A Great Literary Loss

Yesterday, January 27, 2008, I heard the news that America lost one of its cultural icons, and I lost my favorite author, John Updike. John Updike succumbed to lung cancer the day before. Much of Mr. Updike’s work would not be considered appropriate for school reading, but he could tell a story. His works, along with those of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac brought me back into reading for pleasure. I have read most of his novels and copies of his books hold prominent placement in my personal library. I own a few copies of his compilations of short stories and poetry, but I make it a point not to read much poetry for reasons that would seem bizarre to many, but not a subject for this entry.

To refocus myself…I realized after my undergraduate years that I stopped reading for enjoyment; I usually read books on history and politics, since I majored in Social Studies education. Most of my reading included note taking and referencing facts for later use in the classroom. The works of the previously listed authors brought me back to reading for the shear enjoyment of it. The desire to be well rounded culturally also played a role, but the works of those literary giants made my task one of enjoyment.

Many people can put words on a page, but John Updike was one of the few that could make the words come to life. Reading his work was like watching a movie in one’s mind. Vivid imagery of towns, people, and their actions played out as if they were being witnessed in the flesh rather than read off of a page. You were in the town he was writing about, witnessing the events, hanging out with “Rabbit” Angstrom and his dysfunctional family.

My best friend’s mother works at a local library where I grew up. Her book club read one of Mr. Updike’s novels, time has rendered the specific title into a forgotten section of my memory, but it is not important. After reading the novel, the book club sent a letter to Mr. Updike. He replied with a humorous note thanking them for their interest in his work and quest for “finding the great American Novel.”  He also added in a relaxed and what sounded to me in humorous fashion, and this is a paraphrase, that maybe he already wrote it, but it was not recognized as of yet. To me, that letter was the neatest thing, and further cemented my appreciation for his work.

The one thing my friends and I noticed was Mr. Updike’s picture inside the book jackets. The interpretation is just what we thought, and we may be totally incorrect, but this is what we noticed. His early books showed a confident, if not cocky, young man who seemed as if he knew the world was his to conquer. The pictures evolved, into a man around my current age, 40-ish, holding on to youth. I forget which book it is, and do not want to wake everyone up digging through my library, but this John Updike is pictured on a tennis court, ready to return a serve, not so youthful, but still full of vigor. I thought it odd to place that type of picture inside a book jacket. The pictures then became an even older John Updike, gray, smiling, seemingly content and relaxed with his accomplishments in life. As a “Twenty-something” at the time, I saw the progression of man that I did not truly appreciate until now.

I am no longer a youthful figure, but I still lead an active life. One day I hope to reach the age and stage of life where I can look back and reflect on my life content with what I have accomplished. John Updike was a literary giant in my eyes and an model to the stages of life in the minds of my friends and I. The loss to the literary and cultural world is great with his passing, but fortunately his works will live on.