Favorite Book Series as a Young Reader

Encyclopedia Brown

I’ve always been a reader. It’s in the genes; my mother is a tremendous reader, and I grew up around piles of books (from the EB Library, of course). Reading was always fun; only in high school and college did reading temporarily feel like a burden.

I had collections of books from elementary school I re-read repeatedly (a habit I got out of as an adult). The earliest series I remember was Encyclopedia Brown. I wanted to be a detective (based on my love of Sherlock Holmes stories) and followed the boy detective from Idaville. The concept was brilliant; each book had five chapters, and each chapter was a mystery. And they presented the solution on the last pages. Even though I fancied myself a detective in the making, I don’t remember solving any of the cases in real time. In my defense, most of the “evidence” that Leroy Brown (Encyclopedia’s real name) used was incredibly circumstantial… but I loved reading them, anyway. Also, it started a theme of reading stories set in small towns decades earlier… life in small-time Idaville seemed strange, sitting in Central New Jersey in the early eighties…

McGurk Mysteries

Another mystery series was the McGurk Mysteries. The McGurk Detective Agency were kids from a small town with specialities. Like a heist movie, where all the thieves have their speciality… but instead of a safe-cracker or a driver, McGurk’s agency had a tree expert, a smell expert and a kid who was “brainy”. While looking up information about the series online, a few pundits point out the series was pretty much one big trope. But, as a young reader, these devices seemed fresh. I liked the idea of an agency that met in the basement of McGurk’s parents’ house, and that a bunch of kids could solve mysteries adults couldn’t. And just enough action to keep things interesting.

The Original Great Brain

The other series was The Great Brain. I read them a lot… and I must have owned a few, because I remember reading a few of the books multiple times. But, unlike E.B. and McGurk, I enjoyed them less with each reading. Everything was foreign, even though the series was set in Utah in the late 1800s. Set in small town Adenville, life seemed very different. Not just the lack of technology or flush toilets or radio and television, but the customs. Children were whipped by their parents and paddled by teachers, although JD’s (John Dennis was the narrator and younger brother to the Great Brain) family used the Silent Treatment as punishment. Families visited in the evenings in parlors. But it was the principles important to kids that never landed.

Each story involved TD, aka The Great Brain, basically manipulating and swindling. One of his primary tools/weapons was the concept of not going back on someone’s word. While this is a good principle and something to strive for, it had a commandment-level hold over the kids in the town. It was frustrating to read; I’d ask myself, why wouldn’t the swindled kid just call TD out, or tell an adult, or just not honor the agreement? Another similar device was when JD caught The Great Brain scamming. As the younger brother, he should have just told his parents what The Great Brain was up to… but TD inevitably launches into a soliloquy about breaking their parent’s heart if JD told them their son was swindling. JD agreed and wouldn’t tell the parents and have to deal with his brother’s swindle. This never seemed plausible to me as a young reader and less so now.

I read other series like Choose Your Own Adventures, but none of them resonated like the aforementioned series. I re-read these often enough they left an indelible mark.

Does Place Inspire?

Spriral Stairway in Long Hall

Last week I wrote about libraries, prompted by a family visit to Ireland. One of the first places we visited, right off of the plane, was Trinity College and The Long Room library.

The Long Room is most known for housing the Book of Kells, a illuminated manuscript of the Gospels by Columban monks. It’s on the old-school list of things one must see in Ireland, along with The Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands and Newgrange. While the history and significance of the Book of Kells is impressive, the actual book (only open to one page and protected beneath inches of glass) pales compared to the Long Room hall.

Long Hall and Tourists

It’s something out of a movie, at least to my American eyes. They built the Long Room in 1592. The high ceilings, long rows of books, busts of famous Irish philosophers and authors, the smell of old leather and pages is the genuine attraction.

As I dodged Euro tourists trying their best not to smoke for fifteen minutes, I wondered what it would be like to write here. Not in the current set-up for tourists… replace the prime floor space with long study tables and period lamps.

Busts

Would every story be a Harry Potter rip-off? Trinity is a university with Hogwarts vibes. Stories about floating candles or the busts coming alive and commenting on the news of the day. Old books opening to mysterious pages. Secrets, ignored for hundreds of years, falling out of the dustiest book.

Or do thoughts rise with the ceiling? Pondering man, the nature of life. Reflecting on the works of ancient and modern philosophers. Really heady stuff. Does the space elevate the work?

