Posts Tagged ‘Books’

My previous post was about the late Margaret Wise Brown, an author of children’s books who bequeathed her future royalties to the nine-year-old son of a family friend.

Brown’s will stated:

“I give and bequeath all of my right, title and interest of every kind and nature in and to all books written by me and published by D.C. Heath & Co., William R. Scott Inc., Harper & Bros., Simon & Schuster, Lothrop Lee & Shepard & Co. Inc., Cadmus Books Agency, Harvill Press and Thomas I. Crowell & Co., and in and to all contracts for the publication thereof, to Albert Clarke, if he survives me.”


In 1957, when Albert Edward Clarke III was 13, the executors of Margaret Brown’s estate estimated that the 79 titles Brown left to Albert would be worth about $17,500 when he turned 21. They valued the copyright to “Goodnight Moon” at $500.

But the Clarke family had more immediate concerns. As young Albert entered adolescence, his behavior was changing from mischievous to criminal.

At age 15, Albert was arrested twice, first for smashing a traffic light and then for taking a car on a joy ride. He was kicked off his high school wrestling team for fighting.

At age 17, he dropped out of school and left home. Living in an abandoned railroad car a few miles from his parents’ house, he stole milk and bread from the doorsteps of nearby homes. He used a sledgehammer to break into parking meters. He sneaked into his family’s kitchen at night to take food.

At 19, Albert joined the Merchant Marine, but was discharged after a confrontation with an officer. When he returned home, he was arrested at various times for burglary, vagrancy, assault, resisting arrest, criminal trespass, criminal possession of a weapon, and grand larceny.

Most of the charges were resolved with a fine, but once, after fighting in public, Albert was sentenced to three months in jail for disorderly conduct. Owing to a jail  fight, the sentence was extended to six months.

In 1964, on Albert’s 21st birthday, he and his father went to the office of Manhattan attorney Samuel Nadler to discuss Margaret’s Brown’s estate. They learned that about $75,000 had accumulated since Brown’s death.

Nadler appealed to Albert to invest the money. Instead, Albert gave half to his family and went on a spending spree with the rest. He was broke within a year.

But the royalties from Margaret Brown’s book rights were still trickling in. Nadler insisted on banking the money and starting Albert on an allowance of $125 per week.

Albert began a life of aimless wandering. Nadler sent the weekly checks by Western Union.

As the years passed, Albert lived idly and comfortably. His weekly allowance went up regularly — to $250, $300, $400.

His run-ins with the law continued. He faced charges of malicious mischief, attempted burglary, and marijuana possession. Nadler dutifully bailed Albert out of jail, represented him in court, and managed his affairs.

In 1970, Albert married a woman in Puerto Rico. Four years later, just days after their second daughter was born, Albert fled Puerto Rico to avoid prosecution on drug charges, leaving his family behind.

His ties with his parents and brothers also faded. Every few years, he spoke to one of his brothers by phone. In the fall of 1984, he learned of his father’s death months after the funeral.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Margaret Brown’s books was increasing. By 1987, the 40th anniversary of “Goodnight Moon,” sales surpassed two million copies. Nadler increased Albert’s weekly allowance to $800.

Albert began wandering the streets of Manhattan and sleeping in an old Dodge van. There, he met a homeless woman, took her in, and sobered her up. They married and had two children.

When Samuel Nadler died in 1992, his records showed that Albert’s accumulated royalties, minus the weekly checks, left some $500,000 in savings.

By then, Albert had not been arrested in five years. He began dealing directly with the publishers, who sent his royalty checks twice a year. Albert was still aimless and had never held a job, but he seemed stable and content.

By 2000, Albert was divorced again and living in a New York suburb. After an ugly custody dispute, in which he accused his wife of child cruelty, the family court gave him custody of the two children, Sharmaine and Albert IV.

In an interview that year, Albert told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he had spoken to his mother Joan only a few times over the years. She died of cancer in a nursing home in Maine in 1998.

In the interview, Albert referred to her as “Mrs. Clarke,” because he believed that Margaret Brown, not Joan Clarke, was his mother.

He claimed he learned the truth when he was 12, hiding behind the couch to eavesdrop on the adults. He said he heard Joan Clarke admit the truth to her sister-in-law.

“Margaret Wise Brown has left Alby an inheritance,” Albert quoted Joan as saying. “She’s left him about $15,000. And did you know that Margaret Wise Brown is his real biological mother?”

No one who knew Margaret Brown, personally or professionally, believes it. Friends said she could not have concealed a pregnancy, and probably wouldn’t anyway.

“It’s delusional thinking,” said Albert’s brother Austin. “It’s a fairy tale to make him feel better.”

At the time the Wall Street Journal profiled him in 2000, Albert was still living on his royalty checks, and he claimed to have about $27,000 in savings.

The Journal reported that Albert had been under investigation by a New York social services agency for verbally abusing the children. Albert denied it. The department declined comment.

