Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

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In a barnlike used bookstore off I-91 in western Massachusetts, I found a book I’d heard of but never seen before: The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway, by Charles A. Fenton, from 1954. I’ve wanted to learn more about Hemingway came to develop the pared-back, impressions-forward style that changed American fiction writing — and that continues to bring me, along with so many others, back to the simple and real in setting down words.

Well, this book, by a Yale professor, is very earnest. It covers each phase in the young writer’s life with sober responsibility; but if you can get past the stuff about his high school English teachers, you find something both fascinating and obvious: Hemingway learned to write simply and clearly on a newspaper.

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This morning it's snowing in the lightest possible way, first dusting of the year, and I just saw a bluebird out the window. It’s funny that I spotted him, because I’ve wanted to write about the simple miracle of trying — at least trying — to learn to pay attention.

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It’s fall, and suicide is in the air. Here in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, a nearby high school has been roiled by the self-inflicted death of a 16-year-old girl, who was reportedly a target of harsh cyberbullying. The national news has featured felony stalking charges filed against two Florida girls, aged 12 and 14, who allegedly cyberbullied a schoolmate, urging her to kill herself until the girl climbed up a water tower and jumped.

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Skyping today with middle schoolers at Magnolia Science Academy in San Diego, I got asked, “What is the weirdest thing you ever did?” Because I was already planning to write this post, I had a ready answer: I once studied Buddhist meditation from a Hindu businessman at a Muslim retreat compound, in the far western desert of India. I could have added, though luckily I didn't think of it, that it was hot, so I was wearing a skirt.

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In producing realistic novels for young adults, I’ve written about drugs, alcohol, and addiction more than once — so far, without much sales success.

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I don’t get a lot of decent story ideas. Sometimes it seems like I wander on a dry landscape for a long time, just hoping to spot one that might catch on, that I might help to root itself and grow. Here’s the story of one that did.

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Last week I wondered here how young writers will develop the working skills they need to build a career, when ever-fewer newspapers have ever-fewer editors who could give them a chance and help them hammer their stuff into shape. And here’s a related question: now that anyone can publish anything with a few keystrokes, what does it mean to be published any more? Does it, and should it, mean anything?

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He was the classic old-school newspaper editor: gravel-voiced, always had a cigarette going, hard-nosed when he had to be but soft-hearted inside. He didn’t say a lot, but you remembered what he did say. He was a pro.

“No lead needs to be longer than 40 words. Ever,” Art Swanson told me, the brand new reporter who couldn’t seem to keep a sentence from spinning into near-epic dimensions. And once, when an article of mine referred to a much-loved elderly local citizen as “the late” when he wasn’t, Art’s growl on the phone said, “never assume anything.” Also, in that same brief conversation: “You've made your mistake. Don't make another one.” I would make plenty more, of course — but never, I don’t think, another one quite as dumb as that again.

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I stopped into the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury yesterday, looking for a card, and afterward I remembered what one had said. (It may actually have been a refrigerator magnet.) It said: Do one thing every day that scares you. And I thought, well, I already do. I write.

This is always scary, for me. I’m used to it, but that has taken years.

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Ms. McPartland recorded for Savoy, Capitol and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s, but in 1969, disenchanted with the business, she formed her own record company, Halcyon. “It was quite a job,” she told one interviewer. “I used to actually go to a record store like Sam Goody and tell them, ‘I need that money you owe me.’”

That’s from the New York Times’s Wednesday obituary for Marian McPartland, the English-born jazz pianist who grew to be treasured by American jazz royalty, and then by generations of public-radio listeners, for her musicianship and her gentle, self-deprecating, humor-lifted humanity. I’m among Marian’s fans, but until I read the obit I never knew that she, having worked with the big New York publishers, grew “disenchanted” (it’s possible she might have used a stronger word) and started her own.

That’s the one thing I guess she and I have in common.

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This summer, every current and incoming student at Lincoln Middle School in Passaic, New Jersey has been reading my novel True Shoes. Lincoln is the state’s largest grades 7-8 middle school, with about 1,800 students, and school librarian Frances King is running a discussion forum on the library’s website, the LMS Library Link (http://fking.edublogs.org/), on which the summertime readers can comment, ask questions, and discuss.

Ms. King asked me to think about responding to some of the comments and questions, and this month I’ve done that a couple of times. The questions have been good, the comments generally thoughtful — only one kid, so far, has asked, “Why do we got to read in the summer?” Some responses, like this one, have seemed kind of surprised:

At first when our teacher said we had to read this summer I was so mad. I thought the book was going to be boring but it’s not. It turns out the book is very interesting.

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One of the very first authors who really turned me on was William Saroyan, the warm jazzy humanism of whose novels and stories opened me up, when I discovered them in ninth-grade English, to what fiction writing can do. As much as Saroyan had meant to my own work, that was almost as much as I was dismayed and disappointed to discover that, as a father, he was a nasty piece of work. 

That’s the picture convincingly painted in Aram Saroyan’s 1984 memoir, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan as Chronicled by His Son. When I found that book in a library, many years after ninth grade, I hunched over it expecting to find the open-hearted energy that gives the best work of Aram’s dad a creativity-stirring impact not quite like anyone else’s, at least for me. But then here was Aram — whose own name William had pilfered to title his best-known story collection, My Name Is Aram, in 1940 — writing that his dad was cold, selfish, degrading, and just downright mean to his ex-wife and his children. I didn’t know what to make of that. I still don’t.

