As far back as I can remember, I was always reading. I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s. As an only child, I created my own world and spent as much time there as possible. All the comics, books, and movies I consumed fueled that world in my head. There were two public libraries nearby; one in Storm Lake, north of us; the other in Sac City, south of us. I spent more time in the Storm Lake library, usually on Saturdays when we’d go to town for grocery shopping. I loved this library. Made of stone and brick, its turret and peaked roofs made it seem like something out of a fairy tale. The library opened in 1906 and is still there, but no longer a library. As you can see from the photo below, it’s now Santa’s Castle, which is fitting, I suppose, given my early memories of the place.
Children’s books were in the basement level, accessed by a stairway that felt like you were going down into a mysterious vault. I’d take out the maximum number of books allowed, burn though them during the week, and get another load the next week. Wash, rinse, and repeat. I did the same thing at the Sac City library. At some point, I felt ready to get out of the kids’ section, even though I was still a kid. I wanted something more interesting. This, for me, was science fiction. I specifically remember reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at least twice, though I can’t remember if this was before or after I’d seen the Disney movie released in 1954. This was the one of the first “adult” science fiction books that really captured my attention. I also read the Classics Illustrated comic book version. Another book I checked out multiple times was Adventures in Time and Space, a collection of classic science fiction short stories first published in 1946.
I also read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries, which were more age-appropriate for me, I suppose. But my first love was science fiction and horror. As I wrote in a previous post, Famous Monsters and Me – Pt.2: Books and Comics, “…from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e. books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate. This is true, but I can’t overestimate the importance of books to me at that time, either. Books fed my imagination and kept me going between films. I was in love with the library and the newsstand.”
That post cites the work of Richard Matheson, a writer of horror fiction who was immensely important to me, especially his novels I Am Legend (1954) and The Shrinking Man (1956).
I was also engaged by books published in the John C. Winston Science Fiction series from 1952 to ’61. These were in our school library. I was always excited when a new title came in. The jacket illustrations were great, as were the end papers in each volume, drawn by Alex Schomberg. These still give me a charge.
Around this time I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, published by Doubleday. Or rather, my mother joined it for me. I must have seen an ad like the one below.
I still have a number of these books, though Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1956) and Earth Is Room Enough (1957) are the only ones with the jackets still intact (mostly). I especially like time-travel stories. The End of Eternity is a good one. I reread it last year and it holds up pretty well.
Here are some of the book club titles I still have. Lots of Asimov. His robot stories are great.
From 1956 to 1962 I bought the Dell paperback editions of the annual anthology, SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merrill. The first collection contains a story by Steve Allen called “The Public Hating,” which takes place in a near-future where executions are carried out in a large stadium filled with thousands of people who direct their hate at the condemned person strapped to a chair in the center of the field. The result is horrifying. I was surprised when I realized “The Public Hating” had been written by the same Steve Allen who was a famous comedian, musician, and the original host of The Tonight Show. It’s an extremely unsettling story that has stayed with me all these years. In 1985 I saw Steve Allen performing an evening of comedy and music at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. After the show I went back to his dressing room (one could do that then) with my original copy of the book that had his story and got him to sign the title page. He seemed to have forgotten about the story, but it was a nice moment. The third annual collection contains a long story by George Langelaan called “The Fly,” which was made into a feature film in 1958. I’ve forgotten most of the many other stories, but they all fed my imagination at the time.
It wasn’t only science fiction and horror that I was consuming. In seventh and eighth grade I became obsessed with cars — especially custom cars and hot rods — in anticipation of getting a drivers license when I turned sixteen. I remember reading a series of novels about teens and cars written by Henry Gregor Felson. They usually had a cautionary agenda, but I’m sure I wasn’t too interested in that.
Around this time I read Audie Murphy’s war time autobiography, To Hell and Back (1949). It had been made into a film starring Murphy as himself, the most decorated American soldier in World War II. The paperback edition I got had Murphy on the cover in a scene from the film. I hadn’t seen this film, but I was aware of Murphy as an actor in Western films, and I liked war stories, so wanting to read this book seemed natural.
