Literati

Tom ‘bookworm’ Waters

My personal book collection has swelled to almost unmanageable proportions. Short of opening a library or a used book store, I’m getting to the point where I’m running out of room. I’ve had two book shelves for as long as I could remember and I instantly commandeered Lindsay’s when we moved in together. That one’s full now, too. What’s funny is that I barely read print books anymore and aside from poetry collections by Charles Bukowski, I haven’t purchased a new book in almost a year. Perhaps if I had more room I’d start pursuing a new avenue of thought.

When I left comics for a brief time in my youth, I started on Stephen King. He’s great for kids going through puberty because his grammar is simple as well as his plots. After finishing pretty much every thing King’s written, I moved on to Clive Barker, who is head and shoulders above King. What’s sad is that since Clive’s heyday (when The Hellbound Heart was made into a little motion picture known as Hellraiser along with Candyman, Night Breed and Lord Of Illusions), Clive’s creativity has diminished. Cold Heart Canyon was the last new novel of his that I’ve read and I’d be doing you a disservice if I said it was one of his best. That distinction belongs to The Books Of Blood, Galilee, Imajica and Everville. Imajica is a big, sprawling fantasy epic in one volume (two volumes in paperback) that holds its own next to The Lord Of The Rings, A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and other timeless classics.

Barker’s popularity has always been hindered in the U.S. thanks in large part to King’s reign of terror, which is a shame, because he’s a much more terrifying and cerebral writer. In my estimation, The Dark Half by Stephen KingStephen King hasn’t written a good novel since The Dark Half and on the whole, his work has steadily decreased in quality since the 1980’s. I sold all my first edition King hard covers to a friend last year and never looked back. They found a good home and the odds of reading his books again are slim to nil. Some time in the ‘90s Clive Barker moved to Los Angeles, which was probably his first creative mistake. LA is where good writers go to dry up and die or whore themselves out in diminishing returns. The last thing I read about Barker he’s been busy developing video games for an audience that’s too young to remember what a visionary genius he was.

I still have an antique white book case in my parent’s basement with the words Tom’s Peanuts on the side. I’m not sure what it’s original purpose was and I don’t want to rise moving and breaking it until I buy a house, so over the years I’ve been boxing up my spare books and storing them in the basement. Most people don’t own this many books and they probably don’t have the space issues I’m having. This forces me to have to pick the best of the best for the books I keep in my study, so I’m left looking at a eclectic archive of fiction and nonfiction. One shelf houses all my hardcover first edition graphic novels, as they won’t fit into the six odd white comic boxes I’ve got shoehorned into our second closet. Comics are more of a collectible, so I don’t mind keeping them filed away and out of site.

Throughout high school, I purchased a great deal of science fiction novels, biographies and horror anthologies. It’s interesting to me how some readers’ palate’s change and others read the same genre or author throughout their lives. I don’t know how I did this, but I used to read three books a day on average on top of school curriculum and holding down part time jobs. During my entire Junior year, I would go to the school library right after lunch, hold down a tattered cloth chair in the back where it was quiet and get down to it. I always read in the few minutes before class, whenever I walked from one location to another outside of school, and well into the wee hours of the night at home. My mom used to try and catch me staying up after my bed time but since I lived in the basement I could hear her coming downstairs well ahead of time and pull the plug on the light in my room before she got close. This went on throughout my teens.

Robert Heinlein’s books aren’t as enjoyable to me on the re-read today. Classics like Stranger In a Strange Land and The Puppet Masters come across as overly liberal and tremendously preachy when I try and come back to them. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, still comes across as a visionary genius. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of Something Wicked This Way Comes or Fahrenheit 451 and it’s a shame that his popularity is waning. And I will always reserve a dark, angry corner in my heart for anything and everything by Harlan Ellison. He is an evil, vindictive troll with unparalleled talent in the field and an ego to match. Some years ago, White Wolf Publishers took on the impossible task of reprinting all of Ellison’s material that was either out of print or unpublished in book form in the Edgeworks series of hardcovers. I made it to volume five and to the best of my knowledge there haven’t been more. While inconsistent, the Edgeworks series offers some of the most influential ‘speculative fiction’ (Ellison’s preferred term over science fiction) of the 20th century with updated notes and anecdotes from the author.

the essential Works of Harlan EllisonEllison is one opinionated, prolific son of a bitch, and I’ve always admired him for that. He’s also condescending, petty and vengeful, and those are all qualities that I can relate to although I don’t value them. Since he’s so productive, he’s always managed to make money over the years, but his chances for immortality are fading as the years go by. Popular science fiction is evolving with the times and it looks like there’s no room on shelves or in the collective unconsciousness for Ellison. Deathbird Stories is one of the best horror collections ever written, and I cherish the hardcover edition I purchased through a science fiction book club in my youth. If you can find it, the ten pound Essential Ellison offers but a snapshot of Harlan’s best stories and novellas. I read it in a week. These days I’m lucky if I can finish a 230 page novel in two weeks.

Rather than reading history books, I prefer biographies. I would rather read about individuals than historical events as a whole because people are more interesting to me and I truly believe that one important person can influence the course of history better than the group that follows or reacts to their actions. Perhaps this is why my interviews have become such a natural fit. In my teens, I read multiple biographies on Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Jackie Gleason, Sigmund Freud, and others I’ve long forgotten. After high school, I read up on Michael Jackson, Bjork, The Beatles, John Lennon, The Doors, Guns And Roses, Howard Hughes, Howard Stern and Andy Warhol. The thing that intrigues me about biographies is that reading one isn’t accurate enough. Every single biography that I’ve read (save Philip Norman’s Elton John: A Biography) comes with a heavy slant, and you almost have to read two or three and formulate your own opinion about someone’s life and career to get the big picture. The Andy Warhol Diaries had a profound influence on me in my mid-20s, so much so that it inspired me to write my own 20 page party journal entitled ‘The Constant Assault On The Liver, Lungs and Libido’ (from First Person, Last Straw). The fact that he took a niche, marketable talent and built it into a multimedia cultural force continues to amaze me, and his acolytes throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s astonish me. The same applies to Howard Hughes, a man who came from wealth and went on to amass more financial freedom than only a handful of history’s greatest entrepreneurs. Hughes is a case study in how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and his final years were wrought with sadness, isolation and madness. Few lives in the 20th century were as powerful, historical and groundbreaking as Howard Hughes’, and aside from Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, Las Vegas simply wouldn’t be what it is today without the all encompassing manipulations of Howard Hughes pulling strings that spanned countries from a hotel room that he rarely left in the last arc of his lifetime.

I also read my share of true crime books in my teens as well, devoting an unhealthy fascination with serial killers. I read about Son Of Sam, Executioner’s Song and Helter Skelter. I still haven’t picked up In Cold Blood but I’ve been meaning to get around to it. Truman Capote is another popular figure whose career interests me. After In Cold Blood (and I gathered this peripherally through The Andy Warhol Diaries), Capote spent the rest of his life making talk show appearances to promote nothing in particular. He spoke of releasing another short story collection greater than Answered Prayers but it was never released and no one ever saw it. Getting back to serial killers, though, Helter Skelter is widely regarded as the greatest work of crime nonfiction (critically and commercially) in existence, which is hard to dispute given the quality of writing, the subject and the book’s success. Charles Manson remains one of the 20th centuries most notorious personalities, and his gruesome murders in the late ’60s and ’70s will continue to fascinate and horrify generations to come.

Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, on the other hand, is not for the casual reader. Spanning over a thousand pages, the book documenting the crimes of Gary Gilmore leading to the first execution in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, is a commitment. Its superbly written, and although Mailer is an author who doesn’t shy away from passing judgement on every other living writer out there, this book is worth looking into. Crime nonfiction walks a fine line between banking on popular fads and standing the test of time. Most novels are rushed to print before the events fade from the news and very few stay on bookstore shelves after a year unless the writing or the topic is fascinating enough and commercial enough to warrant them. I’d still like to read about Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a while.

