Rousing Bits of Assorted Wholes

Joseph O’Day

            Every December I used to rip out listings of best books of the year from The New York Times and The Boston Globe and store them in the glove compartment of my car, at the ready for when I could get to a bookstore. I did the same with winners of the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Awards. And when NPR’s Tom Ashbrook had his wintertime discussion of the year’s best with a distinguished panel on his “On Point” podcast, I jotted down the titles and saved those too.

            I purchased some of the books if they were in softcover, but held back from expensive hardcovers, unless there was a big discount or for some reason I just had to have them. Many of these wound up in my bookcase unread, which wasn’t my intention when I took them home with me, thrilled as I was to be in possession of the year’s best. I tried not to feel bad since I could read them any time I wanted. Many, however, remained shelved and untouched for a long while, gathering dust, which I can attest to because I needed a dust rag whenever I reorganized my bookcase. I was pleasantly surprised though, coming across great books I forgot I owned.

            Books I did read weren’t necessarily on any “best” lists. Many were those I chanced upon when browsing a bookshop or library or sought out after reading a compelling review. Some were recommended by friends as outrageously good but barely known. A professor I had for a course called “On Essays” once showed us her copy of W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. When I asked if I could see it, she said, “You can touch it,” and handed me the worn tape-repaired softcover, keeping her eye on me. She said she had audited Bate’s Harvard course on Johnson. I treated her book like the gem she thought she had, and handed it back to her, safe and sound. I ordered my own copy and read it cover to cover and it’s now in the “favorites” section of my own bookcase, hidden from borrowers.

            I had the greatest respect for this professor. She imbued enthusiasm into everything she taught. In her “Essay” classes (she also taught “Writing the Essay”), we read works of Johnson, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, Michel de Montaigne, EB White, JB Priestly, Scott Russell Sanders, Henry David Thoreau, and William Hazlitt. I sought out additional writings by these authors, some of which I loved, and happily discovered an entire collection of Hazlitt’s works in Salem State University’s Library.

            I’ve come to believe that what’s best for me isn’t necessarily something branded as best by experts. What’s best for me is something I’ll read. I’ll read if the reading makes me feel at home, or triggers my curiosity, or is suggested by someone I admire. I’ll read if reading remedies a rift in my understanding.

            A few years ago, as I was looking through old family photos, I found a picture of my paternal grandmother sitting comfortably in her cushioned chair engrossed in a hardcover. I never knew her – she died before my birth – but I obtained a copy of that book, thinking it would be a connection with this woman my father had so revered. Titled “The Wayward Pilgrims,” the novel was written by a New England author, Gerald Warner Brace.

            I thought its story – a lonely university instructor falls for a mysterious woman who opens his heart to life’s magnificence – wise and well-written. My father had told me how kind and loving his mother was. And strong – she came to the U.S. at sixteen, by herself, and made a good life with my grandfather and her three children in Salem. I didn’t know much more, and I regretted never being able to know her. I loved that my grandmother had read this sensitive piece of literary fiction, and that it had given me a hint of her interests.

            A book like “The Wayward Pilgrims” may not receive an award or get selected as the year’s finest, but that doesn’t mean it lacks value. In fact, value can be found even in literature that might not work as a totality, because there may be satisfying bits of writing. I remember once in a writing workshop listening to a student present his paper about a trip to Iowa, describing the barren weather he encountered and his visits to a hospital to visit his gravely ill girlfriend. He described how, when he embraced her, his hand sunk inside a gap in her back, a result of surgery. Classmates critiqued his attempts to intersperse the desolateness of the weather with the hopelessness of cancer.

            As an aside, he mentioned a woman he saw every day in the waiting room, and got to know her, and described their conversations. The woman was attractive but plain, quiet but friendly. Her life was filled with books. She rarely went out socially, was perfectly content with her simple, bookish life. They developed a rapport, and it comforted him during this difficult time. I wanted to know her better, what books she read, where she was from originally, what her childhood was like, where she’d been schooled, what she did for work, what her relationship was to the person she was visiting. To me, she was the most captivatingly real part of the piece, as if the author relaxed when writing about her, not forcing things, savoring the memory.

            In comparison, I found the main thread’s artistic thrust less interesting. I didn’t get a clear image of the man’s partner, nor did I find the relating of Iowa’s barrenness and gloomy story convincing. Some students thought the narrator’s descriptions of his partner came across as sexist, and that the barrenness theme wasn’t working. Nobody mentioned the woman in the waiting room. It’s now decades later and I still think about this woman. I wish I’d spoken up so the writer could have known how interesting she was to at least one of us and perhaps done more with her character.

             A written work’s major point can be so riveting that the literary assessment of the piece as a whole is less important. There’s a short essay, “Small Gestures,” by psychiatrist and professor Robert Coles, from his book Harvard Diary, about an encounter he has with a distraught Harvard student. She’s been bullied by a privileged male student who writes for Harvard’s daily newspaper (The Harvard Crimson). She’s poor and cleans rooms at the campus through the university’s work-study program. She tells Coles that the Crimson guys:

            write great editorials and book reviews … always telling us how rotten apartheid is in       South Africa … how rotten our foreign policy is … One morning I came into that room,             and I got talking with one of those guys … He had all these great posters in his room –            denouncing South Africa and reminding you how much hunger there is in Africa … The        next thing I knew … he was propositioning me … I tried to stop him and get away – well,        I had a tough time. He was a real skunk! He had a foul mouth on him … The worst of it            wasn’t that a guy was putting the make on me … The worst of it was that he was the guy.

            Coles concludes the piece with a reminder that character is reflected in behavior. “Character, my father used to tell me, is what you’re like when no one’s watching you – or, I guess, when you forget that others are watching… Let those of us who find that words come easy, and who like to play with ideas, and call the attention of others to our words and ideas, beware. Our jeopardy is real and continuing.”

            “Small Gestures” is one of my favorite essays, one I’ve reread and made copies of for friends. It’s a simple story, with a profound message. It wasn’t selected for Best American Essays, wasn’t inside a best-selling book, or one that’s even stocked in most bookstores. It’s something I came across by chance, something I feel fortunate to have discovered.

            An absorbing minor character or scene can make the reading of even a large book worthwhile. I never read anything by Stephen King until I came across an intriguing review in The Boston Globe about his book, 11/22/63, and decided to have a go. Its story sucked me in immediately. An English teacher named Jake Epping discovers a portal to the past. He’ll try to upend the assassination of President Kennedy. Early on, Jake is shown in his present-day life teaching an adult-ed class. One of his students, Harry, is a brain-damaged man who’s written a paper about his injury. One evening, when Harry was ten, his father came home drunk and went berserk, killing the boy’s mother and little sister and two brothers, hitting Harry on the head and leg with a sledgehammer. Despite the tragedy, he’s lived a productive life. He limps and has trouble speaking, but his writing is plain and direct.

           Jake reads this and is overwhelmed. He resolves to intervene. He travels to the past, is at the scene, outside the family’s house prior to the assault, hiding in the bushes, gun in hand. He’s been receiving enigmatic messages about the past being resilient, resistant to change. As the calamity draws near, Jake is accosted by a stranger who holds him at gunpoint. After they struggle, Jake breaks free and gets inside the house the moment the father’s drunken rage begins. Jake ultimately shoots the father and helps save Harry and his siblings.

           As the tension mounted, nothing else existed in my world. I was there, next to Jake, helping him get that bastard. When he succeeded, I punched the air and shouted “Yes!” (I was upstairs, no one could hear.) 11/22/63 had other intense moments, but none – with the exception of a love affair between Jake and a woman of the past – was as vivid and thrilling to me as that episode.

            A quick perusal through my bookcase brings back favorites from my reading life.

            Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Reasons of The Body.” About sports and manhood and nonverbal communication between fathers and sons. As if Sanders had taken my relationship with my own father and with sports and served them up with passion. “Now that sports have begun to give me lessons in mortality, I realize they have also been giving me, all the while, lessons in immortality. These games, these contests, these grunting conversations of body to body, father to son, are not substitutes for some way of being alive. They are the sweet and sweaty thing itself.” This is from Secrets of The Universe, a book of his essays I picked up at the  Buck-A-Book shop.

            Lessons in mortality can similarly describe EB White’s essay “Once More To The Lake,” about White taking his young son to the lake he’d enjoyed as a boy. After a thunderstorm, White’s son decides to follow other campers into the lake. He notices the boy’s shiver – “When the others went swimming, my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

            Goldengrove, a novel by Francine Prose that I read several years ago, and whose final words have lived inside me. A woman is at a museum, looking at a painting of a lake. The painting has transported her back to her beloved sister’s drowning, many years before:

            How could it have so overcome me that I was unaware of anything but the painted lake    and the four figures and the mountains behind them and then my own shockingly grown-          up face, reflected in the glass?… I felt myself slip out of my skin and become that girl          watching her sister dive into the water. I lost myself in the time before, and in that      innocent landscape, until the spell was broken by a museum guard, shouting… He was      speaking in a foreign language, but I understood. He was saying I’d gotten too close. I’d         let the current pull me. I’d allowed myself to drift into that hushed and watery border        zone where we live alongside the dead. I was grateful to him for calling me back and     reminding me where I belonged, in the clamorous, radiant, painful kingdom of the             living.

            I lost my father a few years before I read this passage and identified with the woman’s drifting off “into that hushed and watery border zone where we live alongside the dead,” and with her gratitude for the museum guard’s nudge bringing her back into the “clamorous, radiant, painful kingdom of the living.”

            Chang-Rae Lee’s essay, “Coming Home Again,” one of the most loving, and lovely, pieces I’ve ever read. About the author’s budding independence at fifteen and his relationship with his mother, who has terminal cancer. His parents have dropped him off for his first day at a New Hampshire prep school. His mother packed a coolerful of food, but young Chang-Rae wants to attend a cookout with his new classmates. His mother tells him, “of course,” he “certainly should” go and be with the others. He walks his parents to the car and sees them off:

            One day, after she died, my father told me what happened on the long drive home to         Syracuse… Traffic was light on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the sky was nearly    dark. They had driven for more than two hours and had not yet spoken a word. He then        heard a strange sound from her, a kind of muffled chewing noise, as if something inside            her were grinding its way out. “So, what’s the matter?” he said, trying to keep an edge to        his voice. She looked at him with her ashen face and she burst into tears. He began to cry    himself, and pulled the car over onto the narrow shoulder of the turnpike, where they             stayed for the next half hour or so, the blank-faced cars droning by them in the cold,         onrushing night… Every once in a while, when I think of her, I’m driving alone         somewhere on the highway. In the twilight, I see their car off to the side, a blue Olds     coupe with a landau top, and as I pass them by I look back in the mirror and I see them       again, the two figures huddling together in the front seat. Are they sleeping? Or kissing? Are they all right?

            I read “Coming Home Again” in The Best American Essays 1996. If I hadn’t sought out “bests” to read, I might have missed it. And I might have missed many wonderful writings and books and stories. Just as there’s no need to select only what’s considered best, there’s no need to narrow sources of reading pleasure. Treasures are to be found in an assortment of places.

            I celebrate those works I’ve valued in my life. What to read next? Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, says: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” As far as my reading goes, and in less highfalutin terms, I’ll just continue following my own damn nose.

Joseph O’Day obtained his BA and MBA from Salem State University and BS from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He was the Director of Pharmacy at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital from 1998 until his retirement in 2018. He is a creative writing student in Salem State University’s graduate MA English Program and served as Nonfiction Editor of Soundings East, the literary journal of Salem State University. Joseph’s writing focuses on the personal essay form, exploring family relationships and life transitions. Besides pharmacy and writing, he enjoys athletics and spending time with his family.