by Frye Gaillard, New South Books, 2012; 206 pages; $27.95
“Whatever the books that have touched our hearts — whether through joy, discomfort, inspiration or escape — those are the encounters that are worth celebrating, and preferences none of us need to defend.”
So ends this deeply personal collection of essays by Frye Galliard, writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama, concerning what in modern literature has had an impact on his life. Each of the essays centers on a particular theme, and in so doing, Gaillard is able to subtly examine modern life, particularly the modern South, with an historian’s eye and, always, a reader’s joy.
It was not fairy tales that brought Gaillard to the thrill of reading. He impishly notes in the first words of his first essay that fairy tales were “as far as I could tell, stories of cannibalism and mayhem in which giants and witches, tigers and wolves did their best to eat small children.” It was instead his Aunt Mamie’s tales of the Revolutionary War that enchanted him.
In the fourth grade, Gaillard discovered “Johnny Tremain” — “the tale of a boy in Revolutionary Boston ... initially unaware ... of the turbulent history taking shape around him.” From that point on, because there wasn’t a television in his home for years, he celebrated the joy of books with his parents nearly every evening. It is that combination of joys — the joy of reading and of history — that infuse his essays any number of times.
Gaillard champions women who wrote of our modern South — Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullars and Lillian Smith. His section on Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” is especially affecting. He also finds much to admire in Southern masters such as William Faulkner and much to hope for from Rick Bragg and Pat Conroy.
Specific social issues have been a part of his reading: race (Richard Wright, James Baldwin), the Holocaust (Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank), war (John Hersey, Kurt Vonnegut). He seamlessly links the poetry he finds in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s songs to the poetry his finds in the prose of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
He finds pleasures in a writer’s sense of place (Peter Mattheissen and the Amazon, David Guterson and the American Northwest) in equal proportion to the pleasures of place in Robert Penn Warren’s Southern classic “All the King’s Men.”
“The Books that Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir” is about one book lover’s ardor. We book lovers are awfully strange birds, aren’t we? We’ll nod in agreement at many of Gaillard’s choices. And we’ll challenge just as many of his other choices — even as we know that on our own bookshelves as well are “preferences none of us need to defend.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.