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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are Books the New Yoga?

One measure of how much books matter is to see a child react when you tell him or her that the story is over.
No, no, goes the wail. And then: Read it again, Daddy.
Lately, though, I’ve been hearing a similar message from people of a more (shall we say) settled age. I’ve had people talk about their “reading” who’ve never gone there before in our relationship. Where last year it sometimes seemed that all people wanted to talk about was yoga, and the year before that, the tango, this year it’s books.
As a writer, I’m pleased, of course. As a writer with a new book out, I even feel lucky, for the first time in my stop-start career.
But mostly I’m curious as to why. If something about our last decade has brought out the reader in us, even as distracting devices proliferate, it feels counter intuitive. Is it because everyone is determined to forestall discussion of the latest pop star outrage, or the latest diet, food allergy, exercise regimen, kale cleanse, and so forth?
I’ve wondered whether a flagging interest in sports could be responsible. As a former athlete and sportswriter, part of me has noticed I just don’t care about all these Cups and Masters and Bowls and Races. I’ve finally hit my limit. And my male friends have been saying the same (even as our eyes migrate to the widescreen over the bar):
What are you reading? they ask, followed by: I need a new book.
Then they look at me, the writer. After all these years, finally I’m in my element. As Curtis Mayfield sang, I’m your pusher. And here are my picks for a variety of readers who’ve run dry:
For the thriller reader who wants to aim higher (and replace the cheap sugar rush of pulp fiction with something finer): David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Yes, the man behind The Game of Thrones is a crack novelist (The 25th Hour was turned into a pretty good Spike Lee movie). That this love story set during the Siege of Stalingrad is swift and self-assured is a cause for wonder.
For the lover of Downton Abbey and Masterpiece Theatre and all those other Upstairs/Downstairs dramas: Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels. Going deep inside the English upper classes of the last 50 years, St. Aubyn delivers a vision of hell lived on a hundred thousand pounds a year with houses in four countries. The dialog would make Oscar Wilde envious. Your mother may not forgive you for leaving it lying around. But she won’t give it back, either.
For those familiar with Tom Wolfe’s epic takedowns of entire strata of society, Mark Panek’s Hawaii is a savage, deeply researched and hilariously apt portrait of a colonial-tropical multi-ethnic society destroying itself with corruption, cultural warfare and real estate development. Mandatory Pacific Rim reading by a rising star.
Finally, for all those who’ve been quietly reading boxes of books for decades, may I suggest my favorite quirky-deep reads? Think of them as palate cleansers: Andrei Platanov’s Fierce and Beautiful World, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Call me when you surface for air.

BIO: Don Wallace is the author, most recently, of THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). He lives in Hawaii, grew up in California, spent 27 years in Manhattan, and visits a surf shack in Brittany with his Hawaiian wife almost every year.

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