A Good Resolution To Make

So here we are at the leading edge of another year, another year where many make promises to change their life in a meaningful way. How about you? Make any New Year’s resolutions?
I’m not big on making New Year resolutions. Why wait until the first of the year to make a needed change. Still, January 1 provides a definitive starting point for many when it comes to making life changes. “It’s a new year, and, hey, I want to be a better me” and filled with hope but empty on commitment they list the changes that surely will make them a new person … for a few weeks at most.
Here’s one resolution that won’t stress you out like trying to lose weight will. It won’t prove as maddening as quitting smoking, so smokers tell me (I never smoked). It won’t punish you by denying you foods you love as you try to slim down. It will, however, broaden your mind. I’m talking about reading more. That’s the one resolution I’m making: to read more books in 2011.
I was glad to see family members giving books as presents this Christmas. A good book makes a great gift. Books transport us to other worlds and other lives. And some books make for classic gifts. Acquire a small library of timeless books and you leave others a legacy they too can pass down.
Some books become prized possessions. I own more than 30 books signed by the author. They range from The Blue Wall by my old professor at Georgia, the late Jim Kilgo, to books by prominent authors and authors destined for obscurity.
Kilgo’s book, a coffeetable book, explores the Blue Ridge Escarpment that towers over the Piedmont. Rising nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, this massive granite wall stretches from Asheville, North Carolina, to Georgia’s Chattooga watershed. With Kilgo’s book in my hands, I immediately find myself on a granite cliff far above rolling hills with a convenient cup of coffee nearby, cozy rock climber that I am.
Books connect us to surprising turns of events too. Back in the 1980s, I wrote scripts for a videographer at the University of South Carolina, Milt Butterworth. How surprised I was to discover that Milt shot the video and still photography for America’s Lost Treasures, the coffeetable book that chronicles the discovery and recovery of sunken gold treasures off the coast of Charleston in 1988 and 1989.
When a storm sunk the SS Central America in September 1857, a glittering trove only Midas could dream of, tons and tons of gold bars and gold coins, gold dust, and gold nuggets sank 1.5 miles beneath the Atlantic. It would rest there 131 years.
Milt was there, the ship’s videographer/photographer, at the moment of discovery. He photographed a sea floor carpeted in gold, a discovery conservatively estimated at possibly a billion dollars. Milt later came to Columbia and I saw some of the treasure, flanked by armed guards, in person. He signed his book for me.
Back in 1989, I co-authored a book whose foreword was written by James Dickey. You have not seen a signature until you the late Dickey’s ornate autograph that covers nearly a fourth of a page. Now and then I’ll pick up that book and my mind leaps, not to the book we did, but to the frothing white waters of the Chattooga.
I have five books signed by a writer most Americans have never heard of who just happens to be one of the country’s most gifted writers, James Salter. To read his work is to journey through the intricate beauties of the English language. Take one of Salter’s books into your hands and you hold a master writer in your hand.
Salter once worked as a screenplay writer for Hollywood. To be a scriptwriter is to never be seen; you are at best an anonymous entity, a ghost, who gets a fleeting second or two as the credits roll and even worse the frustrations run deep. Bumbling directors and spoiled “stars” more often than not sabotaged his best efforts, and so one day he just quits. He walks out on Hollywood.
Consider this passage as to why Salter finally decided he had had enough of being a Hollywood screenplay writer. “There was another final script, which in fact ascended a bit before crashing as the result of a director’s unreasonable demands, and I suppose there might have been another and another, but at a certain point one stands on the isthmus and clearly sees the Atlantic and Pacific of life. There is the destiny of going one way or the other and you must choose.
And so the phantom, which in truth I was, passed from sight.”
Have you ever faced the Atlantic and Pacific of life? Ever felt unseen at some moment, a phantom? If you have, you’ll love Salter’s book, Burning The Days. It is about the life decisions and passions that make us who we are to become.
Books are not about writers and their signature so much as they are about knowledge, adventure, and insight. For a long time now I’ve not read nearly as many books as I used to. Writing demands all my time and what little time I have seldom goes to reading books. Once I get my current book project completed, I intend to change that. Books and I have been good friends for a long time and it’s time to renew that friendship. We’ll share memorable times I’m sure.
Books, like certain songs, have a way of cementing a date in time. I read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in a hotel in Spain in 2001 looking at mountains on the horizon out my window. I had that feeling of “being there,” and I could envision Robert Jordan in the outlying mountains lying upon pine needles spying on enemy soldiers. It was a time and a trip I’ll always remember.
Books: you can’t write about books without writing about bookstores. There was a time when you could walk into a cozy little shop where a sole proprietor sold books. Such quaint places are on the way out, the big chain stores are forcing them out of business.
Even so, the Barnes & Nobles and Books-A-Million aren’t that bad. There’s something comforting about the intermingling aromas of coffee, paper, and ink. A cold Sunday afternoon is well spent in a bookstore sipping coffee thumbing through new books you may buy.
Right now I’m reading the memoir of Keith Richards, the rogue guitar player-songwriter for the Rolling Stones. He comes across as a lot smarter than he looks and acts. His book is a good read. If you want to get a better grip on how the Mississippi Delta blues ended up in England and came back to the States repackaged as rock ‘n’ roll, read Richard’s Life.
There’s something magical, something alluring about a good book. It’s a world unto itself. It’s magical. No wonder so many people aspire to write a book. Maybe you long to write a book. Until you decide to sit down and start writing, read a lot of good books. As I tell my students, you’re only as good a writer as you are a reader.
Paper. Leather covers. Gilt edges. And now electrons. Perhaps you own a new electronic book reader like the Nook or Kindle. Fine. They can store many books. There’s just one problem. How do you get an author to sign an “e-book?” Mr. Patterson? Please sign my Nook.”
But don’t let that hold you back. Make a resolution to read more books, traditional and e-variety.
What can a good book do for you? A lot. Maybe change your life. Resolve to read more. And, besides, the way television shows are going downhill, a book offers a superior option that is always ready when and where you are.

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