What I have in common with Joseph Epstein | Bleader

What I have in common with Joseph Epstein

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A good book
  • A good book
Mary Schmich wrote a column the other day that made me happy.

It began with a beguiling premise: "Name a book that shaped you as a person, as a reader. This book should be something you would call 'a book that mattered' or 'a favorite piece of literature.'"

Schmich explained that she'd been one of about a dozen people asked to do this in connection with a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Highland Park Public Library. Her "official pick," she confessed, was a Nancy Drew novel, The Clue in the Crumbling Wall, because it was the book "that, at the age of 7, turned me into a reading girl."

I immediately played her game. And my thoughts ranged from the Hardy Boys to the Hemingway short stories I read twice to see how he did it to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I finished on a plane ride over the Andes during a long tour of South America that left me feeling even more indebted to Marquez than to anything I'd seen on the ground.

But soon I came to the only possible choice. Eventually we all arrange our childhood memories into a coherent narrative. I've arranged mine, and this book enjoys pride of place.

I continued with Schmich's column. She confided that when the time came for her to read from her selection she couldn't go through with it. "I had to explain to the crowd that on re-reading 'The Clue in the Crumbling Wall,' I'd realized that, seen from the lofty heights of adulthood, it just wasn't very good." So she read something from Jane Eyre.

"But I wouldn't have gotten to 'Jane Eyre' if not for Nancy Drew and the potboilers," she allowed, "and when a friend lamented recently that her 14-year-old daughter prefers cheesy books to good ones, I told her not to worry. There are different paths to learning to love to read, and they're not always the high road."

This was the wisdom in Schmich's column. But an author's reason for writing something often has nothing to do with someone else's pleasure in reading it. Along the way, Schmich mentioned the literary choices of some of the other participants in the Highland Park celebration. And to my astonishment and delight, Joseph Epstein named my book!

"What a relief it was . . . to hear the scholarly Joseph Epstein say he didn't read great books growing up either," wrote Schmich. "His pick was a football tale, 'All-American' by John R. Tunis."

Knowing how much it meant to me, my brother Peter sent me a copy in 1997. I just found it in the basement and now it is lying on my desk. John R. Tunis was a sportswriter who also wrote novels for boys, and in that capacity he was the finest author I ever read. All-American, written in 1942, tells the story of Ronny, a star football player at the Academy, a fancy private school. The annual grudge match against Abraham Lincoln, the local public high school, goes down to the wire. Academy clings to a 6-0 lead but behind Goldman, their powerhouse back, Abraham Lincoln is driving. "You hit him high, and I'll smack him low," says a teammate, and Ronny, exhausted and desperate, buys in. Goldman is hit, fumbles, is carried off the field, and Ronny, sickened and alone in the jubilant dressing room, tells himself that unless Goldman recovers, he will never play football again.

He does, but a year later he is playing for Abraham Lincoln. All-American is a book about a kid who rejects his class. Ronny is slow to be accepted at the high school because he's tainted goods, a preppy, but he settles in. His new friend Goldman introduces him to the reality of anti-Semitism, but this is a prelude to what Ronny is going to learn about racism. This time around, the high school comes from behind to beat Academy, and it's invited to a postseason game in Miami. There's one hitch. Ned LeRoy, the black left end who was the hero of the Academy game, will have to stay home. "The fact is they don't permit colored boys to play down there," Coach tells Ronny.

Against Ronny, who knows this is wrong, stand his own coach, whom he admires, many and perhaps most of his teammates, and the business leadership of the town. The president of the chamber of commerce puts it this way: "Do you think it's better to disappoint one colored boy or forty thousand people. . . . The entire town is heart and soul behind this team."

The local paper runs an editorial hoping "the young recalcitrants will come to their senses, and quickly." The headline: "Bolshevism in High School?"

Ronny's father tells him that the head of the chamber and the other powers that be have squared accounts with their own consciences by offering Ned LeRoy $100 to buy some clothes.

I was a kid reading this. I had just moved from a mining town in Canada where the Poles worked underground and we called the Hungarians DPs because they'd just arrived fleeing the Russians, where the Catholics spoke French and went to their own schools, but where my best friend was a Jew and I had no idea what that was and Negroes were people we read about in newspaper articles with southern datelines.

Now here I was in suburban Saint Louis going to school with them. (I transferred in midyear; later I realized the black students were almost as new to the school as I was, the school system having just integrated in September.)

The football players take a secret vote, and Principal Curry announces the results during a student assembly. Tunis lets the suspense build. The principal has some announcements to make about the new officers of the mathematics and camera clubs. Finally, as "utter, complete silence" falls over the auditorium, he announces that a school from Buffalo, New York, will be making the trip to Miami instead.

A roar broke out. You couldn't tell whether it was approval or disapproval or both. Cheers mingled with groans. The entire auditorium seethed.

The principal asks for quiet and continues.

"I have another announcement to make. Late last night Coach Quinn received a telegram challenging us to an Intersectional game a week from Saturday with Oak Park High of Chicago, Illinois . . ."

Why you never heard such a yell, Tunis writes. It was like nothing at any victory meeting, at any pep rally. . . . They yelled and yelled and yelled some more.

Eventually the principal is able to continue.

"I'm happy to be able to inform you . . ." he talked slowly and very, very distinctly . . . "that the whole team will go."

The whole team will go. That line has resonated ever since. When I finished All-American I knew what I thought about racism. I knew what I thought about anything that divides people up and cuts some out. It's a pleasure to think about the book again. Thank you, Mary Schmich and Joseph Epstein.

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