This fascination with serial killers and mass murderers evolved into a real love for crime fiction, not to be confused with hard boiled detective novels or whodunits. In my mid-20s, I devoured almost everything I could get my hands on by Andrew Vachss, a former social worker turned crime author who’s been compared by critics to Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet, two of the greats in the genre. Most crime authors write multiple novels about a single character, and Vachss’ Burke is a tough talking, two fisted gun-for-hire with a heart of gold. Before you pass judgement on the genre, you really should look into it, because the prose in Vachss’ books holds its own against any other author writing yesterday or today. With heart palpitating suspense, quick, staccato prose and hard hitting titles like Everybody Pays and Dead And Gone, Vachss walks a fine line between a bleeding heart and a bleeding heart, if you follow my drift. He remains one of my favorites in the field, while James Patterson continues to devolve into populist trash. He’s a perfect example of a writer who was better when he wasn’t making any money. Along Came A Spider and Jack And Jill were shining examples of great suspense/crime fiction, and over the years he’s just gotten worse and worse. In college, I couldn’t read his books fast enough, tearing through two and three novels in a month between classes and at work while I sat in a projection booth between show times as the theater manager. When The Wind Blows blew, literally, and after reading that, I’ve given up on him. As a former fan, he really should stop writing altogether to preserve the quality and integrity of his first five or six books. Shame on him.

I would love to pick up Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and Thomas Ludlum where suspense and crime are concerned, but again, it’s going to be awhile. Thomas Harris’ books aren’t as great as they used to be, but I’ll forgive him his indiscretions for Red Dragon, Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal. Focusing more on quality and less on quantity, it took Harris eleven years to write a follow up to Silence Of The Lambs, and I respect him deeply for that. I was unable to grasp and appreciate the perfection of Jonathan Demme’s film until I read the book, and I own the complete trilogy, which I watch at least once every year. I just found out that Harris is coming out with another Hannibal Lecter novel by the name of Hannibal Rising, which is an event that I’ll have to participate in. While the ending was controversial at the time for Hannibal (and I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anyone by referring to the subject matter of Starling and Lecter becoming romantically involved), it fits for the characters if you ask me, and Lecter’s values operate under a kind of higher intellect and value system akin to the Joker. As far as fictional psychopath’s go, I really like the concept of an evil genius whose madness reflects a kind of super sanity that transcends the masses. It’s food for thought, no pun intended while we talk about Hannibal here. I’d be negligent in my duties as an amateur critic here, too, if I didn’t mention Patrick Bateman, the brain child of another author I’ve got a great deal of respect for: Bret Easton Ellis.

I was working at Waldenbooks when one of my co-workers clued me in to American Psycho, which he referred to as one of the most disturbing novels he’s ever read. I’ve read the book at least five times and after the first time I was an Ellis fan for life, scooping up the rest of his books (in hardcover if possible) as soon as they came out. I’ve gone into great detail about the life and works of Ellis elsewhere, but his brand of postmodern fiction is brilliant, all encompassing in its influence on popular culture, and timeless. I only hope that he doesn’t calculate a misstep by writing a sequel to Less Than Zero. If anything, it will be embraced by fans and critics alike, but it doesn’t feel like a novel that should be revisited. The Informers, Glamorama and Lunar Park are about as perfect as novels get, and in my old age I continue to re-read them time and again. My critic’s copy of Lunar Park is one of the finer points of my personal collection of books, and I cherish it and hide it in a box with the zeal of an Ellis aficianado.

JD Salinger is an author I couldn’t fully appreciate until my late ‘20s. While eccentric and reclusive in his personal and very publicly private life, the novels and collections he’s written endure as great works of fiction. Catcher In The Rye should be in everyone’s library, whether you own two books or two hundred. It captures the anger and folly of youth better than almost every other writer to date, and his other books are as good as the novel he’s best remembered by. Nine Stories, Raise High The Roof Beams Carpenter and Franny & Zooey all hold a special place in my heart. The prose is simple and incredibly well laid out in structure. I lucked upon a second edition hardcover copy of Franny & Zooey years ago at a used book shop in Rochester and its another treasure in my archives.

Most people sell of their books at yearly garage sales but I can’t bear to. Most people’s reading tastes are a lot more pedestrian and they shouldn’t be keeping those books around the house. Of the older people I know who read on a regular basis, tastes seem to gravitate towards popular romance, biography, history, light fiction and suspense fiction. Romance novels are disposable trash but I suppose it’s more mentally nourishing than sitting in front of a television. I don’t have the attention span for history books but I can understand why people would pick them up later in life. If I read a terrible book, which doesn’t happen that often, I’ll give it away or file it away and see if I can’t come back to it. I keep few paperbacks in my study opting to box them up instead.

At some point in my mid-20s, I was gravitated to short stories, either as a result of buying a lot of bargain books at wholesale outlets or a diminished attention span from heavy partying. Short stories are captivating because the focus is shifted thematically and structurally. From what I’ve read, a good short story captures a snap shot from a character’s life, or bears down on one emotional fault line and billows it out with descriptors. Raymond Carver’s books set the standard in my library for short stories. He has no equal. The man was a natural at the form and had a knack for shedding light on bizarre people, circumstances and anecdotes. Many writers complain about how hard it is to write convincing dialogue for a party scenario; with Carver, it’s just another tool at his disposal. One of my favorite Carver stories is about a man going through a divorce who gets up in the morning in his upstairs apartment with an earache and decides to start drinking champagne in a paper cup. His prose is deceptively simple and the emotions that come through in his books are surprisingly powerful. I’ve also read Andre Dubus, Stokes Howell, Penelope Lively, Douglas Copeland, Jay McInerney and many, many more.

Nicholas Baker grabbed quite a few readers’ attentions with Vox, a sinful short novel with a strange plot: It’s a phone sex call. The entire book is a single phone sex call that’s meticulous, touching, cerebral and exploratory. The book made the New York Times Best Seller list and Stephen King had the nerve to call it the literary equivalent of ‘a fingernail paring’. I guess not everyone can write 600 pages of re-treaded dreck. Vox drove me to pick up the rest of his work: U & I (about Baker’s obsession with John Updike in relation to Updike’s obsession with Nabakov), Room Temperature, The Mezzanine, The Size Of Thoughts, and the brilliant The Fermata, about a perverted temp who has the power to stop time for everyone and everything but himself. Baker’s style is geeky and obsessive in detail at times but on the whole he’s got a very distinct voice. I picked up Box Of Matches, another new title of his, but I couldn’t get into it.

And somewhere during my 20s I took an independent study through a correspondence college on the greats and went through a strong John Irving phase. I prefer Irving over Dickens and try to shy away from anything written before 1930. I would rather support living writers for obvious and selfish reasons. The majority of Irving’s books are masterpieces but when he misfires he really does a job of it. The World According To Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany and Setting Free The Bears are just a handful of his better work, and he’s been compared multiple times to Dickens because he has a talent for fleshing out a large and memorable group of characters in each book that builds up to a touching and gripping conclusion. For the rest of the class I had to trudge through The Sound And The Fury (which I didn’t care for), The Great Gatsby (which was all right), and the collected works of O. Henry, which I could take or leave.

Martin Amis, the son of author Kingsley Amis, is an author whose work I will follow faithfully until the end of his career. Amis is a tremendously gifted British author who walks a fine line between humor, structure, hardboiled crime, drama, murder mystery and semi-autobiographical farce. I’ve re-read his books numerous times, and it always amazes me how he can try on a genre like someone trying out hats and write it as well as the top scribes in the field. Night Train is as good as it gets where crime fiction is concerned. It’s a vicious bullet of hard prose wrapped into a beautiful whodunit. London Fields is an anti-murder mystery. It begins with the narrator informing the writer who he killed. Then he proceeds to lead up to the incident for the rest of the book. Dead Babies is a raucous satire about kids sharing an apartment together, Time’s Arrow turns the novel on it’s ear and starts at the end spiraling backwards in time while The Information is a sharp, phenomenal ode to petty and personal revenge between old friends. I can’t say enough about Amis. He is a hero to me.

J.G. Ballard is another british author who’s capable of horrifying and entertaining readers with whatever style he chooses for an idea. He’s excelled at science fiction, horror and essays. Crash is a dark, perverse look at a man who gets into a car crash and equates it with sexual stimulation. He goes on a dark journey and finds a subculture of people who feel the same way. It’s disturbing, the prose is incredible, and it’s certainly not something you read about every day. I’ve always envied british writers for their innate ability to dabble with different styles effectively. This isn’t a trait of Western authors. King and Irving both hail from New England, a place renowned for long winded story tellers. Baker comes from a suburb near Rochester, New York, and Bret Easton Ellis is bicoastal. It’s interesting to see how certain areas of the world breed a certain kind of writer.

David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, is from the mid-west. Iowa I believe. He’s a professor and the literary equivalent of a super genius. He’s the only author who I have to keep a dictionary on deck for, and I don’t know how I chanced upon it, but Infinite Jest changed my life. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s laugh-out-loud-in-a-doctor’s-office funny. It’s laugh-uncontrollably-no-matter-where-you-are-funny. He’s written short stories and essays but he really shines in his novels. Girl With Curious Hair, Broom Of The System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men are all incredible for different reasons, but Infinite Jest was like a religious experience for me as a writer. It showed me that you can aim high with your vocabulary and as long as you can keep the story interesting, the reader will follow like a lost puppy. I met Wallace in person and he was quirky and neurotic. His fans are a bit on the rabid side so perhaps he keeps his guard up.

Author Richard Price is a sad example of writers moving to LA to die. After writing three unbelievably great books (Ladies Man, The Wanderers and Clockers), he went west to work on screenplays. Shame on him. For an old white guy, he captured the crack cocaine market on New York city streets better than anyone in Clockers, which is worthy of calling a tour de force. Ladies Man contemplates the homophobia of misogyny, and The Wanderers is a period piece about a young Italian street gang in the late ‘60s.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s losing a book to someone. I loan a lot out to inquisitive friends after we talk about literature and as a result of break ups, moves away, and fallings out, I lost a lot of great books. My first edition hardcover of Vox is long gone. I borrowed a hardcover Penguin edition of Lolita from a girl I was dating and we broke up while she still had my copy of The Impersonator by Diane Hammond. Somehow I’ve lost two copies of my favorite humor collection of all time, Pure Drivel by Steve Martin and I don’t know if I’ll ever locate another copy of Legion, a sequel to The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, a Jesuit priest turned into one of the best horror writers of our time. It’s a bitch losing good books.

Last year, my buddy Finn got me hooked on the poetry of Charles Bukowski. I never knew that poems could be funny, obnoxious, amusing and touching at the same time. This changed my life, too. After reading on of the late poet’s staggering 54 books, I went on the hunt to scoop up everything of his I could find. In the last year, I’ve purchased and read almost two dozen of his collections. I can’t get enough. While his work is isolated and depressing at times, I’ve never read a poet who got to me quite as easily as Bukowski. The man was a genius, and for those of us who are into his work, he’s a giant.

I could easily go on for another twenty pages on novels that inspired me, moved me or captured my attention, but this feels like a good stopping off point. At the heart of any writer worth their salt is an avid and voracious reader. It’s a two way street. I write (in part) because of my love for the printed page and a desire to play with words and orchestrate expression, which is why John Grisham’s remarks that he doesn’t read books come off as offensive to me and most likely a great deal of other writers. My library is modest by most serious book collector’s standards, but it has it’s own unique method and madness. I pick up less and less new books every year, and in my old age I tend to re-read old favorites instead of trying new things. And of course, on the middle shelf of my favorite book case (all the way to the right), I have my own books. The self published one along with my three print on demand collections. Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than looking over there from time to time and seeing my name next to the greats. It’s an illusion but it means something to me. I’ve participated. In some small part, I’m a part of literature. I gave back, and hopefully someone will think of me while they write in the same way that I look at my heroes. That’s what it all comes down to.

 

 


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