Sunday, August 18, 2013

Southern Bound

I am a big fan of books that surprise me.  John S. Sledge’s book, Southern Bound:  A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart (University of South Carolina Press, $24.95) is just such a book.

For seventeen years, Sledge was the book section editor for the Mobile Press-Register.  He also wrote a weekly column for the paper called “Southern Bound.”  However, as Walter Edgar notes in the Foreword, as his book was being prepared for publication, Sledge was relieved of duty when the paper became an online publication.  Adding him to the casualty list of the demise of print journalism means a loss for the citizens of Mobile and the region as well as another nail in the coffin for book coverage.  Luckily, we have this book, a compilation of his best reviews and essays, containing approximately twenty percent of his total output of 800 columns.

Book reviews do not have the kind of shelf life of essays or memoirs, but Sledge packs in a lot of detail in his brief, succinct reviews, making them interesting reading even if one hasn’t read the book under discussion.  At times, the pieces can fall back on a formulaic structure:  opening salvo followed by a brief summary of the storyline, an analysis of the good and the bad, and a pithy conclusion that ends the review with a kick.  However, every essay is packed with insights and observations.

Sledge’s style of writing could best be described as casual.  He sets the scene, summarizes the life of the author, outlines the plot, develops the characters, and explains the flaws and successes of a particular book.  There is a deep vein of southern writing in his prose, yet he is not simply a regional writer.  His diction and tone, while often folksy and conversational, also reveal him to be an intellectual and academic force.  He writes an inspired piece on Plato, and pulls down from the shelf Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a cold, dark, rainy winter evening.  For those who love reading, there is a cozy familiarity in the book, a warm and inviting embrace from one reader to another.

The openings of his essays often surprise and pull the reader in from the first moment.  For example:  “It was a gorgeous fall afternoon.  The air was crisp and clean, the sky a brilliant blue and the Chinese Tallow trees ablaze with red and yellow.  I was working along my back fence, clearing away the dry tangle of privet, kudzu, and thorn that had run riot all summer.  With broad strokes of the sling blade I hacked away at the dense mass, sending twigs and broken bits of vine flying.  The westering sun shot golden beams through the debris-filled air, and there was no sound but the crash of the blade.  My barn jacket felt good in the chill, and my dog sat nearby, waiting for me to finish.  At that moment it struck me—I must read some Faulkner.”

There are nuggets of literary wisdom embedded here in his reviews.  He tells us, “The best fiction enlarges and deepens our understanding.”  Later, he writes of the great southern classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is easily the most important book ever to come out of Alabama.”  There is also a deep appreciation for literature, writing, and books.  He devotes an essay to the rebuilding of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or the great library at Alexandria, Egypt.  He describes the building and fills in the history of the edifice.  This architectural discussion falls under what Sledge calls his “full-time gig”:  architectural historian at the Mobile Historical Development Commission.  He devotes a considerable portion of this book to architecture.  Libraries are of particular interest to him, and he spends the night in the Thomas Byrne Memorial Library at Spring Hill College as a way to enrich his writing about the building.  The library no longer exists as a library, he tells us in an update at the end of the piece.  The building now houses offices and meeting space, however, “It’s distinguished physical presence remains undiminished…”  He writes about taking his young daughter to see a library he loved as a kid.  That library sits on the University of Montevallo campus (formerly, Alabama College in Montevallo), and he opens the essay by describing “…a raw and gloomy December afternoon, overcast, blustery and nearly dark, even though it was only 1 P.M.”  Sounds like perfect reading weather.  He also discusses such structures as the New Orleans Superdome and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania.

There is the occasional miss.  Some of the reviews are not as inspirational or enlightening, and his essay where he writes a dialogue about the banning of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men featuring the voices of Lennie and George falls flat.

Sledge’s creed as a reviewer is simple, and he lays it out for the reader in his Introduction:  “Early on I resolved not to insult readers’ intelligence or to harangue them with my own opinions.  Given the facts and some background, I reasoned, readers were perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions.  But something I did want to do was be a cheerleader for good literature, introducing my readers to books and authors they might not theretofore have known about or considered.”

It is a good mission statement, and serves Sledge well as evidenced in the book.  The southern United States often serves as the butt of jokes and has been stereotyped as the land of ignorance.  As Sledge points out, many fine writers came out of the southern states, and he is not just referring to the obvious ones like William Faulkner.  Southern writing is rich with tradition and character.  He takes great pains to explain the history and culture of the south.  However, John S. Sledge’s book is not just for those who live there.  His broad base of knowledge and his willingness to follow his own whims when he writes make for an excellent book about the reading life and so much more.  For that reason, I would highly recommend this book.

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