Ken's Second Act
A good book is Viagra for the mind
I have enjoyed reading, an often solitary activity not shared by all, for years.
Like others of my generation, I had a required reading list in high school and read books on my own for credit or enjoyment. I read works of fiction such as Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and nonfiction books that included Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich. This was nothing out of the ordinary. One English teacher said the required reading in classes stressed themes like man’s inhumanity to man.
Some of my classmates were into The Hobbit children’s fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and I recall them talking about the book before class. Others had less serious reading interests. I remember seeing Mike, a surfer type with long blond hair and beads, walk around during his senior year holding a paperback copy of The Happy Hooker: My Own Story by Xaviera Hollander. I’ll I admit to having a guilty pleasure: I bought a copy. It appealed to teenage boys with active libidos but not necessarily active minds.
I began expanding my personal library when I attended community college by buying books on the cheap at Friends of the Library book sales. I continue to do so to this day.
I took a contemporary novel class during my senior year in college. Required reading included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow, The Tenants by Bernard Malamud, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. The professor suggested a metaphorical meaning in the main character in Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 movie. His initials RPM are an abbreviation for revolutions per minute, as with records. The book, set in a mental institution, was metaphorical, with McMurphy representing a threat to authority wielded by Nurse Ratched. The Painted Bird was perhaps my favorite book in the class. Told in the first-person singular, the main character does not know whether he is a Jew or gypsy and describes the horrors of the Holocaust with graphic sexuality and violence. The author, a Polish-born Jew, survived the Holocaust and later immigrated to the United States.
Free from the burdens of reading assignments, book reports and term papers, I continued to enjoy books over the years but more at my own pace. I might read a few pages in one day and not pick up a book for a week or longer. I have literary ambitions or pretensions of my own and figure reading books enables me to broaden my knowledge of the craft of writing while establishing my own voice. A good book is “Viagra for the mind.”
I thought I was being original with the metaphor. However, I recently learned Forbes used the expression in an article dated Feb. 4, 2002. The article mentioned Memory Pharmaceuticals being “in the forefront of an intense scientific race to devise the first effective memory-enhancing drug. … They are tantalizingly close to creating a kind of Viagra for the brain: a chemical that reinvigorates an organ that has faded with age. …”
Reading also can be good for your physical health. A study by Yale University found that people who read books live an average of 23 months longer than those who do not.
Reading in years past might have been perceived as a nerdy hobby, with enthusiasts dubbed “bookworms.” However, the late rock musician David Bowie tried to make it sound cool by promoting reading. When Vanity Fair asked him “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” he responded simply: “reading.” He came up with a list of his favorite 100 books.
Some of his favorite books also appear on a list of the top 100 20th-century novels that the Modern Library ranked and Newsweek published in 1998. I will email a copy to anyone who wants to read it. I have read 13 books on the list, most recently All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, ranked 36th. I did not get into the book until about page 70. Upon finishing the book, I understood why it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947. It deals with political ambitions and intrigue, infidelity, family secrets, tragedies and other matters, and contains surprises. I visited the author’s childhood home, now a museum, five years ago in western Kentucky.
My friend Daniel, a genteel Alabama native who works in the healthcare field in Longview, Texas, described All the King’s Men as one of his favorite books. He shared a photo of him posing with the author decades ago when Daniel was an undergraduate student.
I recall seeing Daniel sitting in a downtown Longview café reading To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer for fiction for Harper Lee in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Gregory Peck. It is one of many important books that I did not read in high school. In fact, I did not do so until the Pennyroyal Arts Council in Hopkinsville, Ky., gave away copies in 2015. The council also invited Mary Badham, the Alabama-born actress who played the tomboy Scout in the movie, to speak, and showed the movie. Badham, who was born in 1952, acknowledged she did not read the book until she had a daughter of her own.
I later loaned my copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers to Daniel to read. It is set in the South in the same period as To Kill a Mockingbird and is edgier. The author was only 23 when she wrote it. The book, No. 17 on the Modern Library list, deals with people with disabilities, racism, police brutality, suicide and other causes of death.
Daniel talked up Less, a novel I knew nothing about. It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2018 for Andrew Sean Greer in 2018. I bought a paperback copy of the book in the local library. It is next on my list to read, more or less.