categories: Reading Under the Influence
If a young person were to come to me and sit at my knee and say, “Old Professor Gessner, you seem so wise. (Here I would nod.) Could you tell me the best book for me to read if I want to drive myself insane with ambition and dreams of glory?” I would reply: “Yes, son/young lady. I recommend that you run out and buy a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and a River. That will do the trick.”
And it will, it will!
I should admit right now that this is really an advertisement of sorts. Here at Bill and Dave’s we have sworn off real ads, (though Pepsi has been pretty persistent.) But this is an ad for a very worthy product—this month’s issue of the Oxford American! The OA has lots of great stuff and this issue includes pieces by my colleague Clyde Edgerton and my former student, the talented Erin Sroka, who has a great and funny piece on bingo halls. And of course I probably wouldn’t be typing this or know about the issue if it did not include a piece by ME. Here is how that piece begins:
“Best Southern Novel for Enflaming Ambition in the Young
For me it was a book like a bomb. Or rather it was a book like a lit fuse and my brain was the bomb. Perhaps there should be warning labels on books for teenagers. Had there been one specifically designed for me on the cover of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, it would have read: WARNING: This book will fill you with an unquenchable thirst for literary glory, will render unrealistic all your expectations, will destroy forever your hopes of pursuing a normal career.
I was a Northern boy whose family had moved to North Carolina, and I felt above all things Southern, except for the small fact that the book that had infiltrated my brain was written by someone from my new home state. This was back before I had stories to tell. But if I didn’t have stories, I had the growing idea that telling stories would win me fortune and fame. Especially fame. To fill the mind of others and never be forgotten. This was the dream of the young Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s protagonist, who lived inside an adolescent’s vision of adolescence, always being “seized by mad furies” and plunged into abyss-like depressions before inevitably rising again to stand, glorious and world-conquering, astride the earth. And here was the punchline: Gant would conquer the world, not with guns or money, but with pens and books!”
So if you like this sort of thing (and who doesn’t) please run out right now and buy a copy of the Oxford American. (I’m not sure if you can tell but I have just had my third beer—my new nightly limit—as I type this.) I’m pretty sure they sell Oxford Americans t Barnes and Nobles, which is the only bookstore left in North America.
Oh, and the OA also includes pieces by great writers like George Singleton and my good once-a-year (AWP) friend, Beth Ann Fennelly. Her piece is an Ode to Ten Sexy Southern Books and, unlike my piece, they actually have a link to it , maybe because she is prettier and more famous than I am. But now that I look I see that they also have a link to UNCW alum Brad Land’s piece, an “Ode to a Giant Indulgent Day-Glo contradiction” and Brad is not prettier than I am.
P.S. Recently, when I was teaching nature (writing) camp, I heard a talented, young writer read a piece on the difficulties of living wild (hiking/camping et) when you were a new parent. I said “You should read Beth Ann’s work. …” Can anyone suggest the best book for this?