After the 2000 interview, Albert and the children moved again and dropped from public view.

Today, if Albert is still alive, he is 72. Over the decades, he has gone through some $5 million in book royalties.

By law, Sharmaine and/or Albert IV will retain Margaret Brown’s copyrights until 2043.


Fascinating stories are all around us.

Albert Edward Clarke III

Albert Edward Clarke III

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Fascinating stories are all around us.


Margaret Wise Brown was a popular writer of children’s books in the 1940s. You know her as the author of the children’s classic “Goodnight Moon.”

Goodnight Moon

Brown was born in New York in 1910 to well-to-do parents. Her grandfather had been a U.S. Senator. The family lived in Brooklyn and summered in Maine.

In 1932, after graduating from college in Virginia, Brown took a job with a New York City publisher as an editor of children’s books.

Soon, encouraged by her employer, she began writing children’s books herself. She was so successful that in 1941, she left the company to write full time.

Brown was attractive, vivacious, socially prominent, and very much a free spirit. Friends called her Brownie and described her as whimsical and childlike. With her first royalty check, she purchased the contents of a street vendor’s flower cart and threw a party.

She once formed a group called the Bird Brain Society. Any member could declare a random day to be Christmas, and the others would gather to celebrate.

Although briefly engaged while in college, Brown never married. As her career blossomed, she had a succession of romances and affairs, often with men in her literary circle.

In 1940, she began a romantic relationship with the former wife of John Barrymore, actress and poet Michael Strange, who was 20 years Brown’s senior. They lived together from 1943 until Strange died in 1950.

Friends said the two were devoted to each other, but they quarreled often. Strange once said to a friend, “Why don’t you marry Margaret and take her off my hands?”

In 1952, Brown became engaged to James “Pebble” Rockefeller, the son of a Rockefeller and a Carnegie.  Later that year, on a book tour in France, while waiting for her fiancé’s yacht to arrive, Brown suffered sudden abdominal pains. She was rushed to a hospital, where she had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst.

During her recovery, she performed a leg kick to show the doctor how well she was doing. The kick dislodged a blood clot that traveled to her heart and killed her instantly. She was 42.

Brown never had children of her own, but she always seemed insightful about their viewpoint and experiences. Her empathy was especially apparent with the children of Joan MacCormick, a close friend since the 1930s.

When Joan MacCormick married Albert Clarke, Jr. in the early 1940s, the Clarkes moved into an apartment next door to Brown. The three Clarke boys grew up thinking of Margaret Brown as part of the family.

Brown gave the boys gifts, encouraged them, and took them to her vacation home in Maine during the summer. The boys later recalled that Brown was more like one of the kids than a grown-up.

Of the three boys, Brown seemed fondest of the middle child, energetic and unruly Albert Clarke III.

In early 1952, Brown decided to make a will “so that the rapacious State of New York cannot take one-third of my horse brasses and Crispian,” her beloved dog.

Brown’s assets included real estate, stocks, jewelry, and her book rights.

She surprised everyone by naming nine-year-old Albert as the beneficiary of the rights to most of her books, effective when he became 21.

At the time, book sales were modest. “Goodnight Moon” sold only 6,000 copies the first year and was expected to go out of print soon. Brown probably thought the royalties would give Albert a small financial boost in future years.

Margaret Brown died six months after she made the will.


In my next post, the story of Albert Clarke III.

Margaret Wise Brown.

Margaret Wise Brown.

Brown with Crispian, her Kerry Blue Terrier.

Brown with Crispian, her Kerry Blue Terrier.

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This is a story about me, my late mother, and a book that turned out to have unexpected significance. Sometimes, small things are important.


No rolling of the eyes, please, but I have to begin this tale at the beginning.

I was born January 26, 1943, at a place that no longer exists: Cochran Army Airfield, Georgia.

Cochran Field was located just south of Macon, and it operated from 1941 until 1945 as an Air Corps training base. My dad was assigned there as a flight instructor, teaching RAF cadets how to fly. Mom and Dad lived in Macon, which, conveniently, was her hometown. I was born at the Cochran Field Station Hospital.

Cochran Field, Georgia, 1943.

Cochran Field, Georgia, 1943.

According to Dad’s military records, he arrived at Cochran Field in September 1941. He was there until June 1943, when he was sent to Europe as a bomber pilot. Mom and baby Rocky went to live with her mother in Macon.

Not counting the arrival of me, the time Mom and Dad spent at Cochran Field was a quiet interlude before the war turned everything upside down; it was only a year later, in June 1944, that Dad’s B-24 was shot down. For months, he was missing in action, fate unknown.

I’ve written several posts about Dad’s war years and his time as a POW. This story, however, is about other matters, which I shall address directly.

Cochran Field was just one of numerous places Dad was stationed during his military career. Mom reminded us often in later years, usually with an edge to her voice, that she moved 20 times before her oldest child (me) reached high school.

When Cochran Field was deactivated in 1945, the base was turned over to local control. Today, it is the site of the Macon airport — or, more precisely, Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

In the late 1980s, I finally became curious enough about Cochran Field to go see the place for myself. I talked to Mom and Dad, and they told me where the base hospital had been, relative to the main gate, the flight line, and other landmarks.

So, one Saturday, I drove down to the airport to look around. And I located what may well be the site of the old base hospital.

What I found was a row of foundation stones in a grassy field. The location matched the clues Mom and Dad gave me.

But realistically, it was hard to know. When the base was constructed in early 1941, it was done as speedily and economically as  possible. Most of the buildings — quarters for officers, barracks for enlisted men and trainees, mess halls, the various administrative facilities — were the same size and design.

Maybe those foundation stones mark the location of the hospital, maybe they don’t.

It seemed sad that my only connection to the place where I was born was the memories of others. As for tangible connections, there was only my birth certificate.

Still, whether or not I found the location of the hospital that day, my trip to the airport gave me a new connection. Which was gratifying.

Twenty years later, the book I mentioned — the one of unexpected significance — entered the story.

It happened in 2005, after Mom died, and we faced the difficult task of dealing with her possessions.

The books in a person’s home are intimate things. Although they are openly displayed, only family members and visitors see them.

And when they do, it amounts to a passing glance at the titles on the spines. Only the owner of the books has any real knowledge about them.

Many of the books on Mom’s shelves were familiar sights to me. “Robinson Crusoe” was there for as long as I can remember. So was “Wake of the Red Witch,” an old seafaring adventure. I remember both because of their colorful and melodramatic 1940s dust jackets.

Another book I recall seeing is “The Hawk’s Done Gone” by Mildred Haun. I knew nothing about it, but I remember it because the title is so wonderful.

Mom’s books needed a new home, but frankly, I didn’t need any more books. My house was, and still is, full of books. I have bookshelves in four different rooms. I own books by the hundreds.

But as I stood there at Mom’s house, seeing all those familiar titles so soon after her death, I was compelled to take a moment, sit down, and let the memories flow.

I took down several of her books and thumbed through the pages. All were clean; Mom was meticulous about her books. She never wrote notes or underlined passages.

When I reached “The Hawk’s Done Gone,” I opened the cover to find, looking back at me from the first blank page, this time-and-date stamp:

Time-date stamp

Property of the Cochran Field Station Hospital? Incredible.

As you can see, the ink on the date stamp misfired and didn’t record the day and month the book was cataloged. But “1942,” when Mom was pregnant, is visible.

The book isn’t a library book in the classic sense. It has no checkout card or a sleeve for one.

Maybe it was part of an informal “lending library” at the hospital. I  can imagine a volunteer pushing a book cart from room to room so the patients could select a book to pass the time, or return one.

Which brings up obvious questions: how, being hospital property, did the book end up in Mom’s possession? And why, 60-odd years later, was it still in Mom’s possession?

I can’t imagine either of my parents being book thieves. Perish the thought. Was the book taken home accidentally? Was it a gift?

The war years were frightening times for the entire population. Family members and friends were at peril in faraway places. The status of a mere book was of no importance. Yet, the questions remain.

Ironically, Mom knew the truth for my entire life. She could have explained it at any time. I just didn’t know to ask the question.

“The Hawk’s Done Gone” is the only book I claimed from Mom’s bookshelves. It’s a first edition, copyright 1940. The pages have yellowed a bit with age, but the condition is good.

I keep it on a shelf with a handful of other books that are special to me. I take it down occasionally, look at the “received” stamp, and think about how people coped during the war years.

The book, by the way, is a collection of short stories that chronicle one dirt-poor family in the Tennessee mountains, from the Civil War years to the Great Depression. The narrator is a midwife who uses meticulously accurate mountain dialect.

Although the stories involve dramatic subjects — witchcraft, incest, infanticide, interracial dalliances — they are less about the people than their unique society; the book is almost an anthropological study.

Actually, I was expecting more and was disappointed. I wonder what Mom thought.


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Party of Droids

I’ve been on a reading kick lately, and last Sunday, I made the rounds of the Athens bookstores in search of a few titles.

Why Sunday? Because Athens is blissfully quiet on Sunday, and downtown parking is free.

The day went well. I found one book that I wanted, struck out on two others, and made one impulse purchase. The books went on the pile next to my living room chair, to be dealt with in due time.

My last stop that day was Barnes & Noble, a bookstore with which I have a love-hate relationship.

I say that because on one hand, most B&N stores are well-stocked, attractive, pleasant, comfortable, interesting, and enjoyable to visit. The Athens store certainly is, and the staff is highly book-literate.

On the other hand, Barnes & Noble — or Barnes Ignoble, if you prefer — is (1) a soulless corporate behemoth, and (2) way, way too pricey. I rarely purchase anything there that isn’t on sale. If I have to overpay, I prefer to do it at an independent bookstore.

But this is the holiday season, and there I was, wandering the aisles of the Athens Barnes & Noble, looking for bargains. Christmas carols were playing merrily over the sound system.

At first, the atmosphere in the store was normal. Busy and festive, but normal. I wandered back to the Travel department, flagged down a clerk, and asked him to locate a book for me.

While we were talking, loud voices erupted from the children’s section at the far end of the store.

It was a burst of happy, exuberant children’s voices, a mixture of giggles and screams, and it quickly subsided. A few seconds later, the uproar repeated itself.

Barnes & Noble is always full of kids, but they’re usually subdued and mannerly. This was a bit surprising.

“What the heck is going on back there?” I asked the clerk.

“No idea,” he said. “Must be a Storytime event. They do a lot of holiday things in the children’s department.”

As I continued browsing, the kids’ voices ebbed and flowed sporadically. I was curious, but not enough to investigate. Several minutes later, however, I had worked my way across the store to the main aisle not far from the children’s section. Suddenly, the hubbub escalated.

In a flash, a line of a dozen kids — about half boys and half girls, ages six to eight — snaked past me. Chattering excitedly, they reached the end of the aisle, turned left, and disappeared from view.

Moments later, a tall, imposing Imperial Stormtrooper in distinctive white battle armor appeared.


“Citizen,” he demanded, “Did a party of droids pass this way?”

This Stormtrooper had a bit of a Southern accent. Which made sense, this being Georgia and all.

“They went that way,” I said, pointing in the wrong direction. I knew I was grinning like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it.

“The Empire will not tolerate misleading information,” he replied officiously. “I assure you, I will not harm these droids. I just want to return them to the children’s department.”

Before I could reply, and before he was compelled to make an example of me in some fashion, the line of kids reappeared in the aisle about 20 feet away. When they spotted the Stormtrooper, they screeched to a halt and quickly dispersed amid howls of glee.

The Stormtrooper looked in my direction. I could see my reflection in the black plastic covering the eyeholes of his helmet. He shook his head.

“They’ve split up,” he said with resignation. “Apprehending them now will be difficult.”

“Yes, and I see you’re not armed,” I said.

“Well, we usually don’t need our weapons at a Bookfair event.”

At that moment, we were joined by an 80-ish man dressed in his Sunday best. He looked the Stormtrooper up and down inquisitively.

“You’re one of those… you’re a…” he ventured.

“A Stormtrooper,” said the Stormtrooper.

“You’re from that space movie, where the planet blows up,” the man said. “The soldiers wore white armor –”

“Yes, that was Star Wars. I’m an Imperial Stormtrooper from the movie Star Wars,” said the Stormtrooper.

“– and the villain, the mean one, had black armor — ‘Stormtrooper,’ you say?”

“Yes, sir. I’m here for the Children’s Bookfair. I represent the 501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers.”

(The 501st is a real-life organization of Star Wars fans. They make appearances wearing amazingly authentic Star Wars costumes.)

I decided it was time to make my exit. “Good luck rounding up those Droids,” I said with a wave, backing away from the conversation.

The Stormtrooper replied with a peace sign. The old guy continued to hold him captive, speaking in a slow, halting monotone.

A few minutes later, standing in the checkout line, I heard another chorus of excited children’s voices. I looked back toward the main aisle.

There stood the Stormtrooper in a circle of kids. They were looking up at him with huge grins, bouncing energetically in place, listening intently. As he talked, the children periodically broke out in giggles.

The Stormtrooper pointed at one of the older boys. The boy said something in reply, then cracked up at his own remark, whatever it was. The Stormtrooper reacted with exaggerated body language.

From a distance, I noticed for the first time that most of the adults in the vicinity — in the entire store — had stopped browsing and were watching the Stormtrooper and the children. Everyone was smiling. It was a good moment.

Okay, so even soulless corporate behemoths can have some redeeming qualities.




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When the major claim to fame of your local school board is burning books, you have a self-righteous-moralistic-toad problem.

In 1973, a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School in Drake, North Dakota, gave his sophomore students a reading assignment — Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughter-House Five.

Slaughter-House Five is an admittedly odd duck. It is an anti-war black comedy, more or less based on the horrific World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, which Vonnegut lived through as a POW of the Germans.

As the story unfolds, Vonnegut’s protagonist becomes “unstuck in time,” encounters multi-dimensional aliens, and lives his life out of sequence. The book is classic, fiery-eyed satire from Vonnegut.

An odd duck, yes, but the novel shouldn’t be underestimated. It is ranked by Modern Library as number 18 among the greatest English novels of the 20th Century.

Bruce Severy, the Drake high school teacher, reported that most of his sophomore students immediately related to the book and were enthusiastic about the assignment.

“C and D students were suddenly writing A papers,” Severy told The Minot Daily News.

One student, however, complained to her mother about obscene language in the book. The mother complained to the Drake Public School Board.

The students were about one-third of the way through the novel when the school board ordered all copies of the books confiscated and fed into the school’s coal burner.

“We didn’t approve of its obscene language,” said school board president Charles McCarthy. “It might pass in a college, but not in this school.”

Another board member said the book “should not be read by anyone.”

A local minister called the novel “garbage.” A local priest said he didn’t like its “barnyard scenes.”

When the confiscation order went out, some students claimed they had lost their copies; the school board promptly ordered their lockers searched and telephoned their parents.

The students made their displeasure known. The novel, one of them said, “is respectable and interesting, and better than what we’ve been reading.” They presented a letter of protest to the school board.

Slaughter-House Five wasn’t the only book burned that year in the Drake High School coal burner. The school board also ordered the burning of 60 copies of Deliverance by James Dickey.

Also into the burner went the school’s copies of Short Story Masterpieces, a 1966 collection with works by 35 distinguished authors — James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Sinclair Lewis, James Thurber, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Carson McCullers, to drop just a few of the names.

Severy, to his credit, remained civil about the incident. He gave this long and eloquent statement to the Minot newspaper.


I chose the book for its immediacy, its modern style, its brevity. It is a book which addresses itself to current problems in an honest and straightforward manner. I believe the theme, or message of the book is a question: why are we killing each other still?

The book deals with other concerns as well. The lack of dignity and respect with which we treat each other in increasing doses. The dissatisfaction that Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the book, feels with his life of obvious material success. The emptiness of his marriage. The matter of man’s own free will, that seems to be no longer functioning. The resulting apathy.

It is this apathy towards an increasing state of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man that the author is crying out against in protest, through Billy Pilgrim. This is a moral book. It deals with a moral question that we as humans have been trying to deal with for time immemorial. The book begs the reader to come up with a workable answer.

Most of the criticism so far focuses on the language the author uses, specifically some four-letter words commonly referred to as slang, swearing, whatever. All I can say is that the author is trying to tell his story like it is, using the language as it is being used today, out there in the real world.

I would also like to say that no one who objects to the book that I have talked to has read the book. Another told me that he hadn’t read any of the book. I say that no one can make judgment about an entire book without reading the entire book and taking it as such. Anything less is academically dishonest, anti-intellectual, and irrational.

I would also like to say that only one student in my two classes objected to the book after reading two chapters. This is fine. I have never forced a student to read any book if that student objected or if the parents objected.


The teacher’s union joined the students in condemning the book-burnings. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit. Ultimately, a settlement was reached out of court, in which high school juniors and seniors were permitted to read Slaughter-House Five, and Severy received the sum of $5,000.

To my knowledge, the Drake Public School Board has fed no more books into the coal burner. In the years since the settlement, the incident has surfaced only occasionally, as an example of crude behavior by narrow-minded people who get into positions of power.

Then, a few months ago, came interesting news. A letter surfaced that Vonnegut reportedly wrote to board president McCarthy, one week after the copies of Slaughter-House Five were burned.

This is the letter.


November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else.

You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers.

I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes — but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut


According to news accounts, Vonnegut never received a reply.

You have to question the authenticity of a letter like this, surfacing after nearly 40 years. It’s the kind of thing that triggers a person’s baloney detector.

The letter’s statement, you now hold the only copy in your hands certainly doesn’t bolster its credibility.

On the other hand, nothing had popped up to indicate that the letter is a phony. It does, in fact, sound a heck of a lot like Vonnegut.

And if Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write this letter, then dammit, he should have.

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Seeing my granddaughters blossom into reading machines has been very gratifying. I am, after all, a wordsmith, and a veteran one at that.

Not only is it a delight to watch them, but it also gave me a reason to relearn the art of selecting high-quality children’s books. Which is a lot of fun.

Reading — and its co-perpetrator, writing — keep life interesting.

The reading virus infected me at an early age. I can remember plowing through book after book, weary, but unwilling or unable to stop.

Back then, my parents’ books were of no interest, and I depended on the library. Later, when they began giving me an allowance, my practice was to invest part of it every week in a paperback book. Cheap paperbacks surely are one of history’s greatest inventions.

After college, when I started earning a paycheck, I joined the Book of the Month Club. I always awaited my shipments from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, with great relish.

But alas, during the years when my kids were growing up, and I was focused on job and career, and I had discovered the joys of hiking and backpacking, I found myself reading less. Instead of buying books, I subscribed to magazines, because time was limited.

Slowly, I devolved from voracious book-lover into a person who read lightly and occasionally. Reading was no longer a glorious habit. I had lost the sense of exhilaration and enjoyment.

And then a funny thing happened to reignite the spark.

After I retired, I bought a house in Jefferson that featured a bonus room over the garage. The house has three bedrooms, so the upstairs space really was a bonus. How should I use it?

As a sitting room, I decided. A reading room. A li-bry.

So I purchased bookshelves suitable for the space, brought my books out of storage, where some had languished for years, and populated the new shelves. The room looked great. Felt great.

Immediately, the siren calls began. Read me! No, me first! No, over here — start reading me where you left off!

It was good to be back in the saddle again, back in reading mode.

I spent considerable time upstairs in my recliner, stacks of half-read books on either side, a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea nearby, enjoying the return of the glorious reading habit.

Soon, I was haunting the local bookstores, searching for titles I never got around to reading, old favorites, and random new finds.

Paperbacks are no longer as cheap as they were in my youth, but used hardbacks and paperbacks are plentiful — and a bargain even today.

Often, for a few dollars, I would come home with an armload of books. I pursued and located old classics. I found the complete works of certain favorite authors. The thrill of the hunt and the joy of the aha! moments were very satisfying.

Then, late in 2010, my reading habits took another interesting turn. I bought a Kindle, the eBook reader from Amazon. I wrote about that earlier this year.

To be clear, I have nothing against eBooks. I have friends who work at or own independent bookstores, and they fear and hate eBooks. They loathe the new technology and see it as a juggernaut that someday will snuff them out.

If they can’t adapt, maybe that will happen. But the way I see it, books in digital form are still books. The Red Pony is an exceptional work, whether the medium you choose is printed book, eBook, audiobook, or Braille.

And so, I reach my point of this long-winded post — getting there, as I am wont to do, by a widely circuitous route.

Several months ago, when I bought the Kindle, I began happily downloading eBooks to it. Soon, I had about 50 eBooks on the device. I also have a stash of 75-100 more on my computer, waiting their turn.

Most days, I spend an hour or more reading on my Kindle.

But the Kindle, instead of taking over, has simply stimulated my appetite for reading. The fact is, I’m now buying more printed books than ever.

A very unexpected outcome.

My bookstore friends would take comfort in that knowledge, if they knew about it. But I can’t tell them.

I never confessed to buying a Kindle in the first place.

Cheeky sign in the window of a local bookstore.

A snarky poke in the eye.

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A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird on my Kindle, and I was ready to archive the file. On a Kindle, that means moving it to the Archived Items folder. Seemed simple enough.

But I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I tried and tried, and the only option available was “Delete this file.”

I tried that, and it really did delete the file — permanently and irretrievably. (Being nobody’s fool, I had saved a backup copy.)

After reading the entire PDF User’s Manual, I gave up and sent an email to Kindle’s online tech support, asking how to archive a file.

A few minutes later (!), I got a reply from a fellow named Mahish. He described the specific steps to archive a file.

He told me to highlight the file, press the left arrow on the 5-Way Controller, and select “Archive this File.”

It didn’t work.

I followed the steps, and the only option available was “Delete this file.”

Seconds later (!), I got an email that said, “Dear valued customer: Did we solve your problem? If so, click here (X). If not, click here (Y).”

I clicked (Y), and another message popped up: “Click here (Z) to place a phone call to a live Kindle Technician.”

I clicked (Z). Immediately, my home telephone rang. I picked it up.

It was a recording from Kindle Tech Support telling me to hold for the next available agent.

I sat down, turned on the speakerphone, and settled in to start reading Watership Down on the Kindle.

Five or six minutes later, a guy came on the line. He said his name was Ajay or Sanjay — I wasn’t sure. I told him why I was calling.

“Sir, I think you want Kindle Tech Support,” he said.

“So… who are you?”

“Sir, I regret any inconvenience. Let me connect you. (Click.)”

I switched back to speakerphone and continued reading.

A few seconds later (!), a cheery female voice boomed from the speakerphone. “Hi, this is Amanda with Kindle Tech Support. How may I assist you?”

I told her my story.

“Well,” she said, “The instructions he gave you are correct. You highlight the file, press the left arrow on the 5-Way, and ‘Archive this File’ will appear.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t.”

“Hmmm… Oh, wait! The file you’re trying to archive — did you get it from us?”

Suddenly, everything was clear. I was way ahead of her. In an example of sheer pettiness, Kindle doesn’t allow you to archive non-Kindle files.

Did I say sheer pettiness? I meant inexcusable, mean-spirited pettiness.

“No, I didn’t get the file from Kindle,” said I. “Kindle doesn’t carry this title. I got it somewhere else as a PDF.”

“There’s the explanation,” said she. “The archive option doesn’t appear if the file isn’t a Kindle file.”

“Why is that?”

“Beats me. By the way, what book are we talking about? What are you trying to archive?”

“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Ohhh, wow! that’s my favorite novel ever! I’ve tried to find an eBook version, but I can’t!”

I told her where I found it as a free download. She was very pleased.

We chatted for a minute about the novel, why it isn’t in the Kindle Store, and why Kindle chooses, on the minor matter of archiving, to be so small-minded and petty. On that subject, she tactfully didn’t say much.

But Amanda was genuinely pleasant, and she solved the puzzle. That helped my mood considerably.

