Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings

Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings

Source: Second Readings, from the Washington Post:

In early 2003, Jonathan Yardley, dean of the Washington Post’s book critics began what was modestly called, “An occasional series in which The Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”
Jonathan Yardley
Ever month or so, Yardley would set aside his stack of review copies of new books to take up one that had been in or out of print for a decade or more–“books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover.”

His first piece dealt with John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham, Esquire, also featured on this site about a year ago. His choice of Marquand, as Yardley put it, was motivated not because, “His are not the best books I’ve ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.”

When he concluded the series almost seven years later, with a fond revisit to The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, he wrote,

With that, this series of Second Readings comes to an end. It began in February 2003 and has covered nearly 100 books. Probably it could go on a while longer, but it’s best to quit before you start repeating yourself. Let me say by way of wrapping things up that except for a couple of the books I’ve written, nothing in my career has given me so much pleasure as these reconsiderations, not least because they have elicited such warm, generous responses from you, my treasured readers. I hope that I’ve steered you to a few good books you might otherwise have missed, and that those books gave you as much pleasure as reading and writing about them gave me.

Not all of the books Yardley covered can be considered neglected–certainly not such fixtures of the literary canon as Pride And Prejudice or The Catcher in the Rye. But he did often reach beyond the limits of the well-known and well-remembered to bring back to light titles such as Edwin O’Connor’s novel of a veteran vaudevillean, I Was Dancing (“I’d be hard-pressed to say that any book discussed therein is more undeservedly neglected than this one”), and The Second Happiest Day by John Phillips (pen name of Marquand’s son John Phillips Marquand, Jr.). He even took time to consider a book such as Philip Wylie’s rather dated critique of American society of the mid-20th century, Generation of Vipers to demonstrate that sometimes the test of time is a fair judgment of a book’s merit.

About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, by Roy Blount Jr.

“Not merely is “Three Bricks” funny, smart, perceptive and winning, there’s also a lovely quality about it that, for all the ferocity of the gridiron and the profanity of some of its language, I’d call gentleness. It’s a book about men in groups, this particular group being one that plays a very rough game, and it’s actually far less about football than about people.”

Act One, by Moss Hart

“Whatever got me to “Act One”, it knocked me out when I first read it, and it knocks me out now. Many people knowledgeable about such matters regard it as the finest of all 20th-century theatrical memoirs; I’d say its only competition is “Present Indicative,” by Noel Coward. A thoroughgoing showbiz veteran by the time he wrote it in the 1950s, Hart knew how to play the emotions of readers just as he knew how to play those of an audience, and he plays mine to a fare-thee-well. I admit without the slightest embarrassment that in its closing pages ‘my eyes were blurred,’ as Hart’s were when, at the opening night of “Once in a Lifetime,” his celebrated collaborator went onstage to say, ‘I would like this audience to know that eighty per cent of this play is Moss Hart.'”

And Then We Heard the Thunder, by John Oliver Killens

Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez

Beat to Quarters, by C.S. Forester

Black Boy, by Richard Wright

Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

The Boys on the Bus, by Timothy Crouse

“A mere three years out of college, [Crouse] managed to talk Rolling Stone magazine into letting him write about the men (and the very few women) who were covering both campaigns “on the bus,” though the bus was usually an airplane, and in Richard Nixon’s case it rarely left the White House grounds. The pieces got a lot of attention, and when Crouse expanded them into a book, people almost immediately understood that the landscape had changed: The press itself was now a story, and it has remained one — for better, but mostly for worse — ever since.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

“There’s nothing to kill off a book like being force-fed it, especially if the book is a moral fable that poses questions rather too advanced and complex for the teenage mind. I filed it away and forgot it, until a few months ago when a friend told me he’d reread it and been pleasantly surprised. I decided to follow suit, in part out of curiosity, in part because in recent years I have become a part-time resident of Peru and thus was curious about Wilder’s depiction of a place I have come to love. It is no exaggeration to say that on second reading I was completely blown away, not so much by Wilder’s sensitive treatment of his central theme as by the richness and power of his prose.”

