Read any good books lately? I am amazed at how many of my acquaintances have terrific answers to that question. One friend just mentioned “The Third Man Factor” by John Geiger and noted that it contains a footnote to an old friend of mine, Julian Jaynes, and his awkwardly titled but critically acclaimed “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”
But the question terrifies me. Other than a book here or there that I have to read as part of my job, I almost never have an answer to that question. So at the beginning of this summer I decided to compile a modest summer reading list and to chip away at it through the occasional long weekends I got in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania, where the temptations of the office are still far removed (despite the recent installation of a fiber optic line along the footpath behind our cottage).
Instead of relying on the New York Times Book Review or some other august journal to provide a recommended list, I turned to my own bookshelf and settled on three works by three authors I know personally. Even though the authors either live or work within a mile of my house, their books took me on journeys that spanned the continent and took me through more than 200 years of American history. Here’s my summer reading, in order of their publication.
Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ — The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, by Richard D. Smith, published by Little, Brown and Company in 2000.
William Clark and the Shaping of the West, by Landon Y. Jones, Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Nothing Personal — The Vietnam War in Princeton 1965-1975, by Lee Neuwirth, www.booksurge.com, 2009.
And since reading a book is obviously a big deal for me, I am going to give myself some extra space and time, and present them in three separate columns, starting with a book that I should have read nine years ago.
Like lots of people toiling in the world of journalism, Richard D. Smith also has another life (or two or three) to pursue when he’s not strapped in front of a word processor. Smith worked at U.S. 1 back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also found time for masters track (shot put or discus, I recall), historical research (including some trips to Scotland to investigate the myth of the Loch Ness Monster), and music (performing on the mandolin). Now employed at Princeton University, Smith still performs on mandolin. His bluegrass group, Prospect Crossing, performed at my 40th college reunion in June (and will appear Thursday, November 12, at the Alchemist & Barrister in Princeton). The reunion event reminded me I had been remiss in not yet reading his book.
The author’s research, writing, and musical talents all came together powerfully in this biography of Bill Monroe, which begins with a description of Monroe meeting Elvis Presley in 1954, when the future king of rock ’n’ roll had just recorded his first single, Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” That is one of many musical connections made by Monroe and noted by Smith, who makes the bold assertion that Monroe “would become the most broadly talented and broadly influential figure in the history of American popular music. . .
“Monroe’s varied influence as a singer, instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader was felt in early commercial country music, rockabilly and later rock, the folk music revival, contemporary country, and, of course, bluegrass. In addition to scores of famed music disciples, Bill Monroe was admired by artists as prominent (and diverse) as Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra.”
The 292-page book makes good on that assertion, backed up by so much reporting that Smith’s acknowledgments include “Dan Calhoun and the good ol’ boys at Calhoun’s Garage, Skillman, New Jersey, for keeping my pickup truck rolling for more than two years and thousands of miles on this project.”
At the end of it you are wondering where you should start to listen to Monroe’s music. Smith’s extensive notes include not only a detailed bibliography but also a section called “Recommended Listening,” listing 16 recordings and three videos.
To that list, in my opinion, should be added a feature movie, a bio-pic based on Richard Smith’s biography. Monroe was a tough nut to crack, even in his lifetime — he didn’t grant his first in-depth interview until he was nearly 51 years old. But, Smith reports, “the greatest untapped sources of information” about Monroe turned out to be women whose skirts he chased. “Monroe did not smoke, drink, or use drugs,” Smith writes. “But he did love women. Many of them.”
I’m not sure who could play the leading ladies in Monroe’s life, but I have a nomination for the title role: My former brother-in-law, Richard Gere, who has an eclectic taste in music (a band played bluegrass among other genres at his 60th birthday party) and is an accomplished guitarist who surely could pick up mandolin well enough to pass for a movie.
But movie or not, Smith’s effort is a major league book, written by someone who toiled alongside us at U.S. 1 in the minor leagues of professional journalism. I’m glad it ended up on my summer list.
Next week: A darker period of American history, presented through a biography of a man whose name is a household term but who had never previously been the subject of a full-length biography, William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame.