June 6, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I have had a lot of time to read during this journey across the Sea of During, time of which I’ve not taken advantage. I’ve also had a lot of time to ponder the reading I’ve done in the past, and to write some about that reading. That I have done.

Ever since I was a wee lad, I’ve been a voracious and indiscriminate reader. Beverly Cleary (the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books plus a dozen or more others), Hugh Lofting (the Dr. Dolittle series, originally written in the French trenches of World War I) and Robert McCloskey (Homer Price, along with a double handful of classic illustrated children’s books) were my first favorite authors.

As a kid, I dreamed of being an author, creating worlds like those imagined by my heroes. I also dreamed of playing second base for the Cincinnati Reds, until I realized I was a catcher, and not a particularly gifted one. At that point, I changed that dream and wanted to be a major league umpire, then read that umpires had to be at least 5’ 8” tall. Since yet another dream was to be a midget, I reverted back to wanting to be an author.

I’ve written three novels, one of which actually sold enough copies to make me a thousandaire, but nothing I’ve yet written measures up to my favorite all-time authors. This list of five novelists/essayists doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve written the best books I’ve ever read, but their work is consistently grabby for my type of reading mind, which is to say a mind that enjoys a good tale but even more an author who seems to have a lot more going on behind the writing.

I am, as are we all, products of our times, and I know I have four white men and a white woman. Of these, one was raised Catholic, one Jewish and three Protestant. By the end of their lives, only one was an orthodox believer—barring some deathbed conversion by Joan Didion, the only writer still alive. While I’ve read books translated from Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German, Italian and French among others, no particular writer has grabbed me the way the following five have.

In chronological order by birth year, these five writers have done, I think, the most to make me who I am today, for better or worse.

Sinclair Lewis

Lewis, the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, first came into my life during my days as a soldier, when I never went to the field without a couple books signed out of the base library. From “Main Street” to “Babbit” to “Arrowsmith,” I read page-turner after page-turner. It was when I discovered “Elmer Gantry,” though, that I fell in love, although even that is not my favorite of Lewis’ books. That nod goes to “It Can’t Happen Here,” a visionary novel of a rise of fascism in 1930’s America. I’ve read both the last two books at least once every five years for the past 40, and always find new favorite parts.

George Orwell

Everyone knows (or at least was supposed to have read) two of Orwell’s novels in high school: “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Without wanting to question the wisdom of America’s English teachers, I didn’t care much for either of them. I can see how they provide useful material for looking at allegory and totalitarianism, but neither book is why I love Orwell. Instead, it’s his nonfiction that makes me return year after year. If I could only have one collection of books on a long retreat, it would be the four-volume “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell.”

Walker Percy

Percy’s novels are where he made his name, from “The Moviegoer” to “The Second Coming” to “The Thanatos Syndrome.” As with Orwell (and, come to think of it, Norman Mailer), it’s not Percy’s fiction that enchants me, but his essays and other nonfiction. From “The Message in the Bottle” to “Signposts in a Strange Land” to, especially, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Percy’s writing sparkles and spins, while his arguments about language, linguistics and semiotics make me gasp with astonishment.

Norman Mailer

Mailer’s political writing—“Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” “St. George and the Godfather” and, even, “The Fight,” I suppose—is both factually accurate and filled with his unusual insight and graceful writing. Add in “Oswald’s Tale” and “The Executioner’s Song” to add two classic “non-fiction novels,” along with “The Naked and the Dead” (my second or third favorite World War II novel), “Armies of the Night” and “The Castle in the Forest” and you’ve got a lengthy reading list, and a heavy pack to carry to the field.

Joan Didion

Didion’s essays are her calling card, and for good reason—they’re as good as any written in the English language. Cast those aside, though, and gaze upon what I think is the best written novel of all time (sorry Scott Fitzgerald!): “A Book of Common Prayer.” If you haven’t read it, borrow a copy and do so. If you have, go back and reread it!

All of this, of course, is subject to change. After all, where do Twain Dreiser, Camus, Hemingway and the aforementioned Fitzgerald fit in?

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith