The Shelf of Consequences
The books and people that have inspired me.
One of my favorite things about my home office is the approximately ten-foot long shelf the previous home owners installed above the room’s main window. I’ve filled it with vintage decor and sentimental items from my ancestry, travels, and inspirations.
At its center is a small collection of books, including fiction and non-fiction titles, that have been, in some notable form, consequential in my life.
Fans of classic literature, as well as history and political buffs, would likely sneer at the selection, but that’s fine with me. The point of me displaying these works in this fashion isn’t to brag to others about my artistic or intellectual chops for having read them. Not at all. Again, for me, these books have to do with me personally. They compelled me, in some way, to look at things differently.
As an author and columnist who does a fair number of public events, I’m often asked which books I enjoy, which writers I admire, and how my views have been shaped. So, I figured I’d share answers to those questions this week in the ‘Daly Grind’ newsletter, in the context of…. The Shelf of Consequence.
(I’ve actually never referred to the shelf by that or any other name. It’s just a phrase I came up with literally 10 minutes ago, when I started writing this piece.)
Here we go…
I’ve written about Deathwatch by Robb White (that tiny little book on the left) a few times, including in a past newsletter. I begrudgingly read the 1972 young-adult novel when I was in junior-high school. I say “begrudgingly” because I hated reading books back then, and only chose this one (off a Language Arts teacher’s classroom shelf for a book-report assignment) because it had a cool looking cover.
To my surprise, I loved it. In fact, it might have been the first novel I’d actually ever finished. It was a gritty tale of survival that I’ve never forgotten, and when I started (much later in life) writing my own tales of survival in the Sean Coleman Thrillers, I tried (and continue to try) to draw readers into my stories just as successfully as White did with me.
Exact Revenge is the book that turned me into a thriller-fiction reader, and ultimately compelled me to try my hand at writing in the genre. Also, it was the book’s author, Tim Green, who convinced me that I could actually write an entire novel. I explained how this came about in a past newsletter, but I can’t emphasize enough just how much this beginning paragraph, and its ambiance and attention to detail, drew me into the world I’ve now completed five books in:
THERE WAS A TIME when people wished that they were me. The only boundaries I had were the limits of my imagination. Now my world is six feet wide, eight feet long, and eight and a half feet high. It’s less than you think. The only thing between the concrete floor and me is a narrow three-inch mattress. I don’t need blankets or sheets because it’s always warm. My shirt and pants were once gray. Now they are the color of oatmeal. They are no longer stiff with sweat and I can’t smell them even though the guards angle their faces away whenever they try to let me out.
Cormac McCarthy is another author whose work I’ve found engrossing, and his legion of fans and long list of literary achievements remind me that I’m not alone. The first book I read of his was The Road, and to me it’s still his most memorable. I read it when my son was quite young, and the heart-wrenching story of an ailing father trying to keep his son alive (in an eroding, violent world) tapped into all kinds of parental fears (including some I didn’t know I had). But I also think it helped cement in me some traits of being a good father, whose top priority is his family, and who readily puts their lives and well-being before his own.
Devil at My Heels is a personal memoir by Louis Zamperini, a man whose life was one of grand achievement, imprisonment and torture, a post-traumatic downfall, and ultimately personal redemption. I first heard Zamperini’s amazing story during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when NBC produced a long video piece on him. He received much wider attention when author Laura Hillenbrand, years after the memoir, wrote a best-selling biography on him titled “Unbroken”, which was also made into a feature film.
Zamperini was an Olympic distance runner in the 1930s, before serving as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. During a search and rescue mission over the Pacific, a mechanical problem crashed his B-24 into the ocean. He and two others survived, and made it to a life-raft, but by the end of 42 days adrift at sea without rescue, one had perished. The starving, dehydrated, weather-beaten survivors washed ashore at the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, where they were immediately captured. Zamperini then spent over two years as a P.O.W., where he was regularly beaten and tormented until the war ended. After returning to his life in the United States, he struggled with alcoholism and PTSD until eventually recovering as a born-again Christian, and later an evangelist.
Zamperini’s story of extraordinary will and redemption is one I’ll never forget. It’s an inspiring testament to the power of perseverance.
Scratch Beginnings from 2010 was written by a young man named Adam Shepard who told of his experiences while conducting an extensive, self-immersed experiment to determine whether or not the American Dream was still alive in this country.
Shepard had grown frustrated by the whining, complaining, and overall defeatist attitude of others who insisted that people of meager beginnings couldn’t become successful in this country anymore. He decided to take it upon himself to demonstrate, by putting his money where his mouth was, that the narrative was wrong.
After graduating college, he began a year-long project that entailed him essentially starting his life from scratch. With only an 8′ x 10′ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25 in his pocket, and the clothes on his back, he took a train out of state and got off at a random stop. There, in an unfamiliar city, he lived among the homeless and began his journey toward the American dream. For his project to be considered successful at the end of his 365-day run, he had to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment, have $2500 in cash, and have started his own business. Off limits were the use of his college education, credit history, or the help of anyone he had known prior to starting the project.
I read Scratch Beginnings, not long after it released, while I was paying regular visits to a local blood-plasma bank (which incidentally inspired my novel Blood Trade). I was desperate to build up some extra income over fears that the struggling company I worked for was about to go under (which it eventually did). It was amusing to learn, while reading Shepard’s story, that donating plasma for money was also part of his weekly routine as he fought to better his situation. We had other things in common. Despite the obstacles and fears that stood in front of us, neither of us bought into the notion that the country’s socioeconomic makeup was keeping people from turning their situations around.
Shepard ultimately proved this true, making tough choices, taking responsibility for his own well-being, going out on limbs, working his butt off, and taking advantage of opportunities afforded to him by being a citizen of the United States. By the ten-month mark, he had made it into that furnished apartment, bought a pickup truck, saved around $5,300, and started his own moving company. He found that the American dream was still alive and well.
Likewise, my and my family’s fortunes have changed considerably since then, but I’ll never forget having Scratch Beginnings as a comforting companion book during some hard times.
Two books on the Shelf of Consequence were written by Bernard Goldberg. Needless to say, I was a fan of his long before I became a contributor to his website (which, believe it or not, came about from him liking my online comments under his columns).
Bernie’s first book, Bias, was a huge New York Times #1 best-seller. As a CBS News journalist for almost 30 years, Bernie became increasingly concerned with the ideological bias the existed not just at his network, but across the entire news-media spectrum. He was an early whistle-blower on slanted news reporting, and his book was an extraordinarily compelling insider’s look at news-media bias in its various forms.
In an admission that might surprise some, however, his highly underrated book (in my opinion), Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right, formed an even a deeper connection with me. It provided a great, principles-focused, common-sense perspective on the ideological divide in this country, and the harmfulness of political partisanship. It even persuaded me to re-examine some of my own political views.
Today, when people hear the name Breitbart, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the right-wing political website, Breitbart News. Unfortunately, in my view, those who now run the site (and have for the last several years) have done an enormous disservice to the memory of Andrew Breitbart, who founded it five years before his death in 2012.
Breitbart the man (a conservative journalist, activist, and new media pioneer) was someone I admired quite a bit. The man stood up to what he saw as social, cultural, and political injustices (including in the news media), and had the courage of his convictions. He was a principled individual who valued honesty and fairness, and his 2011 book, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World, provided an intimate look at the political and ideological evolution that made him who he was.
One story from it in particular spoke to me on a personal level. He wrote of the first time he appeared on Bill Maher’s show and found himself trivializing his conservative beliefs and conceding points he shouldn’t have because he got caught up in the moment of being a celebrity. He wanted to be liked by Maher and the left-leaning panel. He wanted to be applauded by the audience by throwing a few prominent conservatives under the bus. Afterwards, he was deeply ashamed of his pandering and experienced a moment of awakening, vowing never again to compromise his principles.
As far as I can tell, he held true to that vow. Unfortunately, his website didn’t.
Last, but certainly not least, is Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer.
People familiar with my political writing know that I enormously admired Dr. Krauthammer, who passed away in 2018. The man’s vast depth of knowledge, and his refined and thoughtful intellect, made him perhaps the most insightful political commentator in the country. His valuable takes on big stories are sorely missed and desperately needed at a time when our news-media landscape has reached unprecedented levels of intellectual shallowness and tribal gamesmanship.
An independent thinker and a man of unquestionable character (not to mention a sharp and humble sense of humor), Krauthammer was a saving grace to serious news-commentary consumers — those looking for an adult in the room to give it to them straight, without hidden agendas or partisan fluff. They counted on him to strengthen their understanding of various issues, and help them formulate their positions. It’s a service he provided with eloquence, wisdom, and reliability.
Getting to meet and listen to Charles, at what I think was his last non-televised public appearance, was an enormous thrill for me. He was incredibly influential on my work as a writer and commentator.
Thouh he’s unfortunately no longer with us, he left behind “Things That Matter” a collection of his essays, spanning many years, on a large number of topics, including various events that shaped his political philosophy. It’s incredibly interesting, and good for referencing.
Well, let’s go ahead and leave it at that. I hope you found this piece at least somewhat interesting.
What books have been consequential in your life? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
A belated Happy Father’s Day wish to Peter!
Who’s Peter, you ask? He’s Squiggy’s biological father who was surrendered (along with Squiggy and his siblings) by their original owner down in Texas in late 2018. Peter was rescued, brought up to Colorado, and adopted by new owners a couple weeks before his kids went on the same journey. We got his picture from the rescue organization.
I’d say it’s pretty clear who Squiggy got his eyes from.
Have you picked up your copy of RESTITUTION?
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Truth be told, I wasn’t all that into Bruce Hornsby (and his distracting hair) back in his heyday in the 1980s (other than his contribution to Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence”). But over the years, I’ve formed more of an appreciation for his smooth piano work, sound, and storytelling… including on his 1986 debut album with “The Range”.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!