Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

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For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

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19 thoughts on “Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

  1. I’ve always felt the classics should be balanced in school with books read for pure fun. After years of didactic learning, kids who are already distracted by video games and cell phone diversions are loathe to read a full-length novel. We have to hook them when they’re young but not if all their time is taken with required readings.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Nancy. Shakespeare…definitely teach that and there are ways to make it juicy for kids. (I remember a field trip to see “Hamlet” on stage in 10th grade that stays with me today. I had a very gifted teacher.

      But someone explain to me why anyone is still subjecting kids to Beowulf?

      • And therein lies the rub.

        I got my first taste of Shakespeare in junior high and loved it. We read Romeo and Juliet, then watched West Side Story. I was moved to tears.

        But I’ve also read Beowulf and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, it’s on my reading stack as I write.

        It seems to me that what really needs to happen is to teach an appreciation of the Classics through reading them, but to also allow a certain level of freedom in letting the students choose the Classics they read, rather than saying every kid needs to read X, Y, and Z Classic.

  2. Ah, potboilers. I remember reading a book everyone was talking about one summer, and felt sort of embarrassed when I did. I mean, I was in college and reading Faulkner and Shakespeare! I didn’t want to be caught holding a book with that cover. I can’t even remember how I got it, but I did and said, “What the heck?”

    And got pulled into that absolute, cannot-put-it-down vortex. I wasn’t aware of fiction technique then, I just knew that this dang author was able to create a dream that was almost like magic. I had to turn every page. When I finished the book I thought, “Wow. Who is this guy?” His name was sort of familiar to me…and then I found out he was an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer) who became better known as the creator of TV’s TV I Dream of Jeannie.

    His name was Sidney Sheldon, and the book was The Other Side of Midnight. I knew I wanted to be able to do that page-turning magic someday if I could.

    As for reading in schools, the ones who are really getting hosed are boys. What would be wrong with some Hardy Boys right alongside classics like Captain’s Courageous, King Arthur, Tarzan? How about SF like Ender’s Game, and literary like The Outsiders?

    • I loved Sidney Shelton, Jim. As for boys, the Common Core thing I wrote about is supposedly done in good part to engage boys, who by all studies lag far behind girls in reading. But man, there are so many great guy books out there that could spark them.

  3. I had the same experience as you in terms of a book-centered youth, Kris. The local public library was my preferred refuge. (My school’s library didn’t stock many books that interested me). I read Michener’s THE SOURCE in the sixth grade, and it left me with an (as yet unrealized) burning desire to tour the Middle East. These types of books can’t be churned out at the one-book-a-book-year, frenetic pace that so many are, these days. All of this being My rambling way of saying, “Hooray for potboilers!”

    • I read Shogun while staying in someone’s little hut-house on a almost deserted island in the Bahamas (the name escapes me). I was sitting out on the deck one morning and I looked out and there were all these little green islets out in the sea. I swear it looked just like what Clavell was describing to me. And to make the moment even cooler, a tiny little yellow bird flew down next to me and let me put him on my finger.

  4. Hooray indeed! I encourage my boys to read for total enjoyment as well as ‘education’. Far too much of the non fiction items they’ve been given for the common core have been as dull as dishwater. Way to kill a love of reading? – force feed boring stuff in the name of standards! There…that’s my rant for the day…

    • There was another story in today’s Times about Common Core testing. Seems the folks who grade them are, for the huge part, not teachers, but free lancers they hire. Teachers, the article says, are not happy.

      I can’t imagine what it is like to be a parent today, Clare.

  5. Pot boilers? Common Core makes my blood boil. It’s designed to turn kids into low-level clerks and underpaid employees. CC avoids the arts — entertaining novels, music, and art, and turns students into test takers instead of thinkers.

  6. I’ve long been familiar with all the titles cited in this most excellent article, but I’ve never before heard the term “potboiler”. How did they come by that name?

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kathryn about the need for such books to be written with diligence and persistence. Anything worth doing is worth spending time on. The amount of time Hailey put into writing from the initial idea to the final word gives me hope!

    Thank you!

    • Ha! Good question, Carrie. It sent me to Wikipedia which wasn’t very helpful. Just this:

      In 1854 Putnam’s Magazine used the term in the following sentence: “He has not carelessly dashed off his picture, with the remark that ‘it will do for a pot-boiler’”.

      There was also this reference from the 19th century, that it came from “to boil the pot,” to supply one’s livelihood.

      Anybody else know?

  7. I read Mitchner and Hailey and Clavell from middle school on~ I especially remember the crash in Hailey’s _WHEELS_ as catching me completely by surprise I had to reread it~ and it’s the scene that come to mind when I see the advice to kill a character sometime just to keep the story moving)…

    Clavell got me through summers in college while smashing suitcases~ those paperbacks held up pretