Southern Exposures

Pregnancy is a condition which, during summer in the Deep South, has only one redeeming quality other than the nearly eight-pound prize you get at the end. It’s the opportunity to spend entire days collapsed in a lawn chair, reading beneath the shade of a live oak tree. The humidity and 100° heat allow for few body movements beyond raising a glass of sweet iced tea to one’s lips and turning the pages of a book. During the August of 1977, I devoured any book I could get my hands on, including Pride and Prejudice, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, and Jane Eyre. That was my last attempt at re-reading my way through the classics during a summer. No more would I endeavor to assuage the guilt which stemmed from a marked lack of remorse regarding my lackluster grade B survival of English literature classes at the University of Arkansas.

If you want to brush up on the classics this summer, I suggest a copy of The Great American Bathroom Book. Refresh your memory with a single-sitting summary. But I digress. The object of this missive is to present you with a list of what I consider valuable summer reading.

My recommendations are quite simple. You probably need to be older than twenty-five for this to be successful. Follow my directions and I will help you to create your own list. What you’ll need to do is to think back, all the way to the eighth grade and on up through your senior year in high school. What books did you read for pleasure? Get yourself a copy of each one and read them all again. Chances are, you still have the books somewhere. The books you can’t seem to give to the library book sale, even though they are yellowed paperbacks you haven’t read in twenty years. There’s a reason you saved them. This is the summer for retrospection.

To make the exercise more enlightening, before you start reading, try to remember what captured your imagination, what kept your attention – just what was it about that book which put it on your list? Then, after you finish, interpret the book from an adult perspective. Does it still hold the same intrigue, the same magic, it did when you were a teenager?

It’s an interesting exercise. I’ve spent the last five summers engaging my brain with this technique. Sometimes I find there’s no need to finish the book to get the gist of why I read it. Back in 1969, I read The Carpetbaggers to learn about sex and now, all these years later, I realize Robbins was full of shit. I figured it out within a couple chapters when I tried re-reading it last month. But in junior high, I believed.

I’m spending this summer re-reading The Once and Future King, The Godfather, The Hobbit, A Separate Peace, Atlas Shrugged, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Red Badge of Courage. And when I’m through with those, I’m grabbing up something by Laura Ingalls Wilder and a couple of Nancy Drew books. And for punishment, I’ll slam into The Valley of the Dolls (I notice it’s been re-released). To round off my list, if I can find them, I’ll get some John D. MacDonald books.

I’ve already made my why-I-read-it journal entry. Atlas Shrugged because my father kept asking me “Who was John Galt?” The Once and Future King because Camelot starred Richard Harris and I had his record album, The Yard Went on Forever. I owe my affection for Tolkien to my eighth-grade English teacher who taught us to diagram sentences using The Hobbit.

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” stimulated me on to reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and if you can get a copy of it, prepare to be amazed. It haunted me in the eighth grade and it still blows me away, thirty years later.

The Godfather got me a three-day suspension from high school. During a free reading period, my English teacher grabbed the book out of my hand, marched me to the Dean of Girl’s office, and declared, as she slammed the book down on the dean’s desk, “Valerie asks too many questions. It’s because her parents let her read this kind of filth.”

I probably would have spared myself the suspension if I’d just apologized. But I picked a Bible up off the desk and threw it at the dean, just missing her head as I said, “This book is controversial too.”

And To Kill a Mockingbird because I watch the movie every time it comes on Turner Classics, regardless of how far along it is, what I am doing, where I need to be, or what time of the day or night. This and I own a copy of the movie. I know the movie leaves out some of the story, so I re-read the book to remind myself of what is absent from the screenplay. But nothing is lacking with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. And I begin to cry as the jury reaches the verdict and Scout is told to stand up as Atticus walks out of the courtroom.

On with the alternative list for those who didn’t read for pleasure in high school, can’t remember reading anything except assigned literature, or whose reading list consists of Batman, Spider-Man, or The Incredible Hulk comic books. Spend the summer reading some southern novels. Once you start, you might not be able to stop. I’m partial to southern literature and always have been, that’s how The Dead Mule southern literary zine got started.

Aside from the prerequisite cliché recommendations of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and James Dickey, try these:

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy.
The consummate southern novel. It describes a piece of every southern family I have ever known: “The hero of the postmodern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out . . .”

One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty.
A book, not of her stories, but of her reality: “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be daring as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington.
A fascinating novel of snake handling and redemption in southern Appalachia. This is creative nonfiction that rises above all expectations.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.
Quite simply one of the best Civil War novels I’ve ever read. This personal, compelling narrative will float around your thoughts for weeks after you finish it, circling above your head and entering your subconscious.

Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers by Dannye Romine Powell.
Insight into writers from Percy to Gurganus to Edgerton and beyond. If you’re a writer, this book will stroke your spirit.

The Sharp Teeth of Love by Doris Betts and Redeye by Clyde Edgerton.
While these plots are not geographically southern, in my opinion Betts and Edgerton are two quintessential southern writers. Don’t read Redeye in a public library, you’ll be shushed to death as you laugh out loud. You can read more about Edgerton and Betts in Parting the Curtains.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
You can’t get more southern than this Pulitzer Prize winner. Symbolism out the wazoo and a great story to boot. Pay attention to Dill, his character is based on Lee’s childhood friendship with Truman Capote. And even though it leaves out some prime parts, watch the movie to see Gregory Peck as Atticus and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. (I know, I’ve already told you I’m reading it.)

And finally, you owe it to yourself to read anything you can get your hands on by Flannery O’Connor.

I’m going to make myself stop here. The object is to get a southern reading list started, obviously it would take more than this web page to include everything worth mentioning. And new southern writers hit the shelves every day…

So when it comes to this summer, take the time to enjoy a good book. The key word: Enjoy. Read for pleasure. Get yourself a glass of sweet tea, a comfortable lawn chair, and a good book and plop down under the shade of a live oak tree. Be there symbolically if you can’t be there physically.

“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” — Charles Scribner Jr.