A Literary Life

Last summer my wife acquired for me Larry McMurtry’s second memoir, Literary Life. I was amused when, in the introduction, he wrote of himself at age six: “So eager was I to get that box of books read that I didn’t realize at first that books had authors…” Larry was way ahead of me on that count. Somehow, I grew up around books without any real knowledge of where they came from at all. The Encyclopedia Britannica, a stack of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, some art instruction manuals, some field guides for plant and animals: all of them seemed to have just been there, as if they had leaked out of the plaster in the old house where I grew up. In fact, thanks to the less fuzzy of the two channels that appeared on our TV screen, I knew that mountains had names long before I knew that authors had names. “WJAC-TV. Serving millions from atop the Alleghenies.”

The first book I remember seeing outside the house was on a rack at the Safeway in Lavale, Maryland. It was called Indian Crafts and Lore, and had instructions for making moccasins, and teepees, and bows and arrows, and doing beadwork. My mother agreed to buy it for me, and then I knew that books came from somewhere and could be acquired. I became a devoted acquirer of books. While I’ve borrowed my fair share from libraries and friends, I prefer my own copy. Pile up as they may in dusty corners, I like that they are always there, a literary bread crumb trail back through the ideas and places that only books can take you. But, late bloomer that I am, the connection of books to an author came much, much later.

I became partially aware of this in middle school where we had to read specific things–say Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s A Mid-summer Night’s Dream. At the forefront of our prescribed reading was the idea that this was important because it was written by so-and-so. That pushed out the idea that things written centered around a person who wrote them. But for me it mainly introduced the idea that some people became famous for what they wrote and others did not. I still hadn’t caught on to the idea that if I liked one piece of writing by an author, I might like others, that a writer might be a font for particular ideas or means of expression. I still had not caught on to the idea that writers have a voice.

After high school that I subscribed to the Time-Life Wilderness Series books. I found the one on the Great Smoky Mountains particularly fascinating. And not just because it hit close to home, or because of Eliot Porter’s great photography. The writing jumped out at me. I thought: I know this guy; I get this guy. Later, the now taped together and well thumbed, Cactus Country arrived and there was that voice again. For the first time I was compelled to know an author’s name. Those two books were written by Edward Abbey, and that was the start of me searching out writers because they wrote a certain way. Following Abbey were Anne Tyler, Annie Dillard, Tom Robbins, John Krakauer, Stephen Jay Gould, Tim Cahill, Steven Pinker, Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Ernest Hemmingway, Cormac McCarthy and Irwin Shaw. I did, and still, mostly seek out books based on subject matter. But Abbey made the author’s voice ring in my head. He made me seek out writers not just for what they had said but for how they said it.

Weirdly, Abbey became the first writer to physically influence my life. When my wife and I set out to leave Pennsylvania, a few places made the short list: Maine, with it’s stoney coast; North Carolina, a warmer version of Pennsylvania; and that scruffy rock garden called the Sonoran Desert, the desert that Abbey described as “the one I loved best of all.” And so we traveled to what appeared to be the spiritual center of it, Tucson, and discovered that Abbey hadn’t told the half of it. So we moved there. Within a short time of arriving we were at The Haunted Bookshop–now closed–and I found a book called Desert Solitaire. I needed only to see Edward Abbey’s name on the cover to know I wanted to read it.

In the few years that followed, we dragged our three little kids all over the state of Arizona. They slept on the ground in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Santa Rita Mountains, the Chiricahua Mountains, the Piñaleno Mountains, the Salt River Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon, Havasu Canyon, Aravaipa Canyon and Organ Pipe National Monument. They hiked all of those places as well as the Painted Desert, Saguaro National Monument, Canyon de Chelly, and the Petrified Forest. And then we found ourselves at The Haunted Bookshop again, this time because Edward Abbey was going to be there. He’d finally finished his ‘fat, American Novel’ The Fool’s Progress. He was there for a book signing for that and the 20th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. I handed over my copy of Desert Solitaire for his signature. While he scribbled it in, I explained to him that he was responsible for the kids being dragged all over the state of Arizona, and why. Then I handed over my copy of The Fool’s Progress. When he handed it back he had written, “to Gerald & Kelly and three great kids! from Ol’ Uncle Ed Abbey, Tucson 1988.”

Writers have a voice. And influence. And sometimes if we are lucky their influence on us circles back to touch them. So in the intervening decades, if I’ve liked something I’ve read I’ll seek out stuff by the same author. It’s been a wonderful journey, this book thing. But the author thing has been even more wonderful. Picking up a book by the right author is like being on a long road trip with someone whose voice you love. You could go for miles and miles just listening to them, and when the trip is over, start right in again. So unlike Larry McMurtry, I was a little slow on the uptake. But I finally caught on. This, then, is for all of you who write so well. We may never meet at The Haunted Bookshop, but know that you have influenced me and that I am grateful for your words.

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