February 10, 2014

Pity the Bookless

My real life has been books. It has been the great pleasure of my life to read. I understand why good revolutionaries first seek to teach their people literacy. Without it how can they understand their own history or their place in it?


I went all over the place looking for relief from past miseries, worked at many jobs for money to just keep going, tried and failed a dozen relationships, nearly died of cancer I brought on myself by drinking too much, and generally felt like crap, a total loser. I tried like a mother to be a good writer and failed.The one thing that comforted me was books. My main brag is that I've had 46 library cards.

What a precious treasury of books in my head!

I began reading, I realized years later, partially dyslexic. I would read nearly to the end of a sentence and skip to the next  It took years to catch on. I was missing a lot. When I realized it, I started reading slower, sometimes aloud, to assure that I would get to the end of a line and consciously shift my eyes to the next. I still fall into the habit today.

I mostly overcame the disability. I never did understand where it came from. I thought that it was from bad teaching or inattentive learning. Now I think it has something to do with a brain malfunction, perhaps from trauma. I was whacked hard on the forehead about age 5 and knocked out.

Probably because I wanted to be seen as smarter than I was, I read over my head. In my twenties I bought and read the first pages of books that were for university. I'd put them aside and go back to them later. Some I never read. Others I completed. Years later I read some again with understanding. It's great to read something which was hard before that suddenly comes alive as a result of experience. Huckleberry Finn became not only a boyhood adventure but an anti-racist masterpiece. I read Tom Sawyer again when I was 50 and laughed my head off.

The more I read the easier it was. I can read fast but I don't. I read for comprehension. I make notes and have a special composition book for quotes. I have copies of vast bibliographies to peruse if I become immortal.

Years ago I stopped hanging onto books. Now I pass them on or contribute them to libraries. I carted so many books around that I finally got tired of lugging and packing and unpacking and the periodic search for boxes.

Bookshelves became my specialty. I can't remember how many pine 1 by 10s I bought and anchored to walls. Once I brought about 20 cartons of books to a living room in SoHo that I turned into a bedroom and office with a loft and two desks, and books covered three walls. It was a comfortable place with a great roommate. I lived in many single rooms. I have lived and slept alone for so long that I couldn't share a bed with Nicole Kidman for more than a week. I don't sleep well unless alone, and even then I need legal drugs.

"Michael doesn't want to go to bed because he doesn't want to miss anything," my mother used to say. It was true too. I've always been interested in what is going on. But it wasn't curiosity that drove me to books. It was the best way to shut people out. It was escape and withdrawal. But in the eighth grade in old Kenner High School in Louisiana I read a good anthropological book named The First Million Years of Humanity. My book report to the class drew interest from the teacher and other kids, encouraging  me to read more. Somewhere back there I became curious about the world and realized that if I read enough maybe I could understand it.

It hasn't happened yet.

I was bullied and didn't like it. Although I wasn't big enough to whip many guys and had no inclination to violence then, I had to fight anyway. I started reading more partly because I reasoned that if I couldn't outfight them at least I could be smarter. In the tenth grade at LaGrange High School in Lake Charles, I took a book to almost every class and buried myself in it. After numerous trips to the principal's office teachers gave up and left me alone.

I  quit before the year was out and joined the Marine Corps. Every base had a library. I used them. I lived in vans for years too, and sometimes especially in winter the library was the best place to read. Most have comfortable chairs and lamps. They are not as quiet as they were though. When I was coming up it was practically a crime to talk in anything above a whisper in a library, and librarians whispered to set the example. Today, people shout in libraries. Many librarians have given up on it and joined the chorus.

It has to be a quiet library or I won't read there. When I'm reading the quieter the better. When I write I sometimes listen to music. Now I am listening to Miles Davis' Do Wop and Jack Johnson albums. Just my speed for this piece.



Usually I write fast. I'm an accurate touch-typist with a little help from my eyes.

But I read for the deliciousness of it. I'm back in that classroom isolating myself, or I'm in my bedroom trying not to hear the riot in the living room. I get lost in other peoples' descriptions of themselves and the world. I'm a nut for autobiographies and biographies. I love good science fiction but there isn't much of it anymore, in my opinion.

I love good fiction, especially classical fiction and works by 20th Century authors and the present day. Cormac McCarthy blows me away like Hemingway and Faulkner did. Annie Dillard is better than Thoreau. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is intriguing, and I can't get enough of popular novelist Brian Haig, who surprisingly is Alexander's son. I just finished Adieu: A Farewell to Sartre, by Simone de Beauvoir, one of my favorite authors (read: The Mandarins), and it was great

I read a lot of non-fiction too. Now I'm reading for the second time in 15 years The History of Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, my favorite philosopher. This is the best book to learn about philosophy for me. When he writes about Plato, I read Plato, and so on.

Last month I read two fantastic (and very big) books by H.P. Albarelli: A Secret Order, about Lee Harvey Oswald, and A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and CIA Cold War Experiments. I was floored.

I'm reading the latest book by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Duty, and it is good. Last month I read his earlier one, "From the Shadows,The Ultimate Insider's Story," about his time in CIA through four administrations. I recommend that leftists and liberals read it to see if they can hang onto their ideas and opinions about how things are done up there and the kind of people who do them.

Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. I learned that from books.

I'm tempted to end this piece with an incredible list of books I've read since returning to Vegas six months ago, but it would be too much. I try to keep my boasting at a minimum because I have little to brag about.

What got me on this kick, besides the necessity to blog something so that my two fans won't be disappointed, was that I was watching an interview about the Olympics, and the moderator mentioned the name, David Remnick, which some might recognize. I flashed back to a great book I read by him in the Ogden, Utah, library, when I was broke, had just begun a new job, and hadn't anywhere else to go.

It was "Lenin's Tomb," a big book about Stalin, Stalin-ism, Perestroika, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and post-Perestroika with interviews of former officials and citizens who had suffered much and had survived one of the greatest mass murderers in history. Then I thought, wow, I want to read that again.

I remembered that I had read everything Alexander Solzhenitsyn had published, and all of Gorky. Russian literature is the best, the deepest and most-profound I've found. But that's me.

I feel sorry for people who don't read books. They don't know what they're missing.







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