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

The Clock Winder, by Anne Tyler

Cockfighter, by Charles Willeford

“Published as a paperback original in 1962, reissued in a revised hardcover edition in 1972, adapted a couple of years later for the movies, the novel has had a cult following for four decades, not just among aficionados of cockfighting but among the lamentably small number of readers who know and appreciate the work of one of our most skilled, interesting, accomplished and productive writers of what the literary establishment insists on pigeonholing as “genre” fiction.”

The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Crazy Salad, by Nora Ephron

Cyrano, by Edmund Rostand, translated by Brian Hooker

Dale Loves Sophie to Death, by Robb Forman Dew

” It was one of the last books I reviewed in my capacity as book editor of the Washington Star before it ceased publication three months later. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, and thus came to the novel not merely without preconceptions but also without unduly high expectations. What I found surprised and pleased me, and on second reading it pleases me even more. Its subject is domestic life, which always interests me strongly, but the skill, subtlety and sensitivity with which Dew treats it are what really matter.”

The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

The Dreadful Lemon Sky, by John D. MacDonald

The Earl of Louisiana, by A.J. Liebling

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

Fanny Hill, by John Cleland

The Fathers, by Allen Tate

“My own first encounter with ‘The Fathers’ came, unsurprisingly, in an academic setting. In 1968-69, during a nine-month sabbatical from the newspaper where I was then working, I undertook a fairly systematic study of Southern literature. This included a rereading of ‘Gone With the Wind’ and then ‘The Fathers,’, which a professor suggested as an antidote to it. As one who has always found things to admire as well as dislike about “GWTW,” I was unsure that an antidote was needed, but I quickly realized that ‘The Fathers’ was fiction of a different, and far higher, order. I was especially struck by its muscular prose and its exceptionally believable characters. A second reading leaves me even more strongly convinced of this.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, by Hunter S. Thompson

Generation of Vipers, by Philip Wylie

“Picking it up again after four decades, I remembered little about it except (of course) mom and a general atmosphere of splenetic outrage. As it turned out, Generation of Vipers did not come through a second reading in very good shape. The spectacle of someone making an absolute fool of himself is always enjoyable, so watching Wylie put himself through these ridiculous paces was amusing, but Generation of Vipers is warmed-over H.L. Mencken with only occasional hints of Mencken’s wit or perspicacity. Along the way Wylie says a few smart things, but give a chimpanzee 100,000 words and one or two of them are likely, against all odds, to make a bit of sense. Mostly the book is high-octane twaddle, fun to read but incapable of withstanding close scrutiny.”

Giant, by Edna Ferber

“Maybe then, but not now. Reading “Giant” for a second time was a painful, if not outright excruciating, experience. What was received half a century ago as a withering satire of Texas nouveau riche now has all the subtlety of a bludgeon. Aspiring to irony, Ferber rarely rises above sarcasm. Her prose is almost entirely lacking in grace or rhythm.”

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

H.M. Pulham, Esq., by John P. Marquand

“It is ludicrous that the Library of America, which smugly proclaims itself guardian “of America’s best and most significant writing,” finds room on its shelves for ever less significant work yet turns up its nose at Marquand. It is equally ludicrous that the publishing firm of Little, Brown, for which Marquand earned millions upon millions of dollars over the years, declines to keep a single one of his major novels in print. So the next time you hear or read about some publisher or editor claiming to “serve the best interests of literature,” pause a moment to reflect upon how shabbily Marquand is now served, not to mention all those readers who might discover his work to their joy and reward if only they could find it.”

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald

Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

The House on Coliseum Street, by Shirley Ann Grau

“No, there’s nothing “Southern” about [it] at all, except that it happens in the South and is told by a writer who happens to be Southern. It is a tiny human drama that in one form or another could be visited upon anyone, anywhere, and in Grau’s telling it achieves genuine universality. Reading ‘The House on Coliseum Street’ for the second time, I am struck far more than I was the first time by its maturity, wisdom and psychological acuity. It, like its outspoken author, has aged very well indeed.”

