Wednesday, October 24, 2012

John Shelton Reed

John Shelton Reed is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a co-founder of the Center for the Study of the American South and the quarterly Southern Cultures. He has written or edited 19 books, most of them about the American South, and was recently Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

His new book is Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s.

Earlier this month I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
On the floor next to my side of the bed stands an enormous, teetering pile of books that I once began reading, or at least intended to read. The top dozen or so are still alive. Further down are books I abandoned some time ago, but haven’t wholly given up on; further down still are some remembered only faintly, if at all. At the very bottom are some that I fear may be turning to compost.

The bedside books still in play are of two kinds: either I’m in the middle of them and intend to complete them, or they’re the kind you can pick up and read just a bit from. Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth, for instance, is a guide to rhetorical figures illustrated with examples from great writers and speakers, and it’s not necessary to read it from start to finish. You can dip into it almost anywhere. Even if you don’t care about formal rhetoric, the examples make for fine bedtime reading, and I rather hope that I’ll absorb a few lessons from them.

Also fine for reading a bit from now and then is Drowning in Gruel, a collection of 19 bizarre and delightful short stories by George Singleton, set in the imaginary town of Gruel, South Carolina. One of those stories at bedtime will set you up for some vivid dreams. I’ve read a couple of Singleton’s other books, and wish there were more.

The half-dozen books I’m in the middle of reading are a thoroughly mixed lot, which means there’s usually something I’m happy to spend some time with before turning out the light. John Gunstone’s Lift High the Cross, for instance, is a history of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England in the years after World War I. That sounds a little esoteric, and it is, but I once wrote a book called Glorious Battle about the movement’s origins and its history up to the 1890s, so I’m probably one of the few who are really, really interested in this book.

My wife and I have a daughter who has married a Texan (one of the real ones, a guy who can wear a cowboy hat without looking ridiculous) and we now have a Texas granddaughter, so we spend a good deal of time in the Lone Star state, and – typical professor – I’ve been reading a lot about it. One of the best books I’ve found on the subject is an oldie by the distinguished geographer Donald Meinig: Imperial Texas: An Interpretive Essay in Cultural Geography (1969). I’m in the middle of it right now.

Another distinctive and amusing Southern subregion is dissected by my pal Hardy Jackson (properly Harvey H. Jackson III) in The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. It’s almost as much fun as the annual Mullet Toss at the Florabama Lounge. Great photographs.

Hardy’s not the only friend whose book I’m reading. Jason Berry is a loving critic of the Roman Catholic church whose reputation largely rests on Lead Us Not into Temptation, a book about clerical sexual abuse, but he has also written well about Louisiana politics and music. In Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church he looks at his church’s finances in a book that ought to be ranked right up there with Barbarians at the Gates, Liar’s Poker, and similar books about Wall Street.

Another friend, Curtis Wilkie, was the Boston Globe’s Southern reporter for many eventful years before getting out of practicing journalism (just in time) and going off to teach it. Somehow I missed his Dixie: A Personal Odyssey through Events That Shaped the Modern South when it came out in 2001, but I’m finally reading it and it is a corker.

Michael O’Brien, yet another friend, is a Cambridge historian who has written some seriously heavyweight books about the Old South. Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon is a departure for him: He looks at a 40-day trip taken by Louisa (Mrs. John Quincy) Adams and her young son from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815. She is a fascinating woman, and the post-Napoleonic War Europe through which she traveled is not a landscape I knew anything about.

Daniel Woodrell is not a friend, but I wish he were. He’s a remarkable writer, whose novels and short stories I’m gradually consuming. Right now I’ve almost finished Woe to Live On, a novel set in Missouri that was the basis for the best Civil War movie I’ve ever seen, Ang Lee’s strangely neglected Ride with the Devil.

Finally, having just finished a book about New Orleans and having lived in the French Quarter for a good while to write it, I have begun to reread John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, perhaps the first great novel ever set in that strange and wonderful city. I loved it when I read it 25 years ago, and it’s even better now that I know the setting first-hand.
Learn more about  Dixie Bohemia at the Louisiana State University Press website and John Shelton Reed's website.

The Page 99 Test: Dixie Bohemia.

--Marshal Zeringue