I try to be sophisticated. In Atlantic City.
November 10, 1983
This column doesn't need an introduction, it explaining the who and the why of the incident it records. I felt very foolish about the book when I got back home, and more than once I had the impulse to give it away. Telling the story of why I kept it probably would have made a better column, but I didn't know why. Still don't.
The book—cloaked in yellow cloth which has since become specked by paint of a hideous robin's egg blue, a souvenir of some forgotten, indeed, unimaginable gesture at home improvement—shows its eighteen years. It's worn more by being shoveled into and out of cardboard boxes than by any reader's attentions. If it survives notice at all, it is out of respect for its writer's other achievements.
"It" is Assorted Prose by John Updike, published by Knopf in 1965. As its title and date suggests, it is a collection of that writer's early efforts in a miscellany of forms—parodies, New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces, reminiscences, book reviews. It had stood on my bookshelves for years, little regarded and so little remembered that when I went into my library to look for it yesterday I had to try hard to remember where I had shelved it. But several reviewers of Updike's new, similar collection, Hugging the Shore, recalled his earlier effort to my attention, and yesterday I spotted a copy of it—the old one, not the new one—on B.'s desk.
I had purchased my copy improbably enough from a stall on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the summer of 1965. U found myself washed upon that alien shore during the convention of international Rotary Clubs, my attendance being my punishment for having been elected president of a Rotary-sponsored service club in my high school back in Springfield. It was an unhappy errand. I made the trip east by car in the company of an insurance man with smelly feet. I was prey to carsickness and further wearied by the obligations of my position: While I had joined the club from the same cynical motives as my classmates—to earn a credit for my college resumé—I was astonished on arrival to discover that my adult Rotarians regarded the enterprise with an impossible earnestness.
Among my duties was an impromptu morning speech before a group of delegates of indeterminate sobriety in which I sang the praises of community service as a necessary, even uplifting adjunct to the arid intellectuality of the classroom. I was a successful student, and thus accustomed to lying to adults, and I was such a huge hit that a bleary-eyed Aussie in the back room rose to lead a chorus of Hear, hear!’s before they all adjourned to lunch. I adjourned to the boardwalk, where the amusements, while no less fraudulent, were at least peddled out of more honest motives.
I had read Updike's The Centaur, and liked it. I didn't know anything of Updike beyond that, indeed, I hadn't known anything about him before reading The Centaur; I'd picked up a paperback copy of the novel while browsing at Shadid's and bought it because it sounded interesting—a reminder to me now of how much my education owes to paperback blurb writers.
No such pleasures awaited me in Assorted Prose. My education then encompassed only the more mundane literary forms. The casual essays, especially the "Talk" pieces, mystified me, unequipped as I was with any sense of the city, the magazine, or the literary sensibility which gave them rise. The book reviews were more intelligible, but they were about books by people I'd never heard of, much less read—Max Beerbohm, Karl Barth, Swiss theologian Denis de Rougemont. What did not puzzle me irritated me. I recall feeling something like anger when I first read "The Unread Book Route"—not because I found it precious, although it is, but because I was young and book hungry and all too ready to resent anyone who could afford to buy books and then leave them unread.
Closer examination of the book on the boardwalk would have made all this clear. But I bought on impulse. I had spending money in my pocket, the gift of my sponsors, and I had never before been able to purchase a spanking new, hardcover book. That my first trophy proved to be one which I was able only intermittently to understand left me feeling foolish, and reminded me that for all the miles I'd driven in that infernal Chevy I was no closer to New York than I had been when I left home.
Since then, however, I have concluded that my extravagance of eighteen years ago confirms the wisdom of occasionally buying books on impulse. The wisdom of keeping books lies in their capacity to lie ticking away on the shelf until the day when, taken up again on impulse itself triggered by circumstances like the ones I've described, it explodes.
Since 1965 I have come to know the "collection of dazzled farm boys" whom Updike reveals as the "indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic 'we' " of The New Yorker's "Talk" section. And when he speaks of his "first literary idols," Thurber, Benchley, and Gibbs. tempting him to parody, I now know not only "who" but "how."
In fact, when I reread Updike's foreword I was startled to realize that when he published his collection of odds and ends he had been writing for a living for ten years. That is less a span than my career to date by a couple of years, and while longevity is the only way in which Updike's career and mine compare, it enables me to understand the young Updike as a colleague rather than that faraway guide.
For example, I now wince at Updike's description of his own reminiscences, which he bravely insists have "the under-cooked quality of prose written to order"—wince because I have written no other kind. He is observant and fair about writers who devote themselves to what he calls "the private game of translating life into language, of fitting words to things." He notes in a way useful to any young writer how James Agee allowed the idea of the "Great Novel" to "hound him out of contentment with his genius," which lay in other forms. He does his former heroes the kindness of not being kinder than they deserve; he laments the pointless irritation of Thurber's last pieces, and wonders whether Thurber will weather as well as the "ephemeral" Benchley. And he is, occasionally, funny: "A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience."
A better investment, in short, than I thought in 1965. Or could have thought. And I am grateful to the happy accidents of this week which took me back to that neglected corner of my library. Not so much because of what I relearned about friend Updike, understand, but because of what I relearned about books. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
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Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
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to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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