THE IMPORTANCE OF READING
Reading is Educating
I believe to a great extent that public relations, or call it publicity, is what create many writers. You have a good publicist and half the battle is won. How many good, unheard writers are out there and have never been read? That is the real tragedy. An artist at least has a visual he can hold up, the mirror lo his thoughts, and either you like what you see or you don’t. It’s much more difficult for the writer if it doesn’t do him good to hold up his book for all to see and ask if one likes it or not. I do not mean, however, that publicity is all that is needed to make a writer. The writer must have something to offer to begin with; he cannot be a hack hoping for recognition. Given the chance, it’s always possible the writer might be read without having done any publicizing but not likely, except for a handful of friends who might buy a copy. Nevertheless, that’s the rub, and I call it only by chance that they are read. Truman Capote fits into this category. Publicity created him.
Capote was not a prolific writer; compared to his contemporaries, he wrote little. But what he did write was well publicized, and much of that publicity came not from his written words but from the celebrated man-about-town that he was. Born in New Orleans, he was thought by some to be a Southern Gothic novelist. His novels, though very few, were Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951) and his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood (1966) that was made into a film the following year. His 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was made into a movie and gave him both name and notoriety. Where credit is due, he did write short stories, “A Tree of Night” (1949) and two short stories that were adapted for television: “A Christmas Memory” (1956) and “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1968). Capote knew how to cash in on publicity. Life played him up big when the magazine covered his million-dollar New York party which scores of Hollywood celebrities attended.
Not all writers have the need or the inclination to go out and seek publicity to sell their books. Hemingway never appeared on TV at a time when the blue tube was becoming popular. Nor did he do radio shows. You couldn’t hear him on Lux Radio Theatre, although actors like Orson Wells and James Stewart often portrayed his books on the air. Such appearances for him seemed totally out of character. For his Nobel Prize, he had someone else attend the ceremony and read his acceptance speech for him. I wondered about this, why he never went public at a time when television was becoming the vogue and talk shows were the latest thing. Hemingway would have made good copy, as they say in the media .. The reason, I believe after meeting him in Spain, was that he considered public appearances-television shows and radio talks-not his forte. He was a writer, not a performer, although he did fancy conversations in bars and restaurants with friends. He preferred not to be in the public limelight and let his publicists make a name for him. We know for a fact when F. Scott Fitzgerald pleaded with him to come to Hollywood and write for the movies he turned down Tinsel Town for his fishing boat and his finca in Cuba.
When my book At Home in Asia was reviewed, a critic noted that all but one of the dozen or so characters I wrote about had college educations. He inferred that I bad a chip on shoulder, that I myself didn’t have a college education, and wrote about rough and tumble types to illustrate that a college education is not important. That was not my point at all. At Home in Asia turned out the way it did without any conscious effort on my part to choose who had college degrees and who did not. I am not advocating that higher education is not necessary. My attending college did very little to advance my writing career, but it did force me to read books in a hurry-Ulysses by James Joyce, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams.
Gertrude Stein would have done well in television, but there were no blue tubes in Paris in her day. Still, without Steve Allan and Jack Parr parlaying her on the “Tonight Show” she did all right for herself. She advanced William James’ Principles of Psychology in his “stream of conscious thought” and changed literature forever. Many young writers became victims of this “stream of consciousness thought,” that literary technique which seeks to describe an individual’s point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes, a kind of interior monologue. For me, it was important to understand “stream of consciousness thought,” but not to emulate it. Too many beginning writers have attempted to use the style but end up with confused, unintelligible sentences. The style was part of the modernist movement preached by Stein to her close group of followers in Paris in the early 20s. James Joyce mastered it in his epic Ulysses. Ernest Hemingway followed Gertrude Stein’s advice and used it in nearly all his novels. Further examples of the development of this style, which are important reading, are Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote only a few novels compared to his contemporaries. But his The Great Gatsby is truly a masterpiece, a simple and straightforward tale. It’s a book I pick up from my shelf and begin reading pages at random. A book makes for good reading when you can do this, begin reading any page in a book, find it interesting and want to continue. The Great Gatsby can do that.
All good books have messages to tell-The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. If I am going to read, I might as well read what is good and learn from what I read. There are no car chases or fire bomb explosions in these books nor in John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio, but they are welcome reading nonetheless.
A writer from whom I learned a great deal was Thomas Wolfe. He is not to be confused with the flamboyant man in a white suit, Tom Wolfe. John Humphrey, the dean at a private school where I taught for a spell after college, turned me on to Thomas Wolfe. “You want to I learn to write, then read Thomas Wolfe,” he said and handed me You Can’t Go Home Again which he took down from the school library shelf. After I started reading the book I wondered how I had ever skipped reading his works. He taught me that to write I had to be observant, to keep my eyes open. Subject matter is not something in that far off city or over the horizon. It is everywhere around us, in the very same room in which we live. It is the duty of the writer to make that “something” obvious.
Wolfe wrote four mammoth, highly autobiographical novels which present a sweeping picture of American life. In 1929, under the rigorous editorial guidance of Maxwell Perkins, he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. After the appearance of its sequel, Of Time and the River (1935), he broke with Perkins and signed a contract with Harper & Brothers. Wolfe died at thirty-eight, from complications following pneumonia. Harper & Brothers arranged, from the material left at his death, two novels-The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940)-and a volume of stories and fragments, The Hills Beyond (1941). Wolfe’s other publications include From Death to Morning (1935), a collection of short stories; and The Story of a Novel (1936) a record of how he wrote his second book. I found inspiration in all his books.