Two other books I got a big kick out of were My Brother Was an Only Child (1959) by Jack Douglas, and May This House be Saved From Tigers (1960) by Alexander King. Both were frequent guests on The Tonight Show during the years when Jack Paar was the host.
My first stretch at the University of Iowa was from 1962 to 1966. It was during that time that I read Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for the first time. I can’t remember if this was for a course or if I read them on my own. Regardless, I was quite blown away by both books. They seemed perfect to me. When Hemingway’s A Movable Feast was published in 1964, I bought a copy and read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was sharing an apartment with three other guys. After everyone had gone to bed, I took the book and a pillow into our bathroom and got into the empty tub where I stayed until I’d finished reading. What the hell, I was younger and full of enthusiasm.
Somewhere in there I encountered Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). I remember Sal Paradise’s description of being with Dean Moriarty in Mexico and getting so excited by music from a jukebox in a bar that they fell out of their chairs. I wanted to feel that way, and years later, at a Who concert in St. Paul, I did.
Here’s my original copy of On the Road, which has seen better days. It’s used to be on one of our bookshelves, held together by rubber bands. I thought I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, but I guess I could, because I was looking just now and it seems to be gone. That’s probably appropriate.
The ending of On the Road is quite moving, with Sal’s invocation of Dean Moriarty. Gatsby is even more so, with its final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Another book that was very important to me at the time was Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965). I read parts of it over and over. My copy got a real workout. It wasn’t until several years later that I first listened to some of his LPs and finally heard the sound of his voice and unique delivery.
In the winter of 1965/66, I came back to Iowa City early from the holiday break to work at my bookstore job. I remember spending most of the evenings in my single-room rental reading John Fowles’ The Magus (1965). I was in love with that book. It drew me in and wrapped me up in the mystery of its strange and ominous world.
I totally embraced Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I read it. It’s a perfect book to read when you’re in college. The 1970 Mike Nichols film didn’t come close to capturing the spirit of the book, though Alan Arkin was great as Yosssarian. Hopefully the mini-series with George Clooney streaming on Hulu will be better.
I joined the air force in October of ’66. There wasn’t much opportunity to read during the six weeks of basic training at the base near San Antonio, Texas. They confiscated the paperback copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959) I’d brought with me. The scantily-clad people on the cover were probably too disruptive. I was reading a lot of Vonnegut at the time. He was teaching in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop then, though our paths never crossed, except at a distance.
The first base I was stationed at was in California, north of Sacramento. I arrived there in June of 1967. At some point I read that a paperback literary magazine called the New American Review was about to appear and would be a regular publication. This sounded interesting, but when I asked about it in a small bookstore in the nearby town of Marysville, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as a paperback magazine. Shortly after that, I was back in the store and there it was on the shelf, the first issue of New American Review. This was very exciting. Each issue had fiction, poetry, and essays. It featured writers such as Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. This was a reminder of the university life I missed and longed for. I needed this connection. I think new issues appeared on a quarterly basis. New American Review was published from 1967 to 1977. In 1973 the title was changed to American Review when it moved from the New American Library to Bantam Books. James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair, said the publication “started off stellar and never lost altitude, never peaked out, continuing to make literary news back when literary news didn’t seem like an oxymoron, each issue bearing something eventful.”
When I learned that I was being sent to an air base in Thailand for the year of 1969, I took out subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Berkeley Barb, and the British film magazine Sight and Sound. This was another effort to feel hip, involved, and provide a link to my previous life. Though in retrospect, leaving copies of Rolling Stone and Berkeley Barb, out in the open in my work area might have been asking for trouble. The Barb certainly raised a few eyebrows. But Sight and Sound, especially, made me feel like I was still connected to that world.
The base in Thailand had a library that I frequented. I was the first person to check out Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) when it arrived. I’d read about it and knew it was causing a serious stir. The book was a real kick and a radical change of pace from what I knew of Philip Roth’s work. It was incredibly funny in the most profane way. I had a problem when someone who lived in the same barracks as I swiped the book before I could return it. Despite my anger at this, he didn’t give it back until he was done reading it. This caused trouble with the librarian, who got on my case whenever she saw me. It was the only copy they had and she wanted it back. I didn’t tell her what had happened, because I thought that would only cause more trouble. So it goes.
