Why Do People Read Books?

(Latest “Jack’s Books” blog)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading. I didn’t have the experience many describe of “taking it up” at a certain point in adult life.

One of the authors I read this month, and a favorite of mine, is Cornell Woolrich. From an unhappy childhood, he retreated into not only reading, but writing, and found the only thing he would ever enjoy or be good at. From novels and short stories, to “pulp magazine” tales and Hollywood scripts, he had an uncanny knack for characters, dialog, settings, and seemingly impossible traps into which his people fall.

I say “uncanny” because he spent much of his life as a recluse, living as a closeted gay man, moving with his mother from one residential hotel to another, living alone after she died and dying alone from a gangrenous leg. This is what he wrote about why he became a writer:

“I was only trying to cheat death.

“I was only trying to surmount, for a little while, the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me, someday, and obliterate me.”

If I could talk with him, I’d try to convince him that he must have brought so much light and enjoyment to so many, through his brilliant writing, that he ought to take some of that light for himself. Easier said than done. Read him if you get the chance–he was a genius.

“Night Has 1000 Eyes” by Cornell Woolrich as “George Hopley” (1945)  A young detective walking home one night saves a young woman from killing herself. He stays up all night at a diner with her, hearing her story, and tries to save her and her father from a frustrating, frightening psychic trap.

“Other Paths to Glory” by Anthony Price (1974) Another innocent stuck in a trap–a British historian specializing in WWI is drawn into a plot involving a long lost secret from the war, a secret men will kill for, and do.

“The Teeth of The Tiger” by Tom Clancy (2003) Clancy introduces the Jack Ryan Jr. character here, as well as his fictional intelligence agency known as “The Campus”, as he weaves a post-9/11 tale of preemptive assassinations of terrorists.

“Mr. Paradise” by Elmore Leonard (2004) There is such a thing as an “Elmore Leonard novel”, though not everything he wrote falls into the category. In such a story, there are varying degrees of good and bad guys, plots within plots, and always a colorful collection of characters. Here we have a world-weary Detroit PD detective, an underwear model, two very angry hit men, and a dead old man whose household is a hotbed of intrigue and betrayal. And when you read it, it’ll be even better than it sounds.

“The Black Cabinet: African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt” by Jill Watts (2020) A fascinating but overlong history of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, Mary McLeod Bethune, and her associates who, from positions inside or just outside the federal bureaucracy, managed to push, negotiate and force FDR toward racial policy progress. You read about this and realize much of government has always worked this way: the osmosis of influence in and out of government office, and the frustration of only moving inches, yet making history.

“Stone Butterfly” by James Doss (2006) Ute detective Charlie Moon and his FBI agent gal pal, with the shadow of his mystical Aunt Daisy hanging over them, must save a young girl on the run with an object whose value she scarcely understands, but one others would kill for.

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead (2017) A brilliant writer, Whitehead tells a story of an 1850s fugitive slave using the so-called Underground Railroad—only, in his conception, it’s an actual railroad, n0t a figure of speech. Incredible characters and action led to a Pulitzer and numerous other book awards, and a miniseries from a couple of years ago.



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