People sometimes ask me: What books do you read?
They ask this question for assorted reasons.
Either to shut me up from my latest soliloquy on product differentiation . . . or as a casual pleasantry . . . or perhaps to discover what kinds of presentation books that I read (given that I’ve written my own book on presentations).
But I’ll choose to accept it as a genuine request to discover what I think are the kinds of books and stories I find most instructive for my own writing . . . and my own thinking about writing.
And my thinking on telling a good story
What’s an Especially Powerful Story?
This is not far afield from business presentations. Not at all. Because delivering an especially powerful business presentation means delivering an especially powerful story.
So . . . what do I consider a good story?
Well, I have a problem shared by many booklovers. So many books infest my shelves that, when I finally get an hour or so of quiet time, and I can pick and choose to my whim . . . I am paralyzed.
So many choices, and the selection of a single book means rejection of all the others, some possibly more worthy of attention. That’s the perpetual conundrum.
So I usually nap. Or I visit the bookstore to purchase several more great books for later reading. When I have time.
But here is a minor paradox. When I do read a good yarn, I find that I go back to it and reread it. Caress it and wonder at why I thought it so grand to begin with.
It’s akin to the man who finds a great restaurant and a great menu item and begins to settle comfortably, as with an old friend. It doesn’t mean an aversion to the new and different . . . it means appreciation of the old and proven.
So I reread old favorites. Even as I already know what happens.
Mining the Cold War for Powerful Story
With that as the obligatory throat-clearing, let me share with you two old favorites , which differ from each other in ways quite obvious, but which resemble each other in the fundamentals of good storytelling.
The first is The Spike, a cold war thriller published in 1979. I’ve read it five times in the past 28 years.
Authored by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, The Spike is considered by some in intelligence circles to be the finest novel in the cold war CIA vs. KGB genre.
For me, it is difficult to define the particular attraction for me of this story, except to note that it has all of the elements of a good novel – a compelling lead character with strong beliefs and who changes dramatically as a result of powerful events, colorfully described. The novel has a supporting cast that is diverse and well-drawn. The stakes are high.
This novel is also obviously political and, on the extreme left, it was considered “McCarthy-esque disinformation.” Methinks the storyline simply cut too close to home for the progressive tastes of Alexander Cockburn and the folks at the Covert Information Action Bulletin. In fact, having served in Military Intelligence for eight years, I know it cut close to home.
But then, what powerful novel doesn’t have an agenda, political or otherwise?
Most stories worth the telling will call out folks who don’t want the story told, whether fictional or not. And The Spike hit a nerve with people who saw themselves limned with what might have been uncomfortable accuracy.
Limned as the bad guys.
And so it stirred considerable debate.
There’s an analog in the world of film, although much of the cold war fodder was anti-Washington and against the “Military Industrial Complex” labeled by President Eisenhower and conceptually fleshed out by C. Wright Mills.
Dr. Strangelove, Seven Days in May, Failsafe, Wargames, The Day After, Red Dawn, and The Day After Tomorrow. . . . Evil and one-dimensional military types, the exaltation of technology over human control, and thinly veiled portrayals of real-life folks.
Good yarns all, and yarns that angered certain constituencies with political proclivities differing substantially from those of the films’ themes.
Nuclear Armageddon makes for epic storytelling in the military-industrial-complex-meets-the-disaster-movie genre.
And all of these films stir debate on the issues, of course. And that is what The Spike did.
In fact, The Spike performed the same vital function as did the books Failsafe, Seven Days in May and, a decade earlier, Graham Greene’s The Ugly American. Each took a point of view, and you were bound to agree or disagree with it.
Perhaps the edginess of The Spike, then, was its attraction for me, as well as its sweep, its multifarious characters, and the tremendous stakes involved.
The other book?
There was Gatsby, and This . . .
John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra.
O’Hara’s is a decidedly different book
Appointment’s portrayal of the class structure in 1930s America and the ugly strength of some class mores is, I think, brilliant. But this has been said by more able writers than me.
From my perspective, the strength in O’Hara is his powerful characterization, particularly of the self-destructive protagonist Julian English. The sense of presence, the sights, the smells, the sounds are all original and compelling. It rivals The Great Gatsby in its capture of an era and the human behavior that is channeled by the quirkiness of a cloistered environment.
O’Hara’s characters are introspective, and yet their introspection sometimes has a hollow and self-deceiving quality . . . as does our own ersatz introspection at times. We recognize ourselves, and this recognition is uncomfortable.
At times when we believe we’re being brutally honest with ourselves, we’re truly only trying to convince ourselves of our worth, our good motives, our essential goodness. Deep thinking can be confused with revelation. Deep thinking can blind us as well as it can reveal to us.
Deep thinking is not necessarily honest thinking.
And this is what O’Hara portrays so well. At least, for me, this is the received wisdom.
The Spike and Appointment are two entirely different books, equally attractive to me for overlapping reasons.
Both share the quality of great story and compelling characters. One is introspective, involves the fate of those in a small town, and is bound temporally by several weeks. The other is sweeping, event-oriented, involves the fate of nations, and stretches over 15 years.
Ah, if I had the ability to write both types of novel!
Failing that, both books offer the novice writer magnificent instruction in how to construct scenes, how to transition between scenes, how to handle character description, how to deliver backstory, how to craft crisp and spare dialogue.
It’s all there, in both books.
In fact, what a method to “learn” how to write and to tell compelling stories, if such a thing is truly possible. Certainly, craft can be learned, and I find these two books – even in their extremes – valuable in that respect.
They are also books with especially powerful story. Books I will re-read.
Not today, and doubtless not tomorrow, for there is no time.
But I will.