"How much easier it is to move many than to move the few.”
Great books contain lines that stand out on their own. You have the line memorized the moment your eyes and brain take it in, because it is universally and eternally true, and the wisdom feels imbedded in the words.
Almost five months and five-plus books into my 2017 goal of “12 novels in 12 months,” it is the above line that sticks closest to me, for the volume of wisdom contained in those dozen words, what it says about human nature, and what it has to say for our time.
They are the words of the hero Theseus in “The King Must Die” by Mary Renault, which I completed last week. I’ll return to it in a moment, but first, gentle readers, a short recap of my 12-in-12 list so far. My goal is to read a novel a month this year, roughly four times my usual annual consumption: I will divide the list between six books I have read before (RR) and six that are first time (FT). So far:
• “Chicago” (FT) by Brian Doyle
• “The Power and the Glory” (RR) by Graham Greene
• “The Cards of the Gambler” (RR) by Benedict Kiely
• “Ordinary Grace” (FT) by William Kent Krueger
• Current book: “The Brothers K” (RR) by David James Duncan
After just under five months, I guess you could say I am just ahead of schedule. “Brothers K” is a long book, but I recall it as a fast read. It’s a dysfunctional family story about baseball, or maybe a baseball book about a dysfunctional family, and it takes place in Alaska and Washougal, among other places. Great read, one I was given about 20 years ago and vowed to re-read. Waited until baseball season was well in.
When you read a good book has a lot to do with your enjoyment. The book by Benedict Kiely (a friend, I had the chance to meet in him in Dublin in 1991) I wrapped around St. Patrick’s Day. “To Kill A Mockingford,” later this year, demands to be read in October, as the leaves crinkle and fall. (“Ordinary Grace,” the Hood River Reads selection this spring, has a distinct “Mockingbird” feel, as a growing-up story about two siblings, a complex father, misunderstood anti-hero, and sub-themes of mortality, the fallibility of adults, and how society treats those it considers inferiors or outliers. That and the death of an innocent.)
“A man must retain some sentimental relics if he is to live at all.” — Graham Greene
“The world is all familiar faces. I might see on a street in Moscow the shadow of a face seen in a Mayo village.” — Benedict Kiely
I could quote wise and provocative words all morning from the books read so far this year. Ultimately, it is just satisfying to get caught up in a really good story.
The book I just finished was “The King Must Die,” about the once-and-future king Theseus of Greek mythology, who is bound into slavery and becomes the leader of the bull-leapers of the palace of Minos in Crete, leading the Cretans through a revolt and sailing home to his father and a bittersweet reunion in his native Eleusis. Terrific story, though I confess it started slow and forced me to Google dozens of ancient Greece cultural references as I went. But halfway through the book, it was hard to put down each day. My friend Sam recommended it, and I liked the fact that it was published the year I was born, 1958.
And my next read brings me to 1970s Pacific Northwest, and the story of a family of four sons and their baseball-mad father. But I recall it is about far more than that — like any fine story, the surface themes cradle deeper meanings.
What will follow is probably “Huckleberry Finn” in the FT category. I know: 59 years old and you never read Huck Finn? That and “Mockingbird” are the only titles I will hold to for the remaining seven months; my short list has FT and RR of varying moods and topics, and I will also wait for whatever serendipity holds. Right now, I am strongly considering a new novel by a Gorge author I won’t name in case I don’t get to it.
But the list so far has taken me to lands far and familiar, and to lives surprising and illuminating. I think I was drawn to re-reading the Kiely and Greene because both deal with men on the run from demons real and imagined, forcing them to contemplate both faith and fate and to fully accept challenges to their deepest moral strengths. Heavy stuff, indeed, and then I dipped into a mystery of a murdered teenage girl, a flawed Greek guy who thinks he might even be a God, and an alcoholic baseball-mad Dad who gets his thumb crushed in a mill accident.
Well, what’s it all about? So you’re reading a bunch of books. I know, but I like to have a regular activity each year to help tie the days together and give each year a sense of continuity. This year I am focusing on the reading of novels, which will involve the measured dedication of more of my time — three or four times more than past years — to recreational reading. (Why do vices come so easily and our best efforts so hard?)
Reading, for its own purpose, has wide benefits. A Yale University study showed that book readers have a 23-month longevity advantage compared to non-readers; reading fosters in critical thinking, empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Study leader Avni Bavishai said, “Reading books is helping you keep your brain sharp, which is helping you live longer.”
I wrote about “12-in-12” earlier this year, after telling about my 2016 daily regimen, which was writing a letter a day. (Two or three replies trickled in, by the way, bringing the total to 66 out of 365 for the year.) I had mentioned a short list of books I plan to read, including “Mockingbird” (RR); the other day my friends Ruth and Marv Turner dropped by the office with a copy of Harper Lee’s classic, in case I did not have a copy.
I thanked the Turners for their gift, though explaining that the book is my wife Lorre’s favorite and we have a copy at home. I was honored that the Turners would so make such a kind offer toward my picaresque pursuit.