It’s hard to imagine writing a schlocky pulp novel or trashy romance story. At a minimum, the characters should be in the library and find the last clue or piece of the puzzle in the stacks. Which begs the question, ultimately… how much does place affect the work?

Hard to answer. I’ve written in a handful of places. Trying to write at the same desk I use for work doesn’t work . My normal spot in the sunroom is the default, quiet and regular enough that I don’t think about the space anymore. Other places, like hotel rooms and house rentals… are hard to judge. I know that the first place we traveled to after quarantine was a breath of fresh air…. writing outside in a quiet forest. But when I travel, I usually have a full agenda and time constraints in the morning and writing is a secondary activity. Not sure I can judge the effect it has on the words. I’d need to go somewhere and have a leisurely morning with hours to write to test this theory.

Libraries, Then and Now

Kilkenny Castle

When I think of libraries, I focus on the one in my old hometown. East Brunswick Public Library was a large, very seventies space. My memories of the EB Library stop in the mid-nineties, so PC’s and the internet hadn’t changed everything yet.

We’d visit the library every two weeks as kids, per the loan schedule. We had free rein and it was common to walk out with five or six books… usually of different types. Sports biographies, adventure stories, etc. I was very into mysteries as an elementary school student, especially classics like The McGurk Series. I’d never start or finish all the books, but loved the call of the unread stack.

As I got older, the library became more of a place to do research and studying. Research comprised hitting the card catalog or roaming the non-fiction shelves organized by topic. If it was a school research project, going to the reference section and the micro-fiche archives… I can still feel the headache caused by zooming past months and years’ worth of newspaper and journals.

The EB library also had other memories. A famous security-guard who always wore a yellow hat. The distinctive smell of damp books. And movie… before we had a VCR, my family used to rent a VCR tape, put on big headphones and watch movies in the middle of the library (Rocky!). We also rented Atari and Commodore 64 video games… although those rentals cost money ($1?) and lasted only a week. I studied in the library, although not as much as some other students. It wasn’t until later in college I could study in busy places.

Bantry Bay in evening

My other strong library memory was the Douglass/Cook library at Rutgers. I discovered early in my college career I couldn’t study in my dorm/apartment. I’d spend a few hours in the library daily, usually at a lower level. They had larger tables meant for 4 students to spread out, or these personal little cubbyhole rooms. I spent dozens of hours a month in the library.

As an adult, my relationship to libraries has changed. Obviously, the development of the web as a research tool and Amazon deliveries had the biggest impact. In the places I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve only visited the public libraries a handful of times. I decided, sometime around the rise of Amazon in the early 2000s, to buy any book I wanted.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I really felt the need for a quiet space, away from the constant noise and distractions of home. Of course, libraries and bookshops were closed or had limited hours and hard restrictions on access. I finally got to my local library to edit and couldn’t believe the changes… not the emphasis on technology as the attitude toward noise and food. Libraries were always quiet and places where food and liquid were strictly verboten. I remember smuggling in cups of coffee to my college library study spots. Here, they sold water and other drinks along with candy bars from behind the desk! But the noise was the most shocking…. everyone spoke loudly. Librarians shouted across the room to one another. It made me feel ancient. There was one section cordoned off as the quiet study space… in my view of a library, the entire place should be a quiet study space. Get off my lawn!

I’d like to be more strategic using the local library. At minimum, I should be part of their kindle program, where I could borrow digital books. This might be a good way to hedge against books I’m not sure I’d enjoy. I have a strong bias toward physical books… something about digital books doesn’t sit as well with me. I struggle to remember what I read or take it as seriously. But if I could use it as a sample… a way to try new topics and authors with low risk.

I’d like to incorporate my local library as a weekly stop for editing and maybe some bonus writing. Regardless of how noisy and active it may be, isn’t home. Two or three hours there, consistently, could make a huge difference in attacking my backlog of editing. And soak up the good mojo.

Seeing the Matrix

Spring Snow in the Catskills

Watching movies and reading is more interesting now that I’ve learned about the mechanics of storytelling. Certain devices, like The Call-to-Adventure jumps off the page or screen.

I watched The Lincoln Lawyer (liked the first three episodes… after that, the show seems formulaic and stereotypical). In the first episode Mickey Haller, who we learn is a down-on-his-luck lawyer in LA with past trauma, inherits a law practice complete with a high-profile case.. the Call to Adventure. This jumps off the screen, especially as someone who didn’t study or learn any of these elements until recently. Before, I had a vague notion of a story needing a “hook”, although I rarely noticed them.

Other choices are more apparent, like how a piece handles background and exposition. Too much exposition is considered sloppy and should be avoided (unless you’re Joyce and load each story with exposition… paragraphs of it starting each short story in Dubliners). This included voice-overs in movies and TV shows as well. I knew it was lazy writing but didn’t understand why. After struggling to build characters and worlds, I understand the need to relay information quickly to the reader. In The Lincoln Lawyer , the writers use different ways to tell us more about the main character. Some is “natural” conversation with his ex-wives and daughter about his past and his struggles. But they also use a hokey exposition device where Haller is explaining to his driver about how he practices law as they drive through the desert in a seemingly unrelated scene.

When I was in college, one of the most popular courses was Dendrology, the study of trees. I love the forest and made a conscious decision not to take this course, to leave the mystery and magic of the forest and not get bogged down in tree identification. I wonder if viewing and reading will hit differently now that I can identify the structures beneath them.

A Second Look: Dubliners

Bridge over Liffey

I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.

I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.

Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.

A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.

Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.

Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.

Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.

Books of the Irish

Library at Trinity College

My family will visit Ireland this year. I’ve been to the old sod 3 times previously: in high school with my parents and brother, in my mid-twenties with my brother and cousins and with my wife before we had kids. Before the trip, I want to read Irish books, listen to music, and watch movies.

For a long time, I had a history of Ireland in my Amazon wishlist. Ireland, A History, by Thomas Bartlett, a Tyler Cowen recommendation. He called it one of the best histories of Ireland. And it’s a good read. The author navigates through the stories, myths, and facts of Irish history. Rather than trying to put together a pre-history of Celts and Druids, he states no one fully understands the first peoples and all they left were rocks with squiggles. Same with the myth of Saint Patrick. It’s an enormous book, and I’ve skimmed through parts… in the 1800’s, there was a back and forth with English laws and revolts and tighter and looser controls around Catholic Ireland. Luckily, Bartlett adds an introduction and analysis to his chapters, so I don’t have to get bogged down in unnecessary details. I’m on the Troubles now.

Ireland, A History takes care of the factual part of my immersion. I’m re-reading Dubliners by James Joyce, my favorite Joyce (I’ve never attempted Ulysses, although The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is on my to-read list). Dubliners is a great read and timely thrice over; it sets the scene for Dublin (we’ll spend a night in the capital), opens the ear to lyrical Irish prose and complements my latest Hemingway jag.

Two more books wait in the wings. Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks by Fintan O’toole, is another Cowen recommendation. One of Cowen’s themes is how artistic the Irish are, and not just in prose. I’m really looking forward to this one, as I’m trying to expand my appreciation for other forms of art as well. The last book is a re-read, McCarthy’s bar. A super fun, quick read about an American name McCarthy who tries to visit every bar with his name in the country. My brother also re-read this and recommended.

The other parts of my immersion is music. Growing up, my idea of Irish music was the Clancy Brothers, a folk-ish Irish band playing classic folk tunes and a favorite of my mother’s. I will include some Chieftans and whatever else my Irish pandora station will select.

Movies are the last bit squarely aimed at my children. I won’t bother to ask them to read gasp physical books. We’ve seen Waking Ned Devine so far; The Commitments, Michael Collins and The Guard on the list of re-watches.

Bookshelf Chaos

New Bookshelf
New Bookshelf

Last year, I built a new bookshelf for my office. When I redid my office a few years ago, we picked up these wonderful, plain, perfectly sized bookshelves my wife painted. I’d assumed I could buy more when needed. As my book collection grew and we got rid of shelves from downstairs, I required more space. Unfortunately, the retailer I bought them from doesn’t stock them anymore and I can’t find them online, anywhere. Amazing how hard to find unadorned, seven-foot shelves.

So I built my own. I previously built my desk and side tables using fantastic butcher block and black pipes. Rather than trying to match the other shelves, I matched this furniture.

Pretty simple to make. It’s two and a half feet high and the stacks on top are eye-level while at my desk. I pay attention to these books more than the books on my older, more traditional shelves. The bigger, bolder spines keep leaping back into my attention. And most of them don’t deserve the headspace. In fact, most of my favorite books are smaller paperbacks. This got me thinking about organization.