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, by John Cheever

I Was Dancing, by Edwin O’Connor

“It’s a lovely little book: funny, sad, absolutely true. Rereading it again after all these years I am reminded of what a fine writer O’Connor was, and how keenly he understood the lives of Irish Americans. Much good fiction and nonfiction has been written about them, but no one has done it better than he.”

Instant Replay, by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap

“Astonishingly, considering the great success and high reputation it enjoyed, ‘Instant Replay’ is now out of print. This seems even more astonishing after a second (or third, or fourth) reading, because the book has lost absolutely nothing over the past three and a half decades. It is funny, smart, evocative, honest and unpretentious. Its prose is Kramer’s, dictated into a tape recorder and regularly mailed to Schaap as the season progressed. Schaap’s role was “to organize, to condense, to clarify, and to punctuate,” but he “did not have to polish Jerry Kramer’s phrases or prompt his thoughts.” All in all it’s as good a job of collaboration between unprofessional writer and professional journalist as I can recall reading, and it is as vivid and engaging now as it was in 1968.”

Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron

“By the 1970s, when he was writing “Sophie’s Choice,” Styron had come to understand that catastrophe and/or tragedy must be alleviated (and thus in a way illuminated) by humor, but in his mid-20s he had yet to learn that lesson. The passage quoted above about the Tidewater gossips is the exception rather than the rule in ‘Lie Down in Darkness.’ Setting out to write the story of a family doomed by its inability to love, he became so bogged down in the agony of it all — as Peyton ruminates, “everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair” — that he ended up writing a 400-page dirge that ultimately is far more stifling than enriching.”

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers

The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, by Eric Hodgins

My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber

My Young Years, by Arthur Rubenstein

“Whatever the explanation for its disappearance from the bookstores, ‘My Young Years’ remains a classic autobiography in the grand manner. Unlike the memoirs that now crowd the bookshelves, exercises in self-administered therapy in which narcissistic narrators of no apparent accomplishment whine ad nauseam about real or imagined angst, this is an exuberant account of what Rubinstein calls, in his brief foreword, “the struggles, the mistakes, the adventures, and . . . the miraculous beauty and happiness of my young years.” His was a life lived to the full, with triumphs and disappointments galore, and by the time he reached his 80s and began to write this book, Rubinstein had such great stature that his story virtually commanded readers’ attention.”

Never Love a Stranger, by Harold Robbins

“Still, a rereading of “Never Love a Stranger” convinces me that he should be granted a bit more respect than is now commonly accorded him. There’s not much art to it, but neither is there much artifice. Something can be said of it that cannot be said of Robbins’s later work: It’s an honest book”

A New Life, by Bernard Malamud

Newspaper Days, by H.L. Mencken

No Left Turns, by Joseph L. Schott

“Published in 1975, it was enthusiastically reviewed as exactly what it is — a deadpan but hilarious inside view of what the same unhappy agent called the “sort of nutty vaudeville show” that was Hoover’s FBI — and enjoyed moderately good sales before going into paperback and then falling out of print.”

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin

Office Politics, by Wilfrid Sheed

“So here it is 2005, Sheed is in his mid-seventies and, just as he predicted, ‘Office Politics’ is out of print. It went through various paperback editions, the most recent of which was issued in 1989, but you’ll find it now only in used-book stores and libraries. As Sheed well understood when he wrote “The Minor Novelist,” the literary marketplace is a hard, unforgiving and often unjust place that is far more likely to reward the shoddy (viz., the bestseller lists) than the accomplished. Yet sometimes books find ways to outlive the neglect of publishers, booksellers and readers, and take on quiet lives of their own. One can only hope that in time this will happen to ‘Office Politics,’ the best of Sheed’s novels and one that remains uncommonly fresh after all these years.”

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, by Frederick Lewis Allen

The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Paper Tiger, by Stanley Woodward

Penrod and Sam, by Booth Tarkington

“The combination of Tarkington’s recollections of his own boyhood and his observations of his nephews, as well as an eye that was piercingly observant, makes ‘Penrod’ and ‘Penrod and Sam’ nothing less than primers on boyness.”

Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson

Pogo, by Walt Kelly

Pomp and Circumstance, by Noël Coward

“‘Pomp and Circumstance’ reminds us, as if any reminder were necessary, that Coward was a master entertainer in the very best sense: an immensely intelligent, witty, resourceful man who took endless delight in the human comedy and managed to make it even funnier than it already is. He brought a great deal of light to what was in many respects a dark century, and that light shines on.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“Being neither a joiner nor a cultist, I have resisted all temptations to wave the Janeite banner, preferring to enjoy her books — like those of the many other writers whose work I treasure — in private. This seems to me especially appropriate in her case, for despite all the chatting and blogging they inspire, they are intensely private books….”

The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman

The Rector of Justin, by Louis Auchincloss

The Reivers, by William Faulkner

Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

“The best “Washington novel” isn’t a novel at all. Published six decades ago, Margaret Leech’s ‘Reveille in Washington’ is what academic historians condescendingly call “popular history,” written with the novelist’s eye for character and telling detail as well as the novelist’s command of narrative. The story of the District of Columbia during the Civil War, ‘Reveille in Washington’ is still authoritative as history and is something of a masterpiece of storytelling.”

The Revolt of Mamie Stover, by William Bradford Huie

“If a half-century ago I read ‘The Revolt of Mamie Stover’ in hopes of titillation, a second time through I find it smart, provocative and funny. The N-word pops up with a frequency that will unnerve today’s reader, but that’s the way people talked back then. It’s not a great book, but it’s not pulp fiction either. How nice it would be to have it back in print, and to find a new generation of readers for an American writer who scarcely deserves the neglect into which he has fallen.”

The Robber Bridegroom, by Eudora Welty

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, by Louis Armstrong

Gary Giddins wrote, “Of Armstrong’s many accomplishments, the least recognized is his prolificacy as a writer of autobiographical prose. He was by far the most expansive musician-writer jazz has ever known. . . . He was unschooled in spelling and grammar, but he had an ear for language and could express himself with enviable clarity in trim, speechlike cadences. Tallulah Bankhead wrote in 1952, ‘He uses words like he strings notes together, artistically and vividly.’ She was referring to his conversation, which was peppered with an inventive brand of slang, but the observation holds for his prose as well. Usually, he typed single-space and fast. Sometimes he would write dozens of pages at a clip in an always legible and authoritative hand. He favored yellow typing paper and pens with green ink.”

Scott Fitzgerald, by Andrew Turnbull

The Second Happiest Day, by John Phillips

“Millicent Bell, the author of the first-rate “Marquand: An American Life” (1979), quotes a letter he wrote to his son after reading the first draft: “As the book stands it is a balanced and impressive novel, with authority and feeling. In fact it has all the elements a good novel ought to have, and this is remarkable for a first book.” That is a judgment with which I agreed upon reading “The Second Happiest Day” for the first time about half a century ago, and it is one that has not changed after a second reading. John Jr. was a remarkably gifted writer, and it is a pity that his attempt at a second novel, made over several years with innumerable fits and starts, never produced anything publishable.”

The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate

The Sketch Book, by Washington Irving

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Someone Like You, by Roald Dahl

The Spawning Run and My Moby Dick, by William Humphrey

St. Urbain’s Horseman, by Mordecai Richler

“‘St. Urbain’s Horseman’ is about these matters and many others: mixed marriages that produce kids who “have a stake in Jehovah and a claim on Christ,” the complexities and ambiguities of being Canadian, the indignity of aging, the thirst for experience. It’s a flawed novel — a bit too long, a bit repetitious, a bit self-absorbed — but it’s also a real grown-up’s novel, by a genuinely grown-up writer. Such novels are all too rare these days, so when you find one, hold tight to it.”

The Stardust Road, by Hoagy Carmichael

“The book at hand is less a memoir than a riff. Carmichael was drifting away from his jazz roots at the time he wrote ‘The Stardust Road’ — his later songs were less jazz than high pop, though he never lost his deep connection to the American heartland — but he wrote this book as if he were improvising. It’s exuberant, yet it begins and ends with the deaths in 1931 of his two most treasured friends: Bill “Monk” Moenkhaus (“the surrealist of the campus. Wise and foolish, sane and crazy, lovable and laughable”) and Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke, the immortal cornetist who “showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful as well as hot” and who drank himself to death at the age of 28. Carmichael doesn’t say as much, but it’s not hard to conclude that these deaths were turning points for him, directing him away from youthful frivolity and toward adult purposefulness.”