Another book I read in Thailand in 1969 was Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (1968). I became obsessed with this book. A Fan’s Notes is subtitled “A Fictional Memoir.” In a “Note to the Reader” at the beginning, Exley writes: “Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life…I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy.” Throughout the book we see the Exley character as a self-destructive alcoholic, yearning for fame without the talent to achieve it. He’s a spectator in his life, a watcher. This engaged me because I strongly identified with this picture of a romantic, “tragic” figure who greets each new disappointment with a joke and a smirk. I was drinking a lot at the time, and would continue to do so for another eight years before finally stopping. Anti-heroes like the narrator of A Fan’s Notes became extremely popular in fiction and film of the 1970s. Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) is a prime example, a film I took to heart.
In August of 1970, I received an early discharge in order to return to the University of Iowa and my job in a local bookstore. After enrolling and finding housing, I promptly got run over by a Volkswagen and spent five weeks in a hospital. I didn’t resume college life until the second semester in ’71. In April of 1972, Fred Exley came to Iowa City to give a reading, and you can bet I was there. I got him to sign the hardcover copy of A Fan’s Notes I’d bought the previous year. I was very excited to actually be around him, because this guy was kind of an idol to me. Exley returned to teach a class in the Writers’ Workshop that fall. I asked him if I could sit in on these classes and he agreed. I also started going to a bar he frequented when I thought he’d be there. Slowly, but inevitably, he became less of an idol and more of a drunk in a bar. But A Fan’s Notes is still a great book, or at least it was when I read it. It was initially rejected by over a dozen publishers before being accepted by Harper & Row. A Fan’s Notes, which has acquired a cult following, was nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction. Exley wrote two more “fictional memoirs,” Pages from a Cold Island (1975) and Last Notes from Home (1988), but neither is on the level of A Fan’s Notes. He died in 1992 at age 63.
It was during this time that I read Gabriel García Márquez’s great novel, 100 Years of Solitude. It has the most amazing opening line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” It’s impossible not to keep reading after a line like that. It plants the hook deep and immediately raises questions you have to know the answers to. It promises to be a great story. And it is.
A book that was very important to me at the time was Charles Bukowski’s Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. Bukowski has been quoted as saying, “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” This heavyweight collection of short stories deeply reflects the spirit of that statement, and more than lives up to the title of the book.
Bukowski, who died in 1994 at age 73, was an incredibly prolific writer of fiction and poetry. He embraced the lowlife and the down-and-out. The title of one of his poetry collections, Love is a Dog From Hell, gives you an idea of his outlook. I fell in love with him when I found this book and subsequently bought a lot of his work, which is brutal, often aggressively outrageous, and beautiful.
Another book that seemed like the greatest thing I’d ever read was Hunter Thompson’s truly bizarre Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). It originally appeared in two issues of Rolling Stone, with illustrations by the equally insane Ralph Steadman, and felt like nothing you’d ever read before.
I don’t remember reading it in Rolling Stone, but when Fear and Loathing came out in paperback, I burned through it and began running around with my copy to corner people and read aloud my latest favorite passage. From that point on, I was reading everything Thompson wrote. I only wish he was around today to give us his take on our current president. With illustrations by Steadman, of course.
I hadn’t abandoned science fiction and horror. In 1971 while in Iowa City, I got a paperback collection titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The book is subtitled “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time.” The twenty-six stories in this collection do a good job of living up to that claim. Authors include Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Cordwainer Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, and Richard Matheson. The book was edited by Robert Silverberg. He’s a great writer who deserves to be represented here, but as editor he probably thought that wouldn’t be fair. The stories selected cover a period from 1929 to 1964. Considering that 55 years have passed since then, it’s probably time for an updated collection. But this is still a great collection of classic science fiction.