Aesthetically, organizing by size or color makes sense. I’ve seen this method used in a few bookshelves, in an online picture in a hyper-stylish room. I’m not wired that way. I’m not color blind, but colors and their combinations don’t jump out at me like they do for others. Arranging by size, however, would let me see smaller titles. For instance, I’m trying to find Dubliners by James Joyce… I believe my copy is a thin, white paperback. But I can’t find it amongst the larger books.

Organizing by size seems sterile. One of the nice things about a shelf of books is the lack of uniformity. There are two schools of thought. One is dusty, leather-bound volumes neatly arranged in a row. The other is the overcrowded NYC apartment with bookshelves crammed with different shaped and colored books. I don’t have any collections, we will default to the second choice.

A logical way to organize them is by author or topic. I have clusters of Hemingway’s, Mitchell’s, Gibson’s, Murakami’s, etc. … but they are exceptions. Most books and authors are one and done. And topics seem hazy and very open to interpretation… does a book of Poe short-stories go in a collection of literature, or short story collections, or horror (I don’t read horror, so probably not. But still)

We will default to grouping by type. Authors clustered together, books on writing, books on health and fitness, stoicism and meditation, etc, etc. Still , it should be fun. And help me find the books I want, and highlight better books. No need to look at cheap Tony Robbins books when I can think about Nabokov.

Addendum: should I continue to hold on to books I either didn’t like or didn’t read? There are three categories of books that I haven’t read on my shelves: books that were aspirational reads (like The Odyssey or The Origin of Species), books that I wasn’t ready to read but are probably quite good (Master and Margarita, Molloy), and books that are just bad (Million Dollar business, The Alchemist). The first two categories I might read or reference one day, but there is no excuse for holding on to the third category.

Hemingway’s Short Stories

Downed Tree in Big Indian Forest

As mentioned in my Now section, I read a collection of short stories from Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition. This was my first exposure to his shorter stories; previously, I read the novels.

The novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Old Man and the Sea and especially The Sun Also Rises, are favorites. Hemingway has always been an approachable and fun read, especially when compared to other classics. My first exposure to modern American classics was my junior year in high school. We did Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. Another book, A Moveable Feast (I read it while traveling through France) was a fun read, but I didn’t connect with many of the references to the short stories.

As part of George Saunder’s Substack, we read a famous Hemingway short story, A Cat in the Rain, a quick story about an American couple in a hotel room in Italy. The wife spies a cat in the rain and tries to bring it back to their hotel room. Conversation with the husband and wife follows. In the Substack, we learned about Hemingway’s Iceberg method (I probably learned this in high school but had forgotten). This approach is the defining piece of real literature… not beautiful prose or amazing characters, but the subtle things happening beneath the surface. I remember being amazed as my junior-year teacher showed the symbolism and the true meaning between long passages of conversation.

Cat in the Rain inspired me to pick up Hemingway’s short stories. I haven’t gotten through all of them; I focused on the pieces that were mentioned repeatedly as classics. Works like The Killers, My Old Man, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Three of them really stuck out: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Indian Camp and Two-Hearted River. Macomber is damn fine Hemingway, set in an African Safari camp with two rich hunters and their guide. The dialogue, the way women are portrayed, the gossipy spousal cheating, the depiction of the violent hunts, the perspective of the lion were incredible examples of Hemingway at his best. And the title supports a fantastic arc. All of this in 23 pages.

Indian Camp moved me. A super short story about Nick Adams (Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical recurring character) visits a Native American settlement with his father. His father, a doctor, is trying to help a woman in labor. Written with short, declarative sentences, dialogue that sounds slightly off (Hemingway dialogue sounds funny to me, I assume because of the century between when the story was published and now), and Nick Adams as the limited and flawed narrator. The next short story I wrote, about a young boy living on an old landfill, is an homage to this style.

Two Hearted River contains vivid descriptions of the natural world, fishing, making camp. And more icebergs. The story is about the horrors of war and how truly damaged the young men returning from WW I feel. Nick Adams (again!) isn’t referred to as a veteran, but he hikes long distances with a full pack and relates to the world like a veteran would. There is a long passage about a swamp on the other side of the river that must relate to war, although I can’t fully understand it.

I’ve listened to a podcast about Hemingway as a companion to the stories. One True Podcast, a play on the old Hemingway line “Just write one true sentence…” discusses many of these short stories with various guests. The host is quite good, and it’s like a light version of an English Lit class. I’ve found that reading a story once, then listening to opinions/analysis of the story via the podcast or other online resource, then reading the story again is helpful. The stories are quick reads; this is a reasonable task.

