Sunday, October 11, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

Last week on This American Life the theme was "Books That Changed My Life." I thought about this blog, specifically the feature I do where I post about weird books that I own although don't always particularly recommend, and I thought it might be fun to do a feature on books that changed my life. There are a lot of them.

The first major one was Harpo Marx's autobiography. As you can see, I've read my copy many times. It's called Harpo Speaks and it's by Harpo Marx and Roland Barber (which I think means that Harpo told stories into Barber's tape recorder and Barber went and wrote the stories down.)

I'm starting with this because it's the first book where I fell in love with books. I'd read books as a younger child, but I think up to that point I could have gone either way. It is clear to me that without this book I would be a vastly different person than I am. I shudder to think of what I might have been like.

I was in 6th grade and was out at the video store with my Dad. I don't know what I was looking at, probably something clearly annoying to a grown person, and my Dad suggested instead that I rent a classic comedy. I think he directed me to them, and I picked Duck Soup, the old Marx Brothers war film.

I went absolutely wild over the film and instantly became an obsessive fan of the Marx Brothers, as only a sixth grader can. I watched all of their films. One day very soon after, I think within a week, I was at Brentano's, the bookstore at South Coast Plaza, and I found this book. I got my Mom to buy it for me and devoured it.

The book is tremendously charming. It's clear why Harpo was so beloved, and it's kind of heartwarming to see someone go so far in life by being big-hearted, funny, and loving. He was close friends with most of the major names, at least in America, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He knew Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, the Gershwins, Fontanne and Lunt, Oscar Levant, Jack Benny, George and Gracie, Salvador Dali, G.B. Shaw, the Roosevelts and Truman and so many more. It's full of Harpo's misadventures, some gossip, lots of wonderful stories and, perhaps most attractive to me, archaic trivia for me to research.

But the most striking part for young Paul Mathers was the description of Harpo's closest friend Alexander Woollcott, the great critic, author and radio personality. To young Paul Mathers, who was by nature very bookish, shy and twee, Woollcott became an instant hero. He was imposingly literary, at times particular, at times bombastic, at times with the heart of a whale, very well spoken, and in spite of all appearances a very tough individual who had overcome experiences that others may have found unendurable - things that gave the perspective that what others thought of him was of very little consequence to him, and the freedom to aspire that comes from a break from fear of one's peers. Not to gloat, but I'm not sure how many other people walking the Earth today had their character shaped as much by Alexander Woollcott as I. When Woollcott came into my awareness, the Marx Brothers, and most everything else for a few years, took a back seat. In junior high I started collecting the works of Alexander Woollcott (which were, and are, completely out of print) and I would sit and read them with a dictionary at hand. Laurie says his writing reminds her of me, so I suppose some of it stuck.

I think what I got from this book was a taste of the richness available in life, while immersed in a very base time and place in my life. I was in Westminster, CA; so I was surrounded with children having sex, doing drugs, and beating up one another to gain initiation into gangs. I, on the other hand, spent every spare moment (often even when the teachers were talking) reading musty old copies of Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham I'd hidden in my backpack. I listened to big band and jazz.

In a very real way, this book saved my life.

I haven't read the book in about a decade (although, after writing this I'm sure I will by the end of this year) but I can guarantee that it's a rollicking fun ride of a book. It's delightful and splendid and so forth. With the benefit of hindsight, I'm not sure I would say this is one of the finest books ever written or even one of the finest biographies. I can't guarantee that it will change your life or, if I'd come across it for the first time now, it would have the same effect on me. But to me, in my circumstances, at that crucial time in my development, it was essential. This was one of the key books in my life. I don't think it would be dishonest of me to trace my love of books back to this one.


  1. In 6th grade I came across The Hobbit and it was the first book that I recall really loving. Up until then it had been typical boys's books -- Hardy Boys and then, much better, Alistair McClean -- but I read The Hobbit and fell in love. I didn't read -- and still don't -- much from American writers. I savored the long sentences of the British (and Scottish). Although the next book to really make an impression was American, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I read that in high school and found it incredibly compelling and devastating. 1984 tore at my psyche. It collided with my naivete. It infected me and wouldn't leave me alone. But then, the summer after high school, I read The Lord of the Rings and I was possessed again, by hobbitses.

    By that time I was a devoted reader, though not yet a pseudo-intellectual. That would come later after I quit college, as a way to comfort myself, probably. But I started reading some of the world classics trying to find something else that would possess me as much as Tolkien had done. Dostoevsky. Russian. Let's see what he's about. Crime and Punishment. That novel reinvented my world. I saw Christianity in a way I'd never seen it before. It was strange and beautiful and truly powerful, because it was the bearer of a kind of love, forgiveness, and repentance like I'd never even dreamt of.

    There are so many books that mark my life, and they always come secretly, unexpectedly. It gets addicting, and then those books become hard to find. I don't remember what the last one like that was.

  2. You have enticed me to order my own copy of "Harpo Speaks." I'm sure I've never read a book anything like it. Looking forward to it.

  3. Just wanted to say Thanks for describing the impact of this book upon yourself. My copy arrived Monday and I'm about half-way through. And it has been "rollicking fun ride of a book." I had my wife enjoying a good laugh over lunch as I read to her some of my favorite excerpts such as the croquet game with George and Beatrice Kaufman and the Quaker ladies, and Frenchie and his mistaken chauffeur, Frenchie betting with another gentleman that Harpo wasn't really a 'poor mute boy.' Fun and interesting read - really enjoyed the heartwarming account of Harpo really down and in despair stumbling accross an auction and then bidding on and purchasing an old scrub brush for 1 cent which he promptly gave away bringing joy to the elderly Italian couple.