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.