And, in the end, I solved the archiving problem in my own way.

I created a new folder entitled “Files Kindle Won’t Archive.”

In case you’re interested, I found “To Kill a Mockingbird” here. It downloads as an RAR file. The PDF has to be extracted from it, but that’s pretty easy.

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This passage is from the masterful World War II novel “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, published in 1961.


Yossarian looked at Doc Daneeka soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”

“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.

“Can you ground him?”

“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”

“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”

“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”

“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”

“That’s all. Let him ask me.”

“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.

“No. Then I can’t ground him.”

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch. Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.


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Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, an English novelist and poet of the mid-1800s, is famous for his especially florid prose.

To be fair, the ornate literary style was in vogue in Bulwer-Lytton’s day. But he is the lucky fellow who today epitomizes prose of a particularly purple nature.

B.L. is the man who wrote the famous words, “It was a dark and stormy night” to open his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

Actually, those words are only the first phrase of the opening sentence, which is eye-popping for its melodramatic ostentatiousness…

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Ya gotta love it.

Since 1982, San Jose State College has sponsored the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in which entrants are challenged to submit a single, terrible opening sentence to an imaginary novel.

The 2009 winners were just announced, and they are delightfully awful. Here are the worst of the worst:

Grand Prize Winner

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’ east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

David McKenzie
Federal Way, WA


The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor — the double-edged kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn’t use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride.

Warren Blair
Ashburn, VA

Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award

Fleur looked down her nose at Guilliame, something she was accomplished at, being six foot three in her stocking feet, and having one of those long French noses — not pert like Bridget Bardot’s, but more like the one that Charles De Gaulle had when he was still alive and President of France and he wore that cap that was shaped like a little hatbox with a bill in the front to offset his nose, but it didn’t work.

Marguerite Ahl
Prescott Valley, AZ

Winner, Detective Stories

She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida — the pink ones, not the white ones — except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn’t wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren’t.

Eric Rice
Sun Prairie, WI

Dishonorable Mention, Detective Stories

The appearance of a thin red beam of light under my office door and the sound of one, then two pair of feet meant my demise was near, that my journey from gum-shoe detective to international agent had gone horribly wrong, until I realized it was my secretary teasing her cat with a laser pointer.

Steve Lynch
San Marcos, CA

Winner, Fantasy Fiction

A quest is not to be undertaken lightly — or at all! — pondered Hlothgar, Thrag of the Western Boglands, son of Glothar, nephew of Garthol, known far and wide as Skull Dunker, as he wielded his chesty stallion Hralgoth through the ever-darkening Thlargwood, beyond which, if he survived its horrors and if Hroglath the royal spittle reader spoke true, his destiny awaited — all this though his years numbered but fourteen.

Stuart Greenman
Seattle, WA

Winner, Purple Prose

The gutters of Manhattan teemed with the brackish slurry indicative of a significant, though not incapacitating snowstorm three days prior, making it seem that God had tripped over Hoboken and spilled his smog-flavored Slurpie all over the damn place.

Eric Stoveken
Allentown, PA

Runner-Up, Purple Prose

Warily — as if his hands were a green-bean casserole in a non-tempered glass dish that had just come out of the freezer, and the patient was an oven that had been preheating for a good 75 minutes at 450F — the surgeon slowly reached into the incision and groped for the bullet fragment in the pancreas, at last finding it nestled near one of the Islets of Langerhans like a small wrecked lifeboat foundered on a sandbar as it floated in the fog, adrift in the Sea of John’s Innards.

Christin Keck
Akron OH

Dishonorable Mention, Purple Prose

Their relationship hit a bump in the road — not the low, graceful kind of bump, reminiscent of a child’s choo choo train-themed roller coaster, but rather the kind of tall, narrow speed-bump that, if a school bus ran over it, would cause even a fat kid to fly up and bang his head on the ceiling.

Michael Reade
Durham, NC

Winner, Romance

Melinda woke up suddenly to the sound of her trailer being pounded with wind and hail, and she couldn’t help thinking that if she had only put her prize hog up for adoption last May, none of this would be happening, no one would have gotten hurt, and she wouldn’t be left with only nine toes, or be living in a mobile home park in Nebraska with a second-rate trapeze artist named Fred.

Ada Marie Finkel
Boston, MA

Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mentions

As Laurel made her way through the plaza, she couldn’t help but notice the gorgeous co-anchor for the morning news show, out yet again signing autographs, smiling broadly, and infusing everyone around her with happiness, and she wondered, just for a second, mind you, how good it would feel to punch her right in her stupid little face.

Nikkia Daniel
Marietta, GA

Peter shaded his eyes from the brilliant April morning sunlight as it suddenly illuminated the Bunny Trail, contemplated his handiwork (separating all of those pearly white chicks-to-be from their mothers) and prepared for the final task to complete his mission — yes, this was a good day to dye.

