Posted Sunday morning, August 12, 2018.
One of Pop Mannion’s favorite authors, Graham Greene. Even though they were both Catholic, Pop didn’t share Greene’s brand of guilt-ridden Catholicism, still Greene was one of the few writers whose books Pop read through to the end. Photo via the Paris Review.
I inherited very little of Pop Mannion’s brains and almost none of his gifts. I did inherit a bunch of his foibles, flaws, weaknesses, quirks, and enthusiasms. Among them: his taste for sweets; his love of baseball; and his habit of acquiring books he was never going to read or if he did wouldn’t ever finish. To Mom Mannion’s frustration and dismay, books piled up at the old Mannion homestead in two foot high stacks seemingly overnight. They ran out of shelf space and one of the upstairs bedrooms, which had become Pop's home office, steadily decreased in floorspace as the stacks were moved out of the living room and up there (instead of carried out to the car to be donated to the library as Mom wished) until it got to the point that Pop’s desk was walled within a bunker of books and reachable only by a narrow path through the tomes. Or so it seemed. At any rate, it’s a good bet that most of those books---probably nearly all of them---he didn’t read through to the end. Many of them he didn’t read past the first few chapters. He saw no point in continuing with a book that wasn’t holding his interest, but it usually wasn’t the case that he’d gotten bored or wasn’t enjoying the book. It was most often that he’d read a review in the New York Times of a new book that had just come out and that stole his attention and had gone right out to Barnes & Noble to buy it. Or, just as likely, he got the gist of a book, saw where it was heading, and in his head got there ahead of the author and then some.
He was also, like his hero Franklin Roosevelt, another collector of books he never read all the way through, a spot-reader. He acquired a book for the information on a subject he was interested in for curiosity’s sake or because he was researching it, went first to the index, and then read only those parts that were relevant to him at the moment.
So it was typical when I borrowed a book from him to come across one or more of the used envelopes he tended to use as bookmarks marking the place where he’d left off or the places where he’d found the information he was looking for. It was a fun intellectual game to try to figure out from the bookmarks what he’d been researching. On the envelopes he’d scribble lists of words and another game was trying to figure out why he’d written down those particular words. Odds were, when I was stumped and asked him, he couldn’t tell me. He’d read so many more books since the one I was asking about that he couldn’t remember himself and then we’d try to solve the mystery together. They were probably words he just liked for their meaning or inherent poetry and he wanted to use them in his own writing, or, in the rare case when they were new to him, he was entering them into his own prodigious mental dictionary and thesaurus.
Pop read broadly, mostly non-fiction, preferring books about science and history, and within both categories he read mainly biographies. He collected books about FDR and this past spring when Ken told him how he and I were listening to Jon Meacham’s "Franklin and Winston" he was surprised at himself for not having heard of it and having it in his collection. Ken gave him a copy for his last birthday. I hope he had a chance to not finish it. I didn’t get a chance to check for the envelope when we were up for the funeral. I will next time we visit Mom Mannion.
Pop did read a good deal of fiction. He had a number of favorite writers whose books he bought as soon as they came out or were reissued. Walker Percy. Brian Moore, Alice Hoffman, Stephen Millhauser, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, T.C. Boyle, E.L. Doctorow, Vonnegut, Nabokov, Updike, and Graham Greene. Pop’s affection for Greene is actually the point of this post.
Long way to go for it, as usual. Sorry about that, Dad.
Pop always thought I had a bad habit of writing too long, indulging a weakness for going on and on. My feeling is, like father, like son. It’s part of my inheritance.
Last night I was reading Paul Theroux’s new collection of travel essays, “Figures in a Landscape”. One of the essays is about Graham Greene.Good Catholic that he was, Pop read Greene for his Catholic themes, although he didn’t share Greene’s guilt-ridden, conscience-stricken, we’re-all-on-our-way-to-hell brand of Catholicism. So I think he’d have gotten a kick out of this....
While there is something humdrum about being bad, and an irrational banality in the act of doing wrong, high drama can be achieved with the words “sinning” and “evil.” Greene indulged himself by casting his action in those terms. Right and wrong didn’t interest him, but good and evil did. Orwell remarked that Greene seemed to share the idea, “which has been floating around since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingue about being damned.”
Maybe he’d have gotten too much of a kick out of it. Pop wasn’t a particular fan of Theroux. That would be me. But I’m imagining Pop liking that quote so much he’d run out and buy "Figures in a Landscape" to add to his latest stack of books he’d never finish and Mom Mannion frowning and wondering why he didn’t just select one of Greene’s novels out of his collection and re-read that.