In last week’s Bulletin, I said I wanted to go on a grand tour of the South, starting in New Orleans, heading north through Mississippi and Tennessee, then coming back through Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. My question was: Which books should I read in preparation?
Last week, we did Atlanta and Birmingham and took a stab at Mississippi. This week I’m back with the rest of the list!
Once again, please keep in mind that this is an utterly arbitrary, non-scientific, deliberately provocative list, and you should feel free to critique and offer amendments as necessary.
Okay. Here goes Part 2.
In my informal Twitter poll, there was heavy lobbying from the New Orleans contingent for the usual suspects: John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Alright, alright. But I dunno, I never thought either of those books taught me anything about New Orleans.
I’m going to vote instead for Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece about Huey Long: All the King’s Men. That will be my vote until Michael Lewis writes a book about his hometown. Michael Lewis is from New Orleans! He’s a Southern writer! Is voting for a hypothetical Michael Lewis book over an acknowledged American masterpiece a sacrilege? Yes it is. Deal with it.
Speaking of Michael Lewis, my vote for Memphis goes to The Blind Side, his 2006 book about a wealthy white couple who adopt Michael Oher, a young black man who ends up playing in the NFL. I believe very strongly that this is Lewis’s best book. In fact, I think that it is a perfect book: that is to say, it satisfies the reader on every conceivable level, and no reader, no matter how exacting, could come up with an improvement to it.
And since you now know that Lewis is formally a Southern writer, he belongs on the list! I once greatly annoyed Michael Lewis by suggesting, at some event where I was interviewing him, that every one of his books functions as a biblical allegory. (Liar’s Poker is Daniel in the lion’s den, The Flash Boys is Jesus casting the money-changers out of the temple, The Big Short is Noah’s Ark, etc.) What is The Blind Side? The Good Samaritan! Duh. Football and Christian charity. What could be more Southern?
And now… Nashville! Nashville is hard. No one loves Nashville more than me. But I didn’t get much help on the Nashville front when I put this question out on Twitter.
(By the way, my opinion of Twitter in general is pretty low. Would the world be better off without Twitter? Absolutely. But when you ask Twitter a thoughtful question, do you know what happens? You get a lot of thoughtful responses! Who knew?)
I think what I want in preparation for Nashville is a good country music memoir. There are some very good choices. Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter from 1976 is, of course, the classic. Willie Nelson’s It’s a Long Story is predictably amazing. But I have a quibble! As you may or may not know, Pushkin has just released Miracle and Wonder, which is my audio-only biography about Paul Simon. My friend Bruce Headlam and I conducted 40 hours of interviews with Simon, as he talked and played and argued with us. We then took those tapes and combined them with archival audio, an accompanying argument about why Simon matters, and lots of music. The result is not just the best thing I think Pushkin has ever done, but something unlike anything ever done about a musician’s life.
Why am I going on and on about Miracle and Wonder? Because Willie Nelson should do one of these audiobook hybrids with Pushkin! Come on Willie! Are you listening? DMs are open! (This would seriously be the most fun project of my life, although I’ve never tried to work with a permanent contact high before.)
Anyway, I know what you’re thinking. Willie Nelson is not Nashville! He’s Austin. And you are absolutely right.
Which leads me, finally, to my top choice for Nashville: Bobby Braddock’s A Life on Nashville’s Music Row.
Braddock is maybe the greatest songwriter in country music history. He wrote or co-wrote countless classics — “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” for Tammy Wynette, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for George Jones, and “Golden Ring,” among others. I love Braddock so much that I featured him in not one but two episodes of my podcast Revisionist History (both of which, by the way, remain my favorite episodes of all time): “Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis,” from Season 3, about the one song Elvis couldn’t sing, and “The King of Tears,” about the saddest song ever written — which is, of course… Braddock’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Bobby is a quirky, fascinating, complicated, sentimental, big-hearted genius. He is exactly what you would expect a brilliant country songwriter to be! Read his memoir and you’ll fall in love with him, just as I did.
Last stop: Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is my favorite city in Florida, but every time I tell anyone that—especially people from Jacksonville—they look at me like I’m nuts. Can I have a little hometown pride? The part of the city that winds along the water is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America! Anyway, I don’t have a good Florida idea. Camille, my super smart editor, suggests Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, about one of the first all-Black towns to be incorporated in the United States. But that’s much further south, near Orlando. There’s also Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, but that’s set, if memory serves, somewhere vaguely in north/central Florida. I need a Jacksonville book. Jacksonvillians! Help me out here!
There you have it — New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville rounding out my reading list. Any more suggestions, and the book bag I’m carrying will become impossibly heavy.
One final round of apologies and explanations.
There is no Willie Morris on this list. Shame on me. My only defense is that what I consider his best book—his memoir, North Toward Home—is really more about Austin and New York, where he moved as an adult, than it is about his native Mississippi. We aren’t doing Texas here, so all you Lone Star types out there, settle down!
You know what else I’m not including? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I went to Savannah last year for the first time, and in preparation decided I would read Berendt’s “classic” on the plane, because that’s what everyone told me to do. I got about a third of the way in and I thought, “Do I really want to spend the next three hours in the company of a group of self-consciously eccentric, self-absorbed misfits, wandering listlessly, cocktail in hand, around their artfully decaying antebellum townhouses? No, I don’t.” I know! I know! So many people love that book. But there’s always been something fishy about it. I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if one day it emerged that “John Berendt” was a pseudonym for someone running the PR department of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce.
And that’s it, folks. If you’re driving on I-55, and you pass a skinny guy in a rental car with a pile of books in the backseat, that would be me.
[Photo: Dan Reynolds Photography via Getty Images]