By BOB VICKREY
My late writer friend Josh Greenfeld once said he couldn’t remember the last time someone asked him what he was reading.
He bemoaned the fact that in our present culture the question had become, “What have you seen lately?” Since Greenfeld was both a successful author and academy award-nominated screenwriter, he had become troubled by the imbalance we’ve struck in our entertainment priorities. His allegiance had always leaned toward his love of books and the treasured art of great storytelling.
Cell phone usage and the streaming of movies and television shows now dominate the way most people spend their leisure time, and reading has taken a distant back seat in a time when current technology offers more options than ever to access available reading material.
Last week, someone asked me to name my favorite novels, and I was so taken aback that I had to get past my initial surprise before I could answer. I probably gave the inquirer considerably more information than she was looking for, when I offered more than a dozen book titles.
Harvard professor and writer Robert Coles, who inspired generations of college students with his poetry, short literary fictions and oral narratives, often reminded us, “Stories fire and inspire the imagination.” He was right. The great writers have always helped unlock us from the shackles of our everyday existences and have opened worlds that may have seemed previously unimaginable.
The sheer power of storytelling has always played out best in simple elegant prose. The reader is the one who frames and imagines the scene—not some cinematographer or director. Reading is an internal experience that is a private one, and not limited to the boundaries and trappings of visual mediums such as television and movies.
Readers expect to feel a connection to the characters in a story and discover how the narrative illuminates the larger world around them. Often, the particular time and place in life when first discovering a book can bring special meaning to the reading experience.
I remember the first time I picked up Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” several years after it had been released in 1960 and have never forgotten the powerful impact the book made upon me. I was still in college at the time, and it was the book that first opened new windows onto the world for me. Those subtle life lessons that the author wove seamlessly into her narrative continue to resonate to this day.
I was a late arrival to reading, but fate intervened after college years when I began working in the book publishing field. From then on, reading became my lifeline.
I read manuscripts of forthcoming books from our company and took great pleasure in reading stacks of unbound pages without the aid of book jackets or flap copy. The package offered no hint as to what surprises possibly awaited as I began to read the first line of text. I read good books which never became famous, as well as a number of bad ones that did. But I always found it gratifying to stumble upon an inspiring work that would eventually find an appreciative and far-reaching audience.
I traveled the Southwest visiting bookstores as a quasi-literary valet, as I presented our books and promoted our stable of writers. But booksellers would often share their own latest discoveries of new talents.
I fondly recall Los Angeles bookseller Doug Dutton once greeting me at the front door of his Westside store by handing me a copy of “The Liars Club.” He suggested that I take some time to sit outside on the store’s shaded patio and read the first two chapters, and then come back and offer my reaction after I had finished. When I returned, it must have been my animated expression that brought a broad smile to his face, which likely conveyed his satisfaction in introducing me to Mary Karr’s brilliant new memoir.
As I made my way to the parking lot, I passed an old friend and fellow publisher’s rep who greeted me as I proudly flashed the cover of “The Liars Club” in his direction in hopes of prompting a question about my purchase. I assumed a fellow book rep would certainly understand my enthusiasm about discovering an exciting new book like this one.
But instead, he doused cold water upon my short-lived euphoria when he asked, “By the way, did you happen to catch ‘Saturday Night Live’ this past weekend?”
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. His long-running “Lunch Club” series was published by the Palisades News. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California. You can find more columns on his website: bobvickrey.net
Bob Vickrey’s essay on reading is excellent. As in his past writings it is locally historical, poignant, humorous and informative.