What brought this confusion back was reading an article, in the July 22 New Yorker, on four other memoirs by children of famous late-20th-century male novelists, each of whom seems to have make his work so complete a priority that his kids have, to varying degrees, paid the price. The books are Home Before Dark, 1984, by Susan Cheever; My Father Is a Book, 2006, by Janna Malamud Smith; Reading My Father, 2011, by Alexandra Styron; and the new Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, by Greg Bellow.

“Do great novelists make bad parents?” asks the subhead to James Wood’s article. Personally, reading his piece led me to ask a different question. How often would a woman novelist give herself permission to disregard, even degrade, her own children in favor of her work? 

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Today, July 3, is the 150th anniversary of the climactic third and last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the horrific hinge on which our Civil War turned — as did, very arguably, the evolution of human rights on our planet.

If on this day the Confederate troops of Pickett and Pettigrew had broken past the Second Vermont Brigade at the Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge, there was very little to stop Lee’s army from pushing the 87 miles to Washington, D.C., to win the war and save the cause of slavery.

But that didn’t happen. The Union line held long enough for reinforcements to arrive — and today we are a (more or less) united country. In the 150 years since that awful day, we have advanced in our laws the human causes of ending slavery, of women’s right to vote, of civil rights and, just lately, of gay rights. This is a momentous anniversary, and our lives are all linked to it.

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The Manhattan Rare Book Company has a very short book for sale, from 1924. It has just 32 pages, and — you can see it here — it’s one of only 170 printed copies. The book was written by an unknown young writer, and most of its 18 “chapters” are just one paragraph long. The chapters are not directly connected, as in a story — they’re more like glimpses of scenes. Their language is simple, spare. You can buy the book for $39,000.

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I like to look for parallels between what has unfolded in the music industry and what seems to be happening in the book world. Music, its production and consumption, went digital a few years ago, and so to a great degree has the world of books and reading. The way we make books — from the writer transmitting the text for editing, to the publisher sending final layout to print — has entirely gone digital, and many of us readers — more and more, many say, an irrestistible wave — are reading books digitally. As with music listening, many say, the old way of reading is on its way out. Forever.

But hold on a second.

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I figure you’ll find as much truth in humor as anywhere, especially in this age of “The Daily Show”; and Ricky Gervais has posted a good essay on the Huffington Post's humor page that’s about the vital link between creativity and play. “You have to let yourself go to be creative,” he writes. “... If you’re writing or directing, give yourself enough time to play. Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh. Trip over something that isn’t there.”

This advice is excellent — but it also made me wonder. When your livelihood depends on your creative output, how do you still make it about play?

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There was a period when I was obsessed — were you? — with the Hardy Boys.

I look at my local library’s shelf-and-a-half that's crammed with the classic books, with their cheesy thin type on royal-blue spines, and everything comes back. The Hardy Boys was the first series I wanted to live in and never come out — just keep on sleuthing those mysteries that kept entangling Joe, Frank and their chums back in old Bayport, which for a classically friendly American town had a really amazing number of criminals and conspiracies.

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Because I often visit middle schools as a writer of novels for young adults, I get asked questions. This is a great privilege. A lot are very interesting, and some recur: “How long did it take you to write the book we read?” “Is this story about you?” “Where did you get the idea?” I do my best to answer in ways that are both candid and interesting — but one question that kept coming up had me stumped, for a while. It was, “How did you get started writing?”

I had to think about that. I’d been a pretty good reader in elementary school, and in high school I got very busy on the school newspaper; but in between those times, something happened. What was it?

Then I remembered. It was Mr. Behr’s class.

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When The Great Gatsby was published, on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald, living high in France after his early success, cabled Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, and demanded to know if the news was good. Mostly, it was not. The book received some reviews that were dismissive (“F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST A DUD,” a headline in the New York World ran) and others that were pleasant but patronizing. ... For a writer of Fitzgerald’s fame, sales were mediocre—about twenty thousand copies by the end of the year. Scribners did a second printing, of three thousand copies, but that was it, and when Fitzgerald died, in 1940, half-forgotten at the age of forty-four, the book was hard to find.
from David Denby’s May 13 review of the new “Gatsby” movie in The New Yorker

Thousands of books are published each year, and the truth is nobody knows which ones will live on — which will find a permanent place on bookshelves, in bookstores, in libraries and in our hearts and minds. Nobody knows.

In 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication, these were the top five bestselling books, according to Publishers Weekly:

1. Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
2. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
3. The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter
4. Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington
5. The Green Hat by Michael Arlen
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After an exhausting day, with all the tensions that come up between small child and parent, at last you make it to bedtime. There’s still some low-key power struggling, because the child does not want that light turned out and the parent longs for the blessed sliver of personal time that follows this ritual. And then ...

Then you settle together into a picture book.

And in that closeness of reading out loud, in the sharing of a story, the pointing to favorite places on the pages and the gradual shared relaxation, comes the redemption of everything. These times can be so warm and sweet that, years later, they’re almost too poignant for the aging parent to remember. And if you should one day spot one of those favorite books, or hear about someone else’s read-aloud memories, it’s like finding the memento of a long-ago love affair. Because, really, that’s what it was.

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