Friday, February 18, 2011


Yesterday, a dear friend brought over a couple boxes of books and gave them to me. He no longer had the room to store them, apparently. It was an ecclectic bunch of books ranging from biographies of Orson Welles and Marlon Brando to sassy, cutting edge cookbooks to fantasy genre to Jack Kerouac (my favorite quote on Kerouac: when Johnny Carson asked Truman Capote what he thought of this 'hot, new writer,' Capote replied, "That's not writing, that's typing."). There's even a copy of 'The Great Gatsby,' arguably the finest novel of the twentieth century.

By God, I love books. They have been my salvation throughout a sometimes turbulent life. Not film, not tv, not theatre, not religion, not love, but books. Books. Books have been the constant in my life that have kept me from spinning off into a life of true apathy and self-destruction. Now, that's a heady statement, to be sure, but I believe it whole-heartedly.

Many years ago in New York when I was suffering through a savage break-up (and only age and late-life understanding have finally made me realize that nothing, nothing at all, can ease the pain of love lost...except the passage of time...and that's always a poor trade-off) I didn't leave my apartment for a month. I just sat indoors and read. And read. And read. And a month later, I finally escaped my self-imposed exile a better person. That was my Faulkner period. During that month of self-pity I devoured everything Billy Faulkner had ever written.

Skip ahead about ten years and I was in Rochester, NY, and again suffering through a devestating break-up (beginning to sound like a pattern, isn't it). I was teaching at the time and would only leave the apartment to go to class, and afterwards would race home and start reading again. This was my holocaust period. I was pouring over everything I could find about the Jewish Holocaust. There was no connection between that particular subject matter and my broken heart, it just turned out that way.

When I first moved to NYC I was often scared witless. I mean, here I was, 23 years old in New York, knowing hardly anyone, working as a waiter in an anonymous restaurant, absolutely no idea what my next step in life might be, and I discovered the works of John D. McDonald and Robert Parker and Dashiell Hammett. After my lunch shift I'd keep my brave face on until I got back to my apartment in Jersey City and spend the evening enveloped in that unmistakably American genre writing, the detective story. Parker, incidentally, recently passed away. He's a vastly underrated writer. A terrific story teller.

And, of course, when my mom died in a boat accident in 1987, once again, I took refuge in books. I needed some powerful voo-doo for that one. And it was then that I started on the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky and Pushkin. Those old Russians saved me. They took me to places where mid-summer, tragic, middle-class houseboat accidents didn't happen.

Naturally, over the years, I've developed favorites. John Irving is one. I love opening a new Irving book. Mostly because he's one of the few writers around today that always surprises me. Yes, one can always count on at least a passing reference to Austria, hotels, bears, wrestling or incest, but man oh man, can he surprise me. He may be the only living writer that has had me weeping with laughter and only a few pages later weeping with genuine sorrow. He is the Dickens of our time. An absolute master story teller.

But I'm not a snob about reading. I devour King and Grisham and Clancy, too. In fact, one of the books I recieved yesterday was King's 'Bag of Bones,' perhaps my favorite of King's later books. My early King favorite was, oddly, 'Pet Semetary.' That book, for some reason, scared the bejesus out of me. And make no mistake, now and then King can do some real writing. He'll be chugging along with all of his paranormal yadayada and suddenly, out of nowhere, he'll write a heart-breaking paragraph, as good as any writer working today anywhere. King, despite being the best-selling author in the history of mankind, is no lightweight. When he chooses, he can write like a house-a-fire.

Early in life, of course, I discovered Hemingway and Salinger, two writers that planted ideas and phrases in my head that have forever taken residence. Hemingway was the master at writing the exact right word at the exact right time. There's a story about him being unable to submit his novel, 'The Sun Also Rises' because he couldn't find the right word for the last sentence. The protagonist, Jake, is confronted with his ex-lover and she says something along the lines of 'We could be happy forever together...the best of lives.' Jake finally answers, 'Wouldn't it be pretty to think so.' It took Hemingways months to find the word, 'pretty.' Remember, he was at the top of his game then, the world breathlessly awaiting his next masterpiece. And he held it up for months in order to find that word. Nice.

And Salinger. Ah, Salinger. First I found 'Catcher in the Rye' like most teenage boys. Later I discovered my favorite of his, 'Franny and Zooey.' It is the most important book of my life, along with Irving's 'Prayer for Owen Meany.' I've read it dozens of times and still find something new. I give it out yearly as Christmas presents. I buy it for students because I think it's the most valuable book an actor can ever read. I've probably given away over a hundred copies of the book over the years. If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly. It addresses the idea of honesty in acting, truth on stage, integrity amidst lies. An astonishing piece of writing. And it's a quick read, too. A novella, really. If you haven't read it, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore.

And even though for some years I made my living as a playwright, I've never really enjoyed reading plays. Plays are meant to be seen not read. Hence the bad rap Shakepeare has gotten over the centuries. Who among us hasn't had to sit through an English class reading 'Romeo and Juliet' or 'Julius Caesar' out loud? Oh, the humanity. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I finally figured out what all the fuss was about Shakespeare. He was meant to be seen, not read. Shakespeare done well is among life's greatest pleasures. And during my journey of discovering Shakespeare I came to the conclusion that there is Shakespeare and then there is every other writer in the history of the planet. His work lives unchallenged on a hill by itself. He grasped the human condition more completely than anyone before or since. But, Christ, it's hard to get my students to understand this. And mostly it's because of all those clueless high school English teachers crassly tossing his work around like a bucket of dead fish. Academia has nearly single-handedly hidden the genius of Shakespeare.

So I gots me some new books. And I am quivering with anticipation. Today I begin a personal and joy-filled quest into the world of Orson Welles, and later I'll have a front row seat as dragons terrorize the night skies, and after that I'll enter the life of Jay Gatsby once again and lovingly wonder why he was so lonely and what great burdens he carried, what mysteries he locked away in his heart, what kept him from saying, "I love you" to the great love of his life. And I'll envision the great eyes of a billboard staring accusingly at all that pass by and I'll sit on a long dock at the end of a long day and picture, in my mind, the unblinking green light across the bay.

See you tomorrow.

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