Friday, July 15, 2011

Jonathan Yardley's Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited

I was pathetically reading in the bedroom, the coolest room in the house, the fan blasting the hot air OUT the window, because I couldn't close it and then turn on the air conditioning.

Fortunately, Jonathan Yardley's new book, Second Reading:  Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, kept me occupied until my husband came home and closed the window. Doesn't this book have a great cover? I found this gorgeous Europa paperback while I was looking the other day (in vain) for Rachel M. Brownstein's Why Jane Austen?

Yardley, a book reviewer, columnist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, has been at The Washington Post since 1981. The Post has many good critics--Michael Dirda (another Pulitzer winner), Ron Charles (a National Book Critics Circle winner), and Carolyn See (novelist)--where did they get them all?

Second Reading is a collection of columns that appeared in The Washington Post between March 2003 and January 2010.  After Yardley lost the column he had written "for more than two decades...for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained," he came up with the idea of writing a column about books from the past. It became an autobiography of a lifelong reader.

Yardley writes:

"It didn't take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my reading past--as you'll see, the word 'fun' appears frequently in these pieces--or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post's readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books.  The fixation of journalists on the new and trendy is a forgivable occupational hazard, but it neglects the interests of readers who want something more substantial than the Flavor of the Day."

These well-written, intelligent columns are more like essays than "pieces."  Yardley's writing is elegant and addictive.  He is what I consider "old school":  the son of a headmaster, a scholarship boy at prep schools, editor as a student of the paper at The University of North Carolina, and author of biographies of Frederick Exeley and Ring Lardner.  Excellent education, not that that necessarily means anything, because few can write this well.  (My own working-class roots are more like Michael Dirda's, but I admit I DID teach at a prep school after graduate school.)

The first essay is about John P. Marquand, a writer of satires of the WASP world.  He won a Pulitzer in 1937 for The Late George Apley.   Yardley focuses on  H. M. Pulham, Esquire, a novel about a Harvard-educated conformist looking back over his life.  He loves Marquand and believes he is neglected for all the wrong reasons, for his "smooth technique" and popularity.  He says, "It is ludicrous that the Library of America, which smugly proclaims itself guardian 'of America's best and most significant writing,' finds room for ever less significant work yet turns up its nose at Marquand."

I have read several of the books Yardley rereads, but have NOT read even more of them.  The 60 essays include reviews of Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, Ellen Glasgow's The Woman Within, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, John D. MacDonald's The Dreadful Lemon Sky, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Louis Armstrong's Satchmo:  My Life in New Orleans, Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, Bernard Malamud's A New Life, Allen Tate's The Fathers, and Noel Coward's Pomp and Circumstance.

I especially like his essay on John D. MacDonald and believe I will add one of the Travis McGee books to the night stand.

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