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 GRIFFIN BLADE AND THE BRONZE FINGER at age 14, 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.”

6. When Chicago Ruled Baseball: The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906 (Bernard Weisberger, 2006)

It’s hard to believe, but yes, back when Teddy Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office, Chicago was the center of the baseball universe—and no more so than the fall of 1906 when the White Sox, known as the Hitless Wonders, bettered their crosstown rivals 4-2 in the Fall Classic. FYI, the Hitless Wonders may have hit .198 over the Series, but the Cubs, never a franchise to pass up a chance for poetic irony, hit a meager .196 over six games.

7. Alou Makes the Catch: An Alternate History of the Chicago Cubs (George Castle, 2013)

Longtime Cubs chronicler Castle adds a twist to pivotal moments in Cubs history by imagining life on the North Side had the team kept Lou Brock, re-signed Greg Maddux or issued Steve Bartman a different ticket.

8. Babe Ruth’s Called Shot: The Myth and Mystery of Baseball Greatest Home Run (Ed Sherman 2014)

What’s a book about the Bronx Bomber doing on this list? Ruth’s famous homer occurred in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series in Wrigley Field against the Cubs. Chicago Tribune sports media columnist Sherman dons his Sherlock hat to sift through the evidence and determine once and for all if Ruth called his shot or if he was gesturing for a vendor to toss him a hot dog.

9. Wrigley Blues: The Year the Cubs Played Hardball with the Curse (But Lost Anyway) (William Wagner, 2004)

Full disclosure, Wagner is a friend, so I can personally vouch that he truly bleeds Cubbie Blue. That loyalty doesn’t keep Wagner from insightfully chronicling the 2004 season, a year in which the Cubs seemed to shrug off the heartbreak of the previous fall and looked primed to contend for the World Series. Of course, they found a whole new way to falter down the stretch, leaving their fans—and the author—heartbroken once more.

10. Chicago Cubs Cookbook: All-Star Recipes from Your Favorite Players (Carrie Muskrat, 2010)

Learn how to cook the Cubs way with this collection of recipes from Cubs past and present. It’s all here from Ryne Sandberg’s chicken tacos to Billy Williams’ pork chops to Steve Trout’s, yes, pan-fried trout.

11. Chicago Cubs: Where Have You Gone? (Fred Mitchell, 2013)

Veteran Chicago Tribune sportswriter Mitchell tracks down and updates the bios of dozens of Cubs stars of yesteryear, including Ernie Banks, Andre Dawson, and yes, Steve Trout.

12. The Best Chicago Cubs Joke Book Ever (Rick Samando, 2013)

What do you call a Cardinals fan with half a brain? Gifted. If you found that joke funny, (a) heaven help you and (b) you will enjoy Samando’s collection of insults geared toward the Cubs’ rivals.

13. Beyond Bartman, Curses, & Goats: 104 Reasons Why It’s Been 104 Years (Chris Neitzel, 2013)

First-time author Neitzel goes beyond the easy (wait for it) scapegoats, to explore the long list of reasons the Cubs’ banner budget has gone unspent since the days when the U.S. only had 46 states.

14. Murder at Wrigley Field (Troy Soos , 1997)

While the Cubs have killed many fans’ hopes and dreams over the last century, this fictional mystery is about a literal murder on the field in 1918. It’s up to utility infielder Mickey Rawlings to solve the crime. The book is part of a series of Rawlings books set at other historic ballparks of the era.

15. Baseball, Chicago Style (Jerome Holtzman and George Vass, 2005)

No list of Cubs books would be complete without a contribution by perhaps the greatest Chicago baseball writer, Holtzman, the man who invented the save statistic. Holtzman and Vass offer up an expansive history of baseball on both sides of town—with a unique Chicago perspective

16. Cubs Nation: 162 Games. 162 Stories. 1 Addiction (Gene Wojciechowski, 2005)

Another look at the 2004 season, known in Cubdom as the Year 1 AB (After Bartman). Wojciechowski, who has written for the Chicago Tribune, ESPN and Yahoo, is one of the most entertaining and insightful sportswriters working today, and his wonderful sense of story shines through in this tragic tale of a lost season.

17. Lake Effect (Richard Cohen, 2007)

Though it is only tangentially about the Cubs, Cohen’s memoir perfectly captures growing up in the North Shore suburbs in the 70s and 80s, a time and place in which a trip to the intoxicating (sometimes literally) Wrigley to see Jody Davis, Bob Denier and Ryne Sandberg was just a short train ride away.

18. Wrigley Field: 100 Stories for 100 Years (Dan Campana and Rob Carroll, 2013)

It may seem like there are 100 books commemorating Wrigley’s 100 years, but in reality the number is probably only in the mid-80s. Campana and Carroll do a nice job of compiling some of the more intriguing tales from the Friendly Confines.

19. Ron Santo: A Perfect 10 (Pat Hughes and Rich Wolfe, 2011)

Ernie Banks may be Mr. Cub, but no Cub past or present bled Cubbie blue like Hall of Famer Ron Santo. Hughes, his broadcast partner for many years, and Wolf tell the late Santo’s remarkable story through warm heartedness and a healthy dose of humor (this is after all, the guy whose toupee once caught on fire in the booth).

20. Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs (Billy Williams and Fred Mitchell, 2008)

If it’s possible for a Hall of Famer to be underrated, Williams fits the bill. Eclipsed by teammates like Banks and Santo, Williams gets a chance to tell his remarkable journey from rural Alabama to Clark and Addison and ultimately to Cooperstown.

21. Fergie: My Life from the Cubs to Cooperstown (Ferguson Jenkins and Lew Freedman, 2009)

Everyone knows about the Cubs trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, but how about giving the North Siders some credit for Fergie Jenkins for Larry Jackson? The former would go on to six-straight 20-win seasons for the Cubs, the latter won just 41 games for the Phillies over three seasons before retiring.

22. Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of ’69 (Phil Rogers, 2011)

Rounding out the bios of classic Cubs is the tale of Mr. Cub himself. Veteran Chicago sports scribe Rogers sheds new light on his subject and illuminates the man behind the ever-present grin and sunny catchphrases.

23. Wrigley Field: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs (Ira Berkow, 2014)

What the Pulitzer-Prize winning Berkow may lack in clever book naming skills, he more than makes up for in writing and reporting this decade-by-decade look back at the stadium and club—in the words of diehards like former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and even a certain White Sox fan currently living on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C.

24. Harry Caray: Voice of the Fans by Pat Hughes and Bruce Miles (2007)—Holy cow, this is a fine photographic tribute to the Cubs legendary broadcaster, who for better or worse transformed quaint Wrigley Field into the world’s biggest beer garden. Crack open a Bud and listen to accompanying CD with Harry’s most famous calls.

25. Where’s Harry? (Steve Stone (1999)

If you want the real scoop on Caray, seek out this book by his broadcast partner for 15 years. Stone lovingly recounts his time in the booth with Caray, sharing stories and tales, warts and all.

26. The Complete Chicago Cubs: The Total Encyclopedia of the Team (Derek Gentile, 2004)

Sure it’s old school, but sometimes a big fat reference book can’t be beat (this coming from a guy who, while purging crates of books in his basement last month, couldn’t part with the 2000 World Almanac). Coming in at over 700 pages, you’ll find stats and more for every Cub from Bret Abbey to Dutch Zwilling. Alas, no David Aardsma, the first entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia; he pitched for the Cubs in 2006, two years after publication.

27. 100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die (Jimmy Greenfield, 2012)

If you can imagine a scenario in which you are on your death bed and with your last dying breath you curse your fate because you never visited the Jack Brickhouse statue, this book is for you. As a side note, please look for my new book, 100 Books About 100 Things You Should Do Before You Die You Should Read Before You Die, coming this fall. (Sorry in advance to those with terminal diseases who aren’t expected to make it through the summer.)