The Southern farm town where I grew up was too tiny to have a library, but the county bookmobile’s biweekly visits fed my hunger for connection with the world beyond the horizon.
As a boy I devoured adventure fiction, especially such Rafael Sabatini books as “Scaramouche,” with its unforgettable opening sentence, “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
These days I read mostly mystery novels and nonfiction (history, public policy, religion), plus some poetry. On my bedside table now are Michael Connelly’s “The Burning Room” and James MacGregor Burns’s “Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World.” Next is Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids.”
My five most memorable books are ones that helped me see things I had sensed but hadn't seen clearly before.
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THE MIND OF THE SOUTH. Charlotte newspaperman W. J. Cash wrote this pioneering examination of our region’s cultural and political legacy in1942. I read it in a University of Mississippi history class in 1962, the year Ole Miss was integrated by federal court order. That assault on the Southern Way of Life sparked a night of rioting that left two people dead and a campus reeking of teargas and occupied by federal troops ordered in by President Kennedy to restore order. Cash helped me understand the link between that violent reaction and our region’s longstanding embrace of its characteristic vices: racism, romanticism and religiosity.
A COVENANT WITH DEATH. This 1965 novel by Stephen Becker, set in the Southwest in 1923, involves a young judge appointed because of his father’s friendship with the governor, though many consider him too frivolous and inexperienced for the job. While new to the bench he faces a formidable dilemma. A businessman is convicted of murdering his beautiful wife, but en route to the gallows he resists and kills the hangman. Then it’s discovered that he’s innocent, and the young judge must find a just and humane way out of this legal quandary. The depictions of life and love in that time and place, and the judge’s struggle to not merely apply the law but to pursue justice, make me enjoy rereading this one.
THE MOVIEGOER. Novelist Walker Percy, who grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, said he focused on “the dislocation of man in the modern age.” Percy is the literary patron saint of seekers, of which I am one. This 1961 novel’s narrator, film fan Binx Bolling, is a New Orleans stockbroker who is alienated from his own life. An ambitionless daydreamer, he seeks purpose by embarking on a quest: a search for himself. ''The search,” he says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.'' Percy’s novels offer invaluable insights on the snares of modern life and our nation’s spiritual ennui.
A WHOLE NEW LIFE. In this 1994 memoir Reynolds Price tells of his excruciating medical struggle to survive what he called "the grey eel,” a life-threatening tumor the size of a pencil wrapped around his spine. The story includes a life-changing vision: He awoke one morning to find himself not in his bed but on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in the presence of Jesus. To find out what happened, get the book – a profound story of pain, loss, hope and solace told by one of his era's finest writers.
THE GREAT GATSBY. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece tells of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire whose obsession with wealth and the beautiful socialite Daisy Buchanan leads to tragedy. This short book is full of insights, not only about the characters but also about America, now as then a land of opportunity, decadence, irresponsibility, idealism and social upheaval. It is a sad and lovely novel filled with memorable passages, such as these: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....”
“[Gatsby] paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.”
ED WILLIAMS retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Observer's editorial pages. In 2014 Lorimer Press published a collection of his writing titled "Liberating Dixie: An Editor's Life, from Ole Miss to Obama."