By Sonny Scott
Dear Grandsons, Boys, it makes me proud to see you excited about reading. It’s been my life-long passion, and it continues to reward. I may be distracted as you recount Harry Potter’s latest adventures, but be assured, I enjoy it.
We old coots just can’t resist giving advice to youngsters, especially when it comes to reading lists. Most of the time, you have the good sense to ignore us, but indulge me for a few minutes here.
I understand your obsession with your stories. At your age I read everything Zane Grey ever wrote until I almost had it memorized. Reading (even re-reading) this light fiction was not a waste of time. It was enjoyable, and I was developing comprehension and vocabulary. Reading, however, is similar to your video games in that you can advance to more challenging (and rewarding) levels of play.
Let’s make an analogy. Think of those disposable plastic knives like you’ve seen me use on biscuits at Hardee’s. They’re cheap, handy, and perfect for the task. You’ve also watched me hone and oil my fine old John Primble. I’m quite proud of it … not only because it is beautiful and well-made (style), but because it’s good for a range of applications – from shaving around a skin wound to dressing catfish or cutting rope (versatility). Yes, sir, that old Primble is a real “classic.”
Reading material is similar in that it comes in a variety of forms – some good for only a single use, some for entertainment, some (like made-in-Pakistan cutlery) is useless. Other works are like fine old Primbles – worth keeping, treasuring, and returning to, time after time.
I won’t tell you that you simply must read Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton, et al. It’s all true, but others will be telling you that. I’m going to tell you what writers young native-born Southern boys must read to appreciate their culture and their place in it.
Before I start naming writers, let me caution you: “fiction” does not mean untruthful. Truth can be contained in fiction. In fact, some truths are so sublime that they can be communicated only via fiction – whether in poetry, or in the novel.
Southern literature did not begin with William Faulkner, nor did it end with him. Nevertheless, the genre reached its apogee in him. Promise me that you will read him.
It won’t be easy, but begin with short stories, and “Go Down, Moses.” You will be caught up in the exuberance of the language before you are old enough to understand the subject. Move on to the Snopes trilogy, then other Yoknapatawpha novels. Save “The Sound and the Fury” for last. Faulkner can be difficult, and he sometimes displays his skill as a stylist at the expense of clarity, but at his best, none is better.
If you love Mississippi as I do, you will profit from Willie Morris. Read everything he wrote. Any sensitive and informed Southerner will identify with his angst – to hate so many things about our experience, but to love the land and people so much that we can’t live anywhere else. His prose is mesmerizing.
By the time you get to college, Will Davis Campbell will likely be dead, as will I, if the actuaries know their stuff. If (as seems likely) his books are all out of print, ask your grandmother for the key to my study, go the corner where the Southern writers are shelved, and dig out everything by W. D. Campbell. Start with “Brother to a Dragonfly,” then work through the others, saving “The Glad River” for last. Read it twice. Come back a year later, and read it again. Keep at it until the book yields up all its treasures. No, I don’t know how long that will take. I’ve been at it for about twenty years, and I’m not there yet.
Our Southland has produced preachers in the same abundance as mosquitoes and cockleburs, but this one is special. Humanity, grace, redemption, the spirit of man, and God … How could this man have learned so much in one lifetime? Read ye him.
The songs of Hank Williams and the speeches of Martin Luther King … these must be listened to in audio transcriptions. They don’t translate to the printed page very well.
You are blessed with what may be the world’s greatest cultural legacy. Enjoy.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.