Sula, by Toni Morrison

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves

Veeck — As in Wreck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

“He was the greatest showman baseball has known, and he taught baseball how to put on a show. Unfortunately, no one else has had his combination of ingenuity, intelligence, humor and deep love of the game, so the promotions that now greet fans — over-amped rock music, Jumbotron scoreboards, wildly overpriced concessions — detract from the game rather than enhance it. But his lessons are still there to be learned, so <'Veeck -- As in Wreck' is herewith assigned as summer reading for everyone in the Nationals' front office, for duty, and everyone in the grandstand, for pleasure."
Victory, by Joseph Conrad

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes, by Robert Lewis Taylor

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Within, by Ellen Glasgow

The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, by Douglass Wallop

“The records of major league baseball tell us that the New York Yankees won the American League pennant in 1958, but those of us who defer to the Higher Truth know that it actually was won that year by the Senators. We know because we have read ‘The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant’, by Douglass Wallop, and/or seen the play and/or movie, “Damn Yankees,” adapted from it. We know because Wallop’s story is by now as deeply embedded in American legend as is Goethe’s “Faust” in German legend.”

The Young Lions, by Irwin Shaw

3 thoughts on “Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings

  1. Jonathan (if I may)-
    Thought you would be interested to know that Ohio University Press (OUP) will publish my biography of Gov. Alexander R. Shepherd (1835-1902) of the District of Columbia this October. He is a great local figure who has never had his story told in full form. I would love to see it reviewed in the Post.
    Thanks for your interest.

  2. Dear Mr. Yardley,

    I just finished your introduction to the Ring Lardner “Selected Stories” book, and while I appreciate any and all attention given to Ring, and while I agree with some of your observations, I also say, with respect, that the thrust of your thesis is wrong. Lardner was not at heart a sympathetic observer of Americans nor do I think his readers liked him because they recognized themselves in his dialogue. Rather, I see him as scornful – a scorn overlaid with sarcastic humor; at the same time, most of his readers were better educated and more articulate than Jack Keefe, they weren’t “bushers” themselves, and enjoyed laughing at the foibles, language and lack of perception of their inferiors. I don’t think Lardner was a snob, but I do think many of his readers were and are. I see Lardner as above all a social critic aghast at the mainstream of his fellow Americans: under-educated yet know-it-all, self-absorbed, boastful, insensitive, obtuse, illiterate, bad mannered. I see Lardner as someone who, raised in the small-town Midwest, looked around him with some degree of free ranging revulsion. Lardner had Eastern, old-stock roots, and my guess is he grew up looking down on Niles. As he got older, he was aghast at mainstream values that the people (and, in turn, he in his writing) expressed in the mangled language of the lower-middle brow. Had he lived in the 1970s, Lardner would have, I think, enjoyed “All in the Family” and the Archie Bunker character – not in sympathy but in scorn, as a token of the aspects of American life deserving of scorn. Lardner (like his neighbor Fitzgerald), was highly attuned to his times and culture, was broken hearted and contemptuous, expressed his horror in sarcastic humor and in drinking, and in the process drank himself to an early grave. Mencken was made of different stuff – he had a similar scorn (the “booboisee” etc.) but he drew strength from his abhorrence. Lardner was a tragic figure, his sadness with the world broke him down. He died for our stunted cultural sins. In your essay you focus quite a bit on the question of why Lardner didn’t write a major novel. I think Ring’s answer would have been: “What I write about isn’t worthy of a major novel.”

    With all respect,

    Doug Black

  3. Doug–Interesting comments. I’m not sure I agree that Lardner was so contemptuous in his view of the general public. But you should be aware that this post and site are not monitored by Jonathan Yardley and your comments will not be seen by him, except in the very unlikely case that he happens to browse his way to it.

Leave a Comment