Tag Archives: Books

Under the Influence of Books Pt.2

If I were probed further on my background as a reader, I’d have to list Kurt Vonnegut. I own several first editions and have re-read several favorites from his catalog.

Positives: he develops a running theme through his novels and essays, one of community, belonging and extended family. In Cat’s Cradle, it was the karass of bokononism, a notion that kindred spirits with a common destiny or vision must be assembled and maintained. In Slapstick, the last President of the United States assigned government-issued middle names. Everyone with the same middle name becomes sort-of related, creating an extended community of man.

One real bummer for me is that his books’ style of delivery changed dramatically from the dense, ponderous columns of Player Piano to the heavily-illustrated, anecdotal Man Without a Country. I really enjoy his middling years and consider his later works a light read. The sheer heaviness conveyed by the earlier books’ design scares me off.

Ironically, I have a photo of the afore-mentioned favorite author Daniel Pinkwater having dinner with Vonnegut. Also they’re both Laurel and Hardy fans.

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Fahrenheit 2019

This reminds me of an obscure David Byrne track, In the Future.
“In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very happy.
In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very filthy.
In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very healthy.
In the future TV will be so good that the printed word will function as an art form only.”

The more we’ve taken the tactile, ink on paper format away from the book, the more people cry, “foul!” But that’s been sort-of like the oceans receding, leaving amphibians to plod about on their newly-adapted appendages as their gills became vestigial. “Ribbit! I like water better!” So? Get used to it. Land is here to stay.

We were first introduced to the wonders of writing through great storytelling. Our parents read aloud, sang and free-styled weird derivative works from poorly-remembered Grimm’s tales. And it didn’t get any better than that until our own inner voices gave life to the squiggles on wood pulp and characters beautiful and monstrous became the joint invention of authors and our mind’s eye. Then we were exposed to theater, film and television. Much more of the work was done for us, and surprised us.

Again, my favorite author Daniel Pinkwater had something to say about this in either Fishwhistle or Hoboken Days, Chicago Nights, audiobook collections of his numerous NPR All Things Considered essays. He tells the story which became the basis for his young adult novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, one about an all-night movie theater with a balcony that played double-features and customers could drop a title in the suggestion box, then see their request on the big screen a few weeks later. One night, Pinkwater sits in on a Laurel & Hardy film. Street people and weirdos, educated-types and beatniks fill the place, laugh in unison until they cry, hug one another and leave before the second feature. Why? Because the first had been too perfect. Pinkwater describes the physical comedy as predictable, but when the hits and falls happened, they still astonished because they were pulled-off so brilliantly.

Thankfully, most adventurous readers have such poignant “aha!” moments with books. The expectations are high, but from time to time a writer delivers a surprise in such a spectacular fashion, it’s jaw-dropping. It’s perfection. I’ve felt that all at once from a good book, sometimes it creeps up and, closing the cover on the last page, notice the perfection.

To compete, books will have to deliver a cultural experience commensurate with the commercial outlay. Writers will have to knock it out of the park with more impressive manuscripts. I think print journalism will shrink, as predicted. If advertisers can’t get consumers to ingest their messages on their home computer screens, we’ll see screens in every public transit depot, airline terminal and eye-level piece of high-traffic real estate. Publishers will produce fewer bestsellers, just as record labels redefined what constitutes platinum and motion picture studios pared back their blockbusters. Periodicals and paperbacks will ebb and flow until the market yields the magic number.

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Under the Influence of Books

One author has shaped my cranium more than any other, and that’s a mixed blessing. Daniel Pinkwater is author and sometimes illustrator of over 100 (and counting) books. He is also an occasional commentator on National Public Radio‘s All Thing Considered and appears regularly on Weekend Edition Saturday, where he reviews kids’ books.

My first exposure to his work was via a children’s television program which read the first few chapters of Lizard Music, the story of a boy left home alone while his parents vacation and his sister roadtrips. He stays up late watching his favorite programs, then awakens to a pirate broadcast of intelligent lizards. Intrigued, he seeks out the source of the broadcast with the help of a homeless street performer, the Chicken Man.

I was hooked. The masterful means Pinkwater employed to make the bizarre adventure an engaging read was wholly new, and remains so. I never felt spoon-fed or pandered-to. Every detail was related matter-of-factly. And the protagonists were neither the average yet repressed ilk of young adult fiction nor the Encyclopedia Brown w√ľnderkinds of middle readers. Pinkwater’s characters have rumpled shirts, acne, braces and are often pudgy outcasts. They’re also risk-takers, befriend dangerous strangers and sneak out of the house late at night.

I kept returning to the children’s section for more Pinkwater. I befriended the children’s librarian, and found I was returning as much to visit her as to get new book recommendations. By age 16, I was publishing my own zines and comics and meeting dangerous strangers through the mail and visiting the children’s librarian at her home because she was my first real crush.

In retrospect, I liken the effect of reading Pinkwater (I’ve read 80 of his books and own 30) to the sense of wonder boys must have felt reading Huckleberry Finn. Surely it inspired interracial kinship and raft rides? The way Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars inspired me to court a children’s librarian 20 years my senior? Whatever; reading Daniel Pinkwater changed my life. Usually for the better.

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