‘You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.’ ― Ray Bradbury who would be 100 on Saturday, August 22.
The rural town I grew up in had only 2,000 people, so the Catholic grammar school I went to right across the street from my house (from my 8th grade classroom window I could see my mother hanging clothes on the line) was small. Some rooms had two grades. We didn’t have a real gym. No backboards to play basketball. We had nuns who I didn’t love or hate. Some years we had to take our lunch. I had a Roy Rogers lunch box. There was a big newer public school on the edge of town that kids from neighboring little towns came by bus to. They not only had a gym, they had a pool. I had some friends who went there. One friend was two years older than me. He was a great athlete. He hit home runs over the fence in Little League. We were on the same team. He also read a lot. That fascinated me. He had books in his room. Paperbacks that he got at school. They were his, not library books. They were from a Scholastic book club. I’d never even heard of such a thing. The books looked cool to me. They meant a lot to him it seemed. I envied him going to public school where he got such books. I was thinking about book clubs this morning when I read in the paper that maybe school kids in the city will have to stay home and do more remote learning, more online school, if the schools here aren’t in shape for them. What about the kids who don’t read well? How will they practice reading? How will they find a book that might turn them on to reading? The libraries are not really open yet. They need books from those Scholastic book clubs. I wonder if anyone is giving them that opportunity. I wonder if any rich guys or any foundations are paying for kids to get books to read from those clubs.
It’s maybe 1962 or 63 and I’m a high school kid at a Catholic boarding school outside Washington, D.C. I’d always read a lot but it was almost exclusively sports pages and ‘Sport’ magazine and ‘Sports Illustrated’ and whatever got my attention in ‘Time’ or ‘Life’ or ‘Look’. The books they assigned at school weren’t chosen or presented in a way to make you love them. Latin was the most important subject. The English anthology was like from St. Thomas More Press. One Saturday in D.C. with another kid, killing time in a record store that had paperback books, waiting for the city bus back to school, a book in a rack got my attention. Something Wicked This Way Comesby someone named Ray Bradbury. I bought it and looked at the front and back covers on the bus the whole way. My life was different from that day on. That book and all the books Ray Bradbury wrote led me right up to the books I’m reading now. I guess I could say he’s the most important guy in my life. Once maybe 25 years ago I went to LA to the national book convention. I had an idea to start a book magazine and I went out there to talk about it with anyone I could and I maybe talked to no one, such are my business instincts. The big conference was held in a bright LA convention center. Different authors gave readings. The biggest author was Ray Bradbury. You had to have tickets to get into his reading. I didn’t have a ticket. But I was in the big crowded lobby when he went through with his thick horn-rim glasses on people scurrying around him. They maybe loved him like I did. There’s going to be a virtual reading by well-known people of his Fahrenheit 451 on Saturday, August 22. It’d be his 100th birthday. This piece in ‘Rolling Stone’ tells about it: https://apple.news/AM0g-1xHKSTiXTS2ZIEkgIw
I WAS ENGAGED EARLY THIS MORNING READING THIS ABOUT A NEW SCULPTURE at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville honoring the names of enslaved laborers who worked at the school. It’s in today’s Times. The link is down below. ‘The memorial’s enclosing circular wall slopes upward to a height of eight feet. The inner surface is carved with single and paired words identifying slaves at the school, some by name (Ishmael, Jenny, Zebray, Eston Hemings), others by jobs (stableman, laundress, gardener, cook), still others by social roles (sister, husband, grandchild, friend). Each word is underscored. About halfway around the wall, the words stop but the underscores continue, place-savers for names yet-to-be-uncovered through research. When light rain or mist washes the wall, water gathers in the incisions and runs down like tears.’
I’ve been a schoolteacher. Right after college in 1969, like a lot of guys, I taught school as an alternative to serving in Vietnam. I was married with a week-old daughter on graduation day. I taught grade school English in Cleveland, Ohio for six years. After that, I ran, eventually owned, a longstanding bookstore in downtown Cleveland. It felt something like Three Lives in the West Village. I went on to found an alternative weekly paper like the Voice, also in Cleveland. It lasted 12 years. Twenty-one years ago I moved here, armed with an idea and a prototype for a national book magazine. Like a Rolling Stone for books. I never raised the huge amount of money I needed. I then worked for a media company, editing a couple of neighborhood weeklies, more than once using my editor’s space to talk about city kids and reading. Between the editorial jobs, I taught English for a year here in Manhattan at a Catholic boys’ high school with mostly minority kids. I was terrible at discipline. But sometimes when we found a book or a story we liked, it all came together.