There were two follow-up volumes, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIA and Volume IIB: The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time, edited by Ben Bova. Each volume contains eleven long stories by classic authors in the field. I got my copies in Minneapolis in 1975.
Fantasy and horror collections I acquired since moving to New York City in 1977 can be seen below. These are excellent. I return to them now and again, when I’m in that kind of mood.
After finally getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa in 1973, I lived in Minneapolis for three years before moving to New York. During that time, I read Richard Yates’ Disturbing the Peace (1975), a vivid, harrowing depiction of alcoholism. At least, that’s how I saw it. Its protagonist is a New York adman on a downward spiral. I was surprised recently to see in the Wikipedia entry on the novel that it was “dismissed by critics as his weakest book.” I’ve not yet read the novel he’s best known for, Revolutionary Road (1961), so I can’t compare it to that, but Disturbing the Peace didn’t seem weak to me at all. Earlier, in Iowa City, I’d read his terrific short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), an evocative title if there ever was one. Richard Yates has been called “America’s finest realistic novelist” by the Boston Globe. I’m not sure when they said that, but he certainly deserves a place at the table.
It was while in Minneapolis that I read E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, another favorite of mine. Doctorow has written many great books, but this is one of his best. I think it was the first time I’d read something that blended fictional characters with historical figures in this way.
Shortly after moving to New York, I went through one of those periods when you’ve discovered a writer and have to immediately immerse yourself in everything he or she wrote. Sort of like binge-watching, I guess. For me it was Dashiell Hammett. I love the way he writes, simple, direct, tough, and unsentimental. Of everything I read, the two that have stayed with me the most are The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Red Harvest (1929). When I first read The Maltese Falcon, after having seen the film version many times, I was struck by how closely John Huston had stayed to the book and dialogue in writing the screenplay. It’s like the novel was ready to film as it was.
I really liked Red Harvest and keep meaning to re-read it. Just have to find the time. Red Harvest was an inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which itself was remade first by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and then by Walter Hill in Last Man Standing (1996). Elements of Red Harvest can also be found in the Coen Bros. Miller’s Crossing (1990). No small amount of influence from a 1929 crime novel.
Several years ago I started reading Dennis Lehane, one of the best writers of crime fiction working today. I read Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) after seeing the Ben Affleck film, which I liked a lot. That book didn’t quite prepare me for The Given Day (2008), a novel that transcends genre definitions. Epic both in length (724 pages) and in scope, the book, set in Boston at the end of World War I, has a large cast of sharply defined characters — black and white, police and criminals — in a story packed with violent action, historical detail. It’s incredibly engrossing and involving.
Lehane wrote two excellent novels that form a trilogy. Live by Night (2012), at 402 pages, and World Gone By (2015), at 309 pages, are less epic in scope, but no less involving. Oddly enough, I read the trilogy in reverse order, but I don’t think that diminished my experience.
Ben Affleck directed, wrote, and starred in the film version of Live by Night in 2016. The film was a major disappointment and a complete disservice to the novel, especially considering the great job Affleck had done with Gone, Baby, Gone. In addition to these two, other Lehane books have been made into films. These include Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood in 2003), Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese in 2010), and The Drop (2014, with screenplay by Lehane based on his story Animal Rescue).
Don Winslow is a terrific writer of crime fiction. The Dawn Patrol (2008) and The Gentleman’s Hour, his novels about a laid-back private eye who loves surfing are especially appealing. He’s written 19 books, but his major achievement is an epic trilogy about the ongoing drug wars. The Power of the Dog (2005) was the first one I read, and it blew me away. I hadn’t known it was going to be a series until The Cartel was published in 2015. I thought it was even better. The New York Times called it “A big, sprawling, ultimately stunning crime tableau.” I finished reading the final volume, The Border, just last night. I wish I could say it was as good as the first two, but I was hugely disappointed. Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, disguised only by the names John Dennison and Jason Lerner, appear as a newly-elected president and his son-in-law. While I agree with Winslow’s viewpoint, I think this was a major miscalculation. It’s too obvious and too distracting. I don’t think the book was worth the 716 pages it took to take me where it did. But The Power of the Dog and The Cartel will always be great.
