Books: Some Personal (and Influential) Favorites

When I began blogging this past summer (2007), I’d intended to write a fair number of posts about books. For a variety of reasons, I haven’t. The truth is, I love reading books so much that it’s difficult for me to write BRIEFLY about them. Maybe I can’t write briefly about ANYTHING about which I am passionate.

Paging through my book journal recently, I was struck by my reading patterns, specifically, how reading one book by a certain author often generated an avalanche of buying and “catalog catch-up.” I’d read multiple books by the same authors as a boy, including those by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeline L’Engle and Walter R. Brooks, but the first multi-work author to appear in my journal (which I began in my late 20s) was John McPhee. The initial book: Encounters with the Archdruid (1971).

My boyhood camping, hiking, backpacking and canoeing experiences with Boy Scout Troop 91 (Napa, CA) gave me a life-long love for wilderness and wide open spaces, and my encounter with Encounters came via the recommendation of a friend who worked at a Nature Company store. I loved McPhee’s “fly on the wall” style, and my next three journal entries reflect that: The Crofter and the Laird, Oranges, and The Pine Barrens, all McPhee titles. Today, a full set of McPhee hardcovers occupy a shelf in my personal library, all first editions except for A Sense of Where You Are and The Headmaster (I’m not made of money, ya know).

Recalling how I began my McPhee collection caused me to consider similar by-products of my reading life. What other collections, interests or occupations of mine began with the reading of a book? Here’s some I traced through my trusty book journal, and a couple of others:

— The fact that I even began a book journal is because of Louis L’Amour’s posthumous memoir, Education of a Wandering Man (1989). I hadn’t read much of his fiction, but thoroughly enjoyed the memoir. I also liked the simplicity of his journal format, pictured facing page 105.

— I determined to one day work in a creative capacity for The Walt Disney Company after receiving (and devouring, page by wonderful page) a first printing of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) for my 21st birthday. More than a decade later (well into my Disney career), I hosted several events with both men, and their signatures in that same book make it doubly prized.

— My interest in 1930s radio and film comedian Joe Penner (the subject of another website of mine) can be traced to Ozzie Nelson’s autobiography, Ozzie (1973). Nelson and his wife, Harriet Hilliard Nelson, worked as bandleader and vocalist (respectively) on the very first Joe Penner radio program, The Baker’s Broadcast, beginning in 1933. Nelson’s brief description of Penner and his program piqued my curiosity, and it was all downhill from there.

— My WPA Guide collection (aka The American Guide Series, printed by various publishers from 1937-41) wouldn’t fill a bookcase if not for John Steinbeck, who wrote lovingly of them for two pages in Travels with Charley (1962). Today, I have all 48 state guides in first editions, plus Alaska, Puerto Rico and a fair number of city, regional and special interest guides.

— I’m not certain when I first developed my Wallace Stegner habit, but I do know that, if not for an essay in his Where the Bluebird Sings, and the Lemonade Springs (1992), I wouldn’t have one of the largest George R. Stewart collections around. Stewart was teaching at Berkeley when Stegner was at Stanford, and Stegner’s fond personal remembrance and review of Stewart and his work originally appeared as a forward to a re-issue of GRS’s masterful Names on the Land. Stewart was a unique writer, a career academic comfortable in many genres, including (but not limited to) science fiction, popular fiction, history, biography, as well as onomastics (the study of naming) and toponymy (the study of place names). He is more than worthy of further study, and a post of his own.

— It was a tag-team combination of Stegner and Stewart which led me to collect all twenty-eight volumes in the American Folkways series (published 1941-58 by Duell, Sloan and Pierce) and all eighteen works in the American Trails series (1947-48 by Bobbs Merrill and 1962-77 by McGraw Hill). Stegner’s Mormon Country (1942) is a key volume in the former series, and Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964) joins Stewart’s The California Trail: An Epic with Many Heroes (1962) as highlights of the latter.

Now, just so I don’t leave the impression that all I read is non-fiction books by dead guys, the past few years have filled my shelves with new favorites, such as Paul Auster, Jasper Fforde, Alice Sebold, Glen David Gold (waiting VERY impatiently for the follow-up to Carter Beats the Devil!), John Dunning, Ian Mc Ewan, Van Reid, Anne Lamott, Leif Enger (please, sir, may I have another?), Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Kevin Baker, Sara Gruen, Edward Wright, and Joshua Ferris (who simply NAILED the insanity of the Ad business in Then We Came to the End).

I’m still plugging away in non-fictionland, too (or, as John McPhee has called it, “the literature of fact”) with recent reads of Os Guinness, J. R. Moehringer, Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic is a masterpiece), Witold Rybczynski, Kevin Starr, William Goldman, Gary Giddins (when does Bing Crosby, Volume 2 come out?), Simon Winchester, James Swanson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson, David Brooks and Robert McKee’s Story. Add in my addiction to all things Connelly, Cussler and Hiaasen, and that’s quite a list. No wonder it’s so difficult to keep my own writing projects moving forward.

Just this morning my oldest daughter and I were discussing the value of her keeping a book journal, if only so she’ll have some good material for a blog post in about thirty years.

craig hodgkins

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~ by Craig Hodgkins on December 15, 2007.

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