Another author who had a great influence on me is Jack London, and he too, like Thomas Wolfe, died at a young age, forty-one, but he did manage to tum out fifty-five novels in less than twenty years. London was a self-made writer, and there’s no question about it-he wrote for money. He wanted a yacht to sail the South Sea, and he wanted a big house and the finest horse and carriage money could buy, and he got everything he wanted, by working hard at his writing. He had to tum out books to
pay for his toys, but one thing you cannot say about Jack London is that he was a hack writer. He put his full, ear• nest effort into his work. He labored over every word no matter how hard his creditors pounded on his door. He wrote from the heart.
London had very little formal education and taught himself to write by emulating the masters. He tells it all in his semi-autobiographical novel, Martin Eden. As I mentioned previously, when I first read The Cruise of the Snark as a kid on the farm, I was enraptured. After I had built my schooner Third Sea and was in Hawaii planning my voyage to the South Seas, I had in mind to sail from Hawaii to the Marquesas which I did. London had influenced me and I didn’t even know it. This is what I meant when I said when you read a book it becomes a part of you.
For books about the sea, there is no master like Joseph Conrad. People like to compare him to Somerset Maugham. There is no comparison. Maugham was a master at vivifying those people he met on his travels, civil servants and district officers, snobs and high society socialites. But when it came to capturing the feeling of the sea, he fell short. Perhaps because when he sailed the seas, it was aboard ocean liners upon which he spent his leisure at the bar or else reclining in a deck chair. Conrad served as a seaman before the mast, and you can feel it when you read his seafaring books-Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and certainly Lord Jim. In my opinion, Lord Jim is his finest novel. I never tire of re-reading it.
Another great master writer of the sea was Herman Melville. Like Conrad, he was a seaman who served before the mast. Imagine the impact his novel Moby Dick had on me when I read the book while laying on a cabin top aboard a trading schooner sailing the Pacific. Had a whale appeared, I would have been first to jump into a longboat and go after him with a harpoon in hand.
I hold two other Melville books to be equally as important as Moby Dick, especially for those interested in the history of the Pacific. One is his fictionalized travel narrative called Typee. It’s an account of his stay with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. Another is his sequel to Typee, one titled Omoo, based on his adventures in the Polynesian Islands. It’s an excellent account of early Tahiti when the island was still in the hands of the British before the crown sold out to the French. Few people, I imagine, have read Omoo.
I enjoy most seeking out and delving into the works of forgotten writers of the South Pacific. One such writer was Louis Beck. He penned some wonderful short stories that are right up there with the classics. Another is Captain James Cook, not that he’s forgotten, but few people ever read Narrative of the Voyages Round the World in six volumes. Voyages are helpful for the writer interested in history. I use these well-worn books of mine for references. The writing is archaic but the descriptions of the islands and the people are excellent. If you want to know what the natives ate and how they dressed, or didn’t dress, two hundred years ago these are the books. Also from the pages of Narrative I found some reference which changed my entire thinking about the migration of the Pacific islanders. In the text, they appear a in significant references but they pack a wallop.
A writer of Pacific lore who truly captured my heart was Robert Dean Frisbie. An American, Frisbie moved to Puka Puka atoll in the remote Cook Islands in 1924 to become a storekeeper and to seek isolation from his post-World War I trauma. I often wonder what he might think of our civilization were he alive today. Nevertheless, his island Puka Puka is still very remote and difficult to reach, even in our modem day. Frisbie fell in love with an island girl, married her, and they had three children. His wife died while she was still in her teens and, refusing to abandon his children, he raised them alone. He turned to writing and immortalized Puka Puka in his books The Book of Puka Puka and The Island of Desire.
I learned about Frisbie when I read James Michener’s Return to Paradise. After reading about this incredible guy, I had to find his books. When I did, it was a great discovery. The Book of Puka Puka is one of my favorite books. Amazon.com has original copies for sale starting at $1,500. Frisbie’s daughter, Johnny Whiskey Frisbie, has written a delightful book about growing up in the islands with her father. It’s a book packed with emotion and feeling.
When I launched my schooner Third Sea and entered the Pacific, the two places I wanted to visit were Puka Puka and Suvarov. Puka Puka was where Frisbie fell in love with his island sweetheart, and Suvarov was the island to which he fled with his children after his young wife had died. It was here in Suvarov that Frisbie and his children survived a full-blown hurricane by tying themselves in the high branches of an Ironwood tree. In Return to Paradise, Michener tells how he met Frisbie on Tongareva. Frisbie was dying of consumption. Michener managed to get him to a hospital in American Samoa by arranging passage for him aboard a Navy PBY seaplane.
I made Tongareva an island stop on several of my voyages across the Pacific. Captain Andy Thompson, the trading boat skipper who carried Frisbie to Puka Puka, had a wooden frame house on Tongareva where he lived part of the year during the hurricane season. The island has a safe, well-protected lagoon from tropical storms, The islanders allowed me to enter Andy’s house, and still on shelves was Andy’s vast collection of books, many autographed by James Hall and James Nordoff. There was one, autographed, by Robert Dean Frisbie, The Book of Puka Puka. The tragedy was the next time I went to Tongareva, years later, I found all Andy’s books in ruin, eaten by white ants.
One writer whose books have truly captured the South Pacific is James Michener. During his lifetime his novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. He had but two literary awards. In 1948, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, and on January 10, 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald R. Ford. No Nobel, but his books on the South Pacific are some of the finest books ever written on the Pacific. I read his Return to Paradise and I realized no one can ever write an equal. I feel much the same when I read his Tales of the South Pacific, and see the movie South Pacific. I never tire of seeing the movie over and over. Michener captured the heart and very soul of the Pacific. Earlier, I mentioned his novel Hawaii. It is a masterpiece and is so well written that it documents the history of the Pacific islanders. It has been taken for gospel.
When it comes down to reading, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s comment: “The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort.”
It is the duty of writers, indeed, to give people that comfort.