Other writers of crime, espionage, and thriller fiction I like include George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, John Harvey, Bill James, Ian Rankin, Olen Steinhauer, and John Le Carré.
Evan S. Connell, who died in 2013 at age 88, was a novelist, short-story writer, poet, historian, and essayist. One of my favorite books of his is A Long Desire (1979), a collection of essays about explorers, both famous and obscure, and their quests. He wrote a followup, The White Lantern (1981), which I’ve not read. Earlier today I ordered a copy from Amazon in an effort to rectify this omission. Another favorite book of mine is his Son of the Morning Star, an epic and poetic account of the life of George Armstrong Custer and its awesome climax at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
Two important books about the Vietnam war that meant a lot to me are Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Christian G. Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003).
I’ve always had a fascination with the Vietnam War, which I learned in Patriots is known as the “American War” to the Vietnamese. It was my generation’s war, but I never got closer than Thailand in 1969, something I probably should be thankful for. I really hooked into Dispatches when I first read it. It felt fresh and unusual. Even the book jacket was different; it looked and felt like a kind of textured, brown wrapping paper. In a blurb on the back of the jacket, Harold Hayes wrote, “Dispatches is a series of refractions of Americans in Vietnam, kaleidoscopic images of sounds and senses: from Hieronymous Bosch to Jimi Hendrix… It’s a brilliant, lasting work of art.” Herr’s writing is hip and vivid, unsentimental and electric, suggestive at times of Tom Wolfe, and maybe even a little William Burroughs. It probably makes sense that Herr subsequently worked on the narration for Apocalypse Now (1979) and co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket (1987). He later wrote a short book called Kubrick (2000), a memoir of their nearly 20-year friendship. I love the opening sentence: “Stanley Kubrick was a friend of mine, insofar as people like Stanley have friends, and as if there are any people like Stanley now.”
Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 as a correspondent for Esquire. Dispatches is an account of his time there. I always took it straight and never questioned anything about it. However,
I only recently (as in two days ago) found out the following, per Wikipedia:
“…after publishing Dispatches, Herr disclosed that parts of the book were invented, and that it would be better for it not to be regarded as journalism. In a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times, he admitted that the characters Day Tripper and Mayhew in the book are ‘totally fictional characters’, and went on to say: ‘A lot of Dispatches is fictional. I’ve said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to Dispatches, and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn’t true anymore. I never thought of Dispatches as journalism. In France they published it as a novel….'”
I’m not sure how to take this. Would my reaction to the book have been different if I’d known this at the time? Maybe. I don’t know. But I hope not. Even though aspects of Dispatches were fictionalized, that doesn’t make them untrue to the time and place.
Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides is a revelation. Per description on the back cover, “Christian G. Appy’s monumental oral history of the Vietnam War is the first work to probe the war’s path through both the United States and Vietnam. The vivid testimonies of 135 men and women span the entire history of the Vietnam conflict, from it’s murky origins in the 1940s to the chaotic fall of Saigon in 1975.” The people interviewed include “…generals and grunts, policymakers and protesters, guerrillas and CIA operatives, pilots and doctors, artists and journlists, and a variety of ordinary citizens…” It’s an impressive and important piece of work.
Here are four other books that have been important to me.
Finally, of all the books I want to read again, the one I want to reread the most is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Beginning in the 1930s, and continuing through World War II and after, two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, become major figures in the birth and growth of comic books in this country. It’s a work of almost Dickensian density and great imagination. It was no surprise to read in Chabon’s author’s note at the end of the book that Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Gil Kane had shared their memories of the Golden Age of comics with him. I’ve always loved the world of comic books and superheroes, so I was more than willing to be immersed in Kavalier & Clay. As with all good books and films, it kept me asking the question, “What happens next?” If you haven’t read Kavalier & Clay, I urge you to do so. It may seem daunting at 656 pages, but it’s more than worth it, believe me.
Well, that’s more than enough for now. This has been a longer ride than usual, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Stay tuned for Bookish Part 2: Favorite Film Books. — Ted Hicks