Coming back to Hemingway via these short stories has been wonderful. They are quick dives into mastery. I now fall into the camp that Hemingway did his best work early on, these stories and his first real novel, The Sun Also Rises. I like some of his later work as well, but they don’t have the same crispness.

Old School

Flat section of trail on a rocky mountain

I recently read Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, a collection of his musings about books. Fun read, although there’s not much overlap between our reading. Still, his observations were interesting, and he is hilarious in the British-self-deprecating way. I had read none of his stuff since going on a Nick Hornby jag over twenty years ago. I was inspired by his description of certain books and authors… he really likes Dickens (I decided in ninth grade, while reading Great Expectations, that I didn’t care for Dickens… especially after learning he was paid by the word and invented entire characters and subplots just to increase his word count). So much so I may consider picking up a Dickens (Bleak House?). Another author he praises repeatedly is Thomas Wolff. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with his work.

Based on Hornby’s writing and some quick internet research, two of his books topped the list: Old School and This Boy’s Life. I picked up Old School, a story about a private school in the sixties and the unnamed narrator’s journey. Immediately the reader is immersed in a New England private school for boys, with Masters and ties and leafy campuses. As someone who didn’t attend that type of school, I immediately picture the campus and boys from Captain my Captain.

Old School uses three author’s visits as scaffolding. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are all scheduled to visit the unnamed elite boarding school where writing and writers are held in the highest regard. Hard to imagine, with the laser focus on STEM and hard studies now, a time when writing would have held such a prominent place in a school’s collective consciousness. Neither of the authors fare very well; Frost is a doddering old man with ponderous eyebrows, Rand is a nasty narcissist and Hemingway, a student favorite, receives backhanded and sideways praise.

Wolf does some interesting things. One, the narrator and the main character is unnamed. The narrator has secrets but reveals them indirectly, clever, but I asked if I had missed something earlier (I hadn’t). Another is his use of time. Most of the book takes in 1960-1961; the last section of the book fast-forwards ten years. He describe these years over a few pages to paint a picture of how life when for the narrator after school. The shift between real-time dialogue and descriptions to pages of exposition was notable, but worked just fine. Another case of rule-breaking. I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the transition and figure out what stylistically allowed Wolf to pull it off.

A delightful read, sandwiched in between Cloud Atlas and Hemingway short stories. Compared to its neighbors, it felt light, not to mention blissfully short at 195 pages. The emphasis on writers and notable authors from the middle of the 20th century made the read fun. Recommended, and look forward to reading more Wolf in the future.

A Collection of Misfits

Backyard River
A river runs through the backyard

I really enjoy reading short stories collections. They allow you to enter the author’s world and style, but with quicker, sometimes weirder, payoffs. Some of my favorites are multiple collections by David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman’s, Hemingway, Poe, and Nabokov.
The masters (Hemingway, Poe, Nabokov) collections are stories that appeared in magazines or other disparate sources, a fun and accessible way to read the works of the greats. I’ve never read a novel by Nabokov, but I have a sense of him and his writing from the short stories.
It’s the clever and inter-related short story collections that grab my attention. Mitchell is the best example; Ghostwritten, his first work, has common elements, like characters crossing from one story to another, or the actions and outcomes of one story directly influencing the other. Subtly, of course… the first time I read it, when it first came out in paperback, I missed most of the references. But it’s delightful to re-read, looking for the connections and the common threads. Cloud Atlas is similar, but the relationship between the stories is much more obvious and key to understanding the book, with its nesting-doll structure. As mentioned a few weeks ago, Neon Leviathan does something similar, stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world and character crossover.
These stories inspired me to consider a collection of mine. By accident, or lack of imagination, I had set a few stories in a similar world. None of them got any traction on their own, but together they may carry more weight. I enjoy having a common thread run through these stories.
In a perfect world, I’d get one or two of these stories published elsewhere, then release them as a self-published collection. I don’t have any illusions about finding a publisher for a set of short stories by an unknown author… it’s well known that short story collections don’t sell. I think it’d allow me to scratch an itch, work on something I thought was interesting (regardless of how viable it is, see early thoughts on how my tastes don’t align with what the industry likes) and learn self-publishing. Worry more about the writing than publishing.