nobel Prize Committee” inside me, and found a few new ones with similar credentials, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck.
Meanwhile, I held a delivery courier job for a few years and transitioned for the most part from reading my books to listening to them—at first on tape, later on CD, and now usually on MP3. The novel, non-fiction book, or (occasionally) poetry awaiting me in the car helped make that job like a river of sweet honey!
During this period, I finally got a chance to listen to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and loved it! I also began choosing New Age authors such as Richard Bach, whose short fantasy Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah was so charming that I regularly acquired his new releases.
I went on many journeys with Paul Theroux as well, an author who alternated between novels and unique travel books. In one of the latter, he catches a commuter train from his parents’ suburban Boston home to Union Station downtown, and then continues to journey south by rail, all the way to Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina! Other mighty travel projects of his took me to Africa, China, and the many island chains of the South Seas. I had no other way to see those exotic places besides through the eyes of this highly opinionated but keen-eyed observer.
But alas! At around age 50, my author supply truly began to run out. I would go to the library, pass by all the books on tape or CD, and not be drawn to anything I trusted enough to check out. Over and over, I would see popular books such as The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; The Lovely Bones by Alice Siebold; and the non-fiction memoirs of Maya Angelou, whom I knew of as a poet.** In the end, because of the paucity of choices that embodied the nebulous “what I was looking for,” I began to expand my horizons and try these new-to-me writers. They were magnificent—on par with anything my so-called education had put on a pedestal!
Still, I remained stuck much of the time. I didn’t know how to evaluate many contemporary authors! At the same time, I learned my wife was feeling stuck in her reading. Meditating on the topic to help her, I recalled a period some years back, when I had devoured a number of murder mysteries—a genre I generally avoided—by the author Rex Stout, who had written in the ’30s through the ‘60s. Meher Baba had also had his books read aloud, and I’d decided, “If it’s good enough for God…” (see my article “Coming to Baba”). I’d been captivated for a month or two, probably until I’d read all of the most popular of his 70 or so Nero Wolfe novels.
I brought a few of these home to Barbara, and she loved them. I read, or reread, a few myself, and we also watched DVDs of a Nero Wolfe TV series that had aired for a few years.
After Barbara finished the Rex Stout books, though, it was back to the drawing board. I decided to begin exploring the vast library shelves labelled MYSTERY, which I had avoided my whole life as though they were off-limits to me! I did not want books replete with violence that reminded me of a customer in a bookstore where I’d worked, who’d requested “the best book about Jeffrey Daumer!”—and then when I’d asked her, “What do you mean by best?” had said, “The one with the most pictures!”
I’d never wanted any part of that world, perhaps because such “icky” stuff, an undercurrent of life attested to in every daily newspaper, felt too close within my subconscious, and made me uncomfortable. The Rex Stout books were so well-written and “clean”—enacting and describing a crime succinctly and spending most of a book bringing the criminal to justice, thus restoring the moral balance of that fictional universe—that they did not feel so threatening. (“Cozy” mysteries, such books are called, a friend told me.).
Having very little to go on, I embarked upon a search for other mystery authors whom Barbara and I might read. The Lord Peter Whimsey series consisting of a dozen or so novels, I soon learned through friends, which had been written by Dorothy L. Sayers, a mainstream English literary figure of the first half of the 20th century. Barbara took to the books! I got them on CD, but then had difficulty understanding the British accent of the narrator. We did watch and appreciate a few Whimsey films together, however.
Next, I began seeking tips from the principal of the school where I work. I knew she, as well as many of the teachers, were avid mystery readers. She mentioned the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, about the period during the First World War and thereafter in England. We were off and running! (see my review of the series) Barbara also discovered the Inspector Banks novels by another Brit, Peter Robinson, by serendipity at the library one day, and we each read, or in my case listened to, all 20+ books he had authored.
There seemed to always be another mystery author around the corner, and most of these authors were quite prolific! The genre is endless. However, for us, the books still can’t be too bloody. Our adventure has continued for years and is still going on. Our latest discovery is Jonathon Kellerman—finally, an American!—whose Alex Delaware series gives us a character who is a psychologist (like Kellerman himself!) consulting with the Los Angeles police. His many books fascinatingly convey a psychologically-oriented view of crime and of the world itself.
For the current chapter of our ongoing literary adventure, I have to express my gratitude to Ellen Evans, principal of the Meher School in Lafayette, California, and the other teachers who have contributed books to the informal “Teachers’ Library” located within a staff room cabinet. I began pulling books from there for Barbara on the rare days when I couldn’t get to the public library and she’d nothing left to read (Since I check out books almost daily to read my preschoolers, I don’t mind being the family’s book-gofer). Lately, I seem to be discovering a cornucopia of powerful contemporary authors, most of them (praise the Lord) women! Barbara and I have been enchanted by authors like Jodi Picoult, who tackles cutting-edge topics like a child’s right to make her own medical decisions; Ann Patchett; Ann Tyler; more Barbara Kingsolver (we both loved The Lacuna); and—back to the mystery genre—Laurie R. King’s novels about a latter-day Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Mary Russell!
Fortunately, I’m no longer afraid we shall run out of authors! The “magic closet” at my school, if not our county’s libraries, will always yield more! Furthermore, I no longer sound like a literary male chauvinist! Can reading (or listening) get any better than this?
* Kazantzakis’ beloved wife Helen wrote a 500-page biography of her husband, titled simply Nikos Kazantzakis, which remains another of the most thrilling “reads” I’ve ever been blessed to enjoy! ** For anyone who hasn’t read these books, or seen Siebold’s story as a film: The Poisonwood Bible is about a zealous Christian missionary who takes his family to Africa, and although he remains blind to the actual village life around them, his wife and daughters receive a rich, if sometimes brutal education. The Lovely Bones is narrated from “the other side” by a girl who has been murdered by a sexual pervert. It follows the ensuing life of her family, the policemen working on the case, and her perpetrator, and is very intimately and skilfully written. Maya Angelou’s wonderful prose tells the story of her childhood, which took place, in part, in the Jim Crow South. She narrates with the eye of a poet, having an amazing gift that imbues even “ordinary” days and events with a vividness that makes us realize there is no “ordinary.” Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, a tale of the First World War that also offers the reader all of the wonder and flavor of Italy, was another joy I discovered.