Trent Bristol
Mandan, ND

There were earthquakes in this land, terrible tsunamis that swirled flooding torrents of water throughout, and constant near-blizzard conditions, and not for the first time, Horatio Jones wished he did not live inside a snow globe.

Rich Buley-Neumar
Amityville, NY

Before she was Tabloid Sally, the impossibly foxy movie star who destroyed marriages like a busty ball-peen hammer, before she was Nobel Sally, the mercurial chemist who cured chronic halitosis, and before she was Pulitzer Sally, the honey-dipped scribe who brought Washington to its knees, she was just little Sally Barnes from Crow’s Neck, Nebraska, Bill and Margie’s daughter, a doe-eyed pixie who loved fairy tales and onion rings.

Roger Collier
Ottawa, Ontario

And finally this: Bulwer-Lytton’s famous opening sentence as delivered by Yoda, the Jedi master…

A dark and stormy night it was; in torrents fell the rain — except at occasional intervals, when, by a violent gust of wind was it checked, as up the streets it swept, (for in London it is that lies our scene), along the housetops rattling, and the scanty flame of the lamps fiercely agitating, that against the darkness struggled.

Jay Clifton
Berkeley, CA

Who says Western Civilization is on the decline?


Portrait of Bulwer-Lytton by Henry William Pickersgill.

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The Golden Ages

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is considered to be the period from the late 1930s through the 1950s, a time when sci-fi gained steadily in popularity and many sci-fi classics were published.

Science fiction fan Peter Graham saw it from a different perspective. “The golden age of science fiction,” he observed, “is twelve.”

I don’t know who the heck Peter Graham is. I Googled him and didn’t find much. He’s described as a science fiction fan who famously made the above statement, and that’s about it.

Whoever he was, or is, his observation about science fiction was correct. In my case, I was a devoted fan from age 10 to age 16. For long periods during those years, between haunting the library and buying paperbacks, I read a sci-fi novel virtually every day.

I knew the name of every author in the business, popular and obscure. I knew their preferred sub-genres, their writing styles, and their previous works, in order of publication.

The new stuff coming out was my favorite, but I read the classics, too. Even at that tender age, I knew perfectly well which of it was intelligent, imaginative work and which of it was juvenile crapola.

I preferred novels, but I also read the reigning magazines of the day — Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, If, Galaxy, Infinity, and others. The magazines helped me stay current with industry happenings, and the short stories in them were like candy.

Paperbacks were cheap in those days, and I had an impressive collection of them. I usually managed to buy a new one every week.

For a while as a young teen, I received an allowance of one — count it — one dollar per week. With that princely sum, I could purchase a sci-fi novel for 35 cents; a movie ticket for 25 cents, a bag of popcorn for 15 cents, and a fountain Coke for 10 cents.

Which left a bit of spending money in my pocket. On a good week, when the novel only cost 25 cents, I was rolling in dough.

Alas, my extensive collection of science fiction paperbacks came to an ignoble end. A couple of years after I left for college, Mom jettisoned every one of my paperbacks. And my baseball cards.

(Long pause in remembrance of valuable collections thrown out in trash.)

I remember those years of tireless reading and devoted sci-fi fan-dom as being more about education than entertainment. I liked sci-fi because it was informative and visionary.

An author writing about the future isn’t restrained by the world as it is. He is free to let his imagination go and entertain all kinds of what-ifs.

In 1945, inventor and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke began promoting the use of geostationary satellites as telecommunications relays. Talk about visionary.

Clarke later described the use of space elevators, which, for the rest of his life, he believed would make space shuttles obsolete. He may turn out to be right.

Eventually, my sci-fi years ended. The new and overwhelming world of high school, with its challenges, demands, and siren calls, saw to that.

In later years, I always remembered science fiction fondly. But I never returned to it, except once of twice. I read Ringworld, The Forever War, and a few others, but not much else.

Last year, however, I ran across a website that got me interested in sci-fi again. The website lists the classic novels of science fiction by rank.

Being a normal American, I can’t resist a list, so I started studying it.

I had read about one-third of the novels and remembered them quite well. I knew many more by title or author, but had not read them.

At some point, a light bulb came on in my head.

Classics are old, I reasoned, and old books are everywhere. Used bookstores sell ’em cheap. Furthermore, few people give a hoot about sci-fi. Those novels should be available for practically nothing.

Thus was born a new quest and, I’m proud to say, a new collection. List in hand, I began prowling the local used book stores. Quickly and steadily, I began picking up novels on the list for a song — $1.99 here, $6.95 there, some in hardback, some not.

I had to order a few of the titles online, because they were genuinely rare. But before long, I had located all of the first 50 on the list and about half of the rest.

My current sci-fi collection now occupies its own bookcase upstairs in my li-bry room. I’ve read about two dozen random titles so far.

Most were very good. A few were disappointing. But I’m just getting started.

As science fiction fan Rocky Smith recently observed, “The second golden age of science fiction is 66.”



Forever War


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