Sunday, April 27, 2014


Writers tend to be creatures of habit. I know that because I’m a writer, and I have some pretty entrenched habits. Writers can also be unconventional. I know that for the same reason. Combine the two—a preference for both the usual and the unusual—and you begin to understand why a good many writers (of song, screen and celebrated literature) are known for somewhat eccentric accessories. Here are 21 of the most iconic:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien’s pipe

Tolkien loved, loved, loved his pipe. Think of the images you’ve seen of the man, and there’s probably a pipe in the picture. Think of the images you’ve seen of his works on the big screen, and there may be a long curvaceous pipe in the picture too (remember Gandalf and Bilbo blowing smoke rings?). Middle-Earth lore talks of “pipe-weed” (also known as halflings’ leaf) being a plant developed by the hobbits of the Shire.  Indeed, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are brimming with pipe-smoking scenes—some rather curious, making one wonder what exactly they’re smoking. Here’s one passage from The Hobbit:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely.”

2. Mark Twain’s cigars

When Cigar Aficionado magazine decided to list its “Top 100 Cigar Smokers of the Twentieth Century,” several authors made the list, including Rudyard Kipling (#22), W. Somerset Maugham (#61), Ernest Hemingway (#85) and John Grisham (#100). But ol’ Samuel Clemens was #5, behind only Winston Churchill, JFK, Fidel Castro, and George Burns. It was said that he smoked two or three dozen cigars a day. He once wrote an essay about it—“Concerning Tobacco” was the title. But he said, “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


April 23 marks a remarkable day in literary history—the day William Shakespeare may have been born (in 1564) and the day he certainly died (in 1616). There is a word for that—coincidence. For all we know, Shakespeare might have coined it.

It is difficult to know which words were created by Shakespeare and which were simply history’s first attestations of such words. Fame makes one’s contributions seem pioneering, even if they were less than so. Kind of like how some people believe Dorothy Hamill invented her haircut. (I’m well aware that there is a generation of readers who has no idea that what means). But we at Why Not Books—and one of us survived the Seventies with that very haircut—have a love of language. And we are in awe of William Shakespeare, even if some of the words he invented didn’t catch on.

Orgulous? Quatch? Foxship? Wappened? Deracinate? Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Here are 98 of our favorite words—roughly in order of preference—that we may, indeed, owe to the Immortal Bard:

1. Well-read (Henry IV)
2. Published (Henry VI)
3. Moonbeam (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
4. Bloodstained (Henry IV)
5. Arch-villain (Measure for Measure)
6. Hot-blooded (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
7. Eyeball (The Tempest)
8. Flowery (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
9. Gallantry (Troilus and Cressida)
10. Hobnob (Twelfth Night)

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Forty years ago this month, Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was published. He has since produced more than four-dozen bestselling books, from Cujo to Christine, from The Shining to The Stand, from The Dead Zone to The Dark Tower. But here at Why Not Books, far and away our favorite Stephen King book is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is part memoir and part invitation—an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of a masterful mind. As he wrote in the foreword, “What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.”

Actually, that was from the “first foreword.” In the “second foreword,” he wrote, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

He was being modest, of course. Of the many we could have chosen, here are our 36 favorite tips from one great storyteller:

1. “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

2. “Write with the door closed, and rewrite with the door open.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” Walter Cronkite once intoned, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Amen to that. So we all should celebrate National Library Week.

My son Luke, published author of DRAGON VALLEY at age 11 and soon-to-be-published author of GRIFFIN BLADE AND THE BRONZE FINGER, is a prodigy spawned not by a father who happens to be an author, but rather by a public library. He reads one or two books a week. Not short ones either. Perhaps he learned of the possibilities of the written word from observing me, but he actually learned to write through immersion in the pages of The Lord of the Rings and Eragon and Ender’s Game. And on and on and on. So many books with so much to offer an intellectually curious child. But it would have been an utterly unaffordable passion were it not for our local library. Which is why, when young Luke starting earning some money from sales of DRAGON VALLEY, he promptly donated a hefty portion back to our local literary repository.

Luke would be in heaven with a visit to the Hobbit House in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Frankly, I would, too. Imagine being a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and getting to read a rare manuscript by the “father of fantasy literature” while seated in, oh, a random Halfling house in the Shire. In rural Pennsylvania, architect Peter Archer received a very unusual request from a client—design a fitting structure to house his valuable collection of Tolkien manuscripts, books and artifacts. Archer came up with a structure that looks as if it belongs in Middle Earth, not middle America. He built a cottage anchored to a stone wall, round doors, butterfly windows, half archways. It’s the kind of place where Bilbo would have written his memoirs, where Gandalf would bump his head, where any Tolkien library would be right at home.

But there are a great many fascinating public libraries, too. Just like some of the character’s from Luke’s favorite fantasy novels, some are quirkier than others, more mysterious, brimming with surprises.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Alex Gordon likes to joke that he has written for so many defunct publications that he is the “Ted McGinley of journalism.” Any 1980s TV aficionados out there are probably grinning at the reference. The former editor of Basketball Digest and Hockey Digest, Gordon has also written for outlets ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Chicago Tribune to More often than not, he is putting his own spin on the intersection of sports and pop culture.  So we at The Why Not 100 asked Gordon, a lifelong Chicago baseball fan, to rank the 27 winningest books about sport’s most lovable losers:

Comedy and tragedy. The two greatest genres of all fiction. Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Much Ado About Nothing; there’s a reason Shakespeare worked almost exclusively in these two diametrically opposed areas. Nothing illuminates the folly of the human condition like a great tragedy, and once you’ve been put through the ringer, nothing lifts your spirits and renews your faith in humankind like a true comedy.

It is with high comedy and great tragedy in mind that I offer a list of 27 lovable books written about the Chicago Cubs. Sure there have been great works written about the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, and Chicago Bulls, but really all that winning (even with all the requisite scandals and bad behavior and ego) gets boring. No team in the history of sports better exemplifies the tragic and comedic like the Cubs, who entered this season 105 years removed from their last World Series title. The Cubs haven’t even played in the World Series since 1945.

But every year hope springs eternal. And even though we Cubs fans know with every rational ounce of our being that the cover of Sports Illustrated the first week in November will not feature a shot of Jeff Samardzija triumphantly leaping into the arms Welington Castillo under the banner “Finally,” come Memorial Day when the Cubs are 22 games behind the Cards, at least we can turn to this list for diversion from the misery on the field as we await the latest batch of can’t miss prospects to defy the odds and, well, miss.

1.    A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred (George Will, 2014)

The Friendly Confines turn 100 this summer and a host of books have been written to commemorate the occasion including this reminisce by conservative pundit Will, whose love for baseball is surpassed only by his passion for skewering the Democrats.

2. Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years, 1870-1945 (Randy Roberts and Carson Cunningham, 2011)

Roberts and Cunningham explore the pre-goat grandeur of the Cubs through vintage newspaper accounts and historical essays.

3. The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World (Scott Rowan, 2014)

Rowan makes the case that no sports franchise has altered the world the way the Cubs have, linking the team to everything from the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Vietnam War to Jay-Z and Tom Hanks.

4. Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs (Doug Feldmann, 2006)

Feldmann tries to make some sense of the 1969 Cubs. With a line-up featuring four future Hall-of-Famers in their prime, they enjoyed a 17.5-game lead over the New York Mets in August before going into a tailspin, including losing 17 of their final 25 games.

5. W Is for Wrigley: The Friendly Confines Alphabet (Brad Herzog, 2013)

Even if he wasn’t keeping the lights on around here, I’d include Herzog’s book on this list for the way his whimsical rhymes—and sidebar text about everything from Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse to the ivy and the antique scoreboard—both educate and entertain fans young and old. Throw in John Hanley’s gorgeous illustrations and this is a doubleheader that can’t be beat. Former Cub Fergie Jenkins declared that the book turned “the storied ballpark into an art form.”