Lke what we have done to the chickens…

Thriller writers, I like them, I read them, I read alot of them. While reading them have I ever lost control, blacked out? No! Not yet anyway.

There are some that I especially like, in particular Louis Lamour (OK, he’s a Western writer but he still thrills me), John Macdonald, Robert Parker, and Frederick Forsyth,  of these four Forsyth is the only one still alive. Still living also, are others that I read, detective fiction writers, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais being two of them.

Now there are thousands, tens of thousands of thriller writers. More than anyone of us could ever read in a lifetime of thriller reading. And there are millions, hundreds of millions of thriller readers. I give the thrillers only a small spot in my day or week, for otherwise I would never read or do anything else. The books I’m reading right now, all on my iPhone, at least the first 15 most recent of them, “recent” being a helpful Kindle category are:


  • John MacDonald’s A Purple Place for Dying,
  • Mikhail B Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,
  • Martha Raddatz’s The Long Road Home.
  • Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison,
  • Paul Davies’ The Goldilocks Enigma,
  • Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws,
  • Martin Rees’ Just Six  Numbers that shape the universe,
  • John Irving’s The Cider House Rules,
  • Jack Higgins’Solo,
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s Pour une morale de l’ambiguité,
  • Edmond Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties,
  • Treasure Island (with my grandson),
  • Kenneth Miller’s Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul,
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
  • Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

No I haven’t yet read them all.  And in fact, if I look at my own past reading history, I’ll never go beyond a chapter or two or an introduction. (Actually my own experience has shown me that non-fiction would do better to be not of book, but of essay length, and then I at least would have read many more of them.)

There are the thousands, not yet ten thousand, hard copy books here at home on our bookshelves most of which I haven’t read through. These few thousand books have for the most part stuck close to us, have “followed” us throughout our now long lifetimes (not followed rather but hauled along after us) from Paris to New York then to St John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, 4 years later back to Rockport, MA, then onto Beverly, MA to the school that my wife and I founded in Rockport in 1972, and now, for the past ten years or so, since 2006, the books are here with us in Tampa, Fl. where we are helping to homeschool our grandkids.

While I recognize them, probably could say even when and where I purchased them, what they’re really doing now, at least from often passing their spines quite visible on my shelves, (where they stay since I no longer read them) is reminding me daily of what I would like to forget, the fact that I have never really read right through most of them, and that now in my 80s I never will. They remind me also that they will soon need a new home. I’m working on that.

So what is all this about? What am I saying? Yes I like books, I like to read books. But most books I acquire I don’t finish. Although I never tire of going back and reading the thrillers a second, third and fourth time, in particular Louis Lamour and John MacDonald, I’ve never read through even one time, Kant, Hegel, or more recently John Dewey. In fact probably the only books that I read from one end to the other are the thrillers. While I don’t think I’m alone in this way of doing things, I’m sure there are many also who do read the non-fiction books right through from beginning to end, or actually may even work on a good number of the problems in the calculus texts of which I have a good number and with which I no longer struggle. I admire them.

During my lifetime I have never stopped buying books and mostly not reading them. We don’t do that with clothes and technology and cars, and such, or at least not to the extent that we do so with books. If I had my life to do over would I do it any differently? Probably.

John Macdonald’s Travis McGee series is a favorite of mine. I’ve finished all his books, probably some 60 or 70 of them (ditto for Louis Lamour). Sure I’m caught up in the story, as with MacDonald and Lamour, and Parker, and Crais, and others, but it’s often from MacDonald that I also grow in my understanding, from his own powerful way of describing and seeing life. I felt this very strongly just today when I read the passage below (for at least the third time!).

In any case I don’t think we should get too hung up on our ways of classifying books, even as fiction and non-fiction, and that a more interesting and more helpful separation, would be that between the good writers and bad writers, and we have to decide, each one of us, those who are the good ones and read them, and avoid the others.

In my life MacDonald has been one of the good ones, and he gives us his profound thoughts and observations about much in our lives, as for example about what he calls the “why question,” as in the following passage from Chapter 3 of his A Purple Place for Dying.


State Western was one of those new institutions they keep slapping up to take care of the increasing flood of kids. It was beyond the sleepy-looking town. Hundreds of cars winked in the mid-morning sun on huge parking lots. The university buildings were giant brown shoeboxes in random pattern over substantial acreage. It was ten o’clock and kids were hurrying on their long treks from building to building.

Off to the right was the housing complex of dormitories, and a big garden apartment layout which I imagined housed faculty and administrative personnel. A sign at the entrance drive to the campus buildings read: NO STUDENT CARS. The blind sides of the big buildings held big bright murals made of ceramic tile, in a stodgy treatment of such verities as Industry, Freedom, Peace, etc.

The paths crisscrossed the baked earth. There were some tiny areas of green, lovingly nurtured, but it would be years before it all looked like the architect’s rendering. The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes. Khakis and jeans, cottons and colors.

Vague glances, empty as camera lenses, moved across me as I drove slowly by. I was on the other side of the fence of years. They could relate and react to adults with whom they had a forced personal contact. But strangers were as meaningless to them as were the rocks and scrubby trees. They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures on the corridor walls—drab, ended and slightly spooky. I noticed a goodly sprinkling of Latin blood among them, the tawny cushiony girls and the bullfighter boys. They all seemed to have an urgency about them, that strained harried trimester look. It would cram them through sooner, and feed them out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets, binary systems, recreation funds, taxi transports, group adjustments, tenure, constructive hobbies.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

It is all functional, of course. But it is like what we have done to chickens. Forced growth under optimum conditions, so that in eight weeks they are ready for the mechanical picker. The most forlorn and comical statements are the ones made by the grateful young who say, Now I can be ready in two years and nine months to go out and earn a living rather than wasting four years in college.

Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, the measured and guided study of the history of man’s reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: Why? Today the good ones, the ones who want to ask why, find no one around with any interest in answering the question, so they drop out, because theirs is the type of mind which becomes monstrously bored at the trade-school concept. A devoted technician is seldom an educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no more sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence than does one of those chickens fattening itself for the mechanical plucking, freezing and packaging.


About the Author John D. MacDonald was an American novelist and short story writer. His works include the Travis McGee series and the novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1962 MacDonald was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America; in 1980 he won a National Book Award. In print he delighted in smashing the bad guys, deflating the pompous, and exposing the venal. In life he was a truly empathetic man; his friends, family, and colleagues found him to be loyal, generous, and practical. In business he was fastidiously ethical. About being a writer, he once expressed with gleeful astonishment, “They pay me to do this! They don’t realize, I would pay them.” He spent the later part of his life in Florida with his wife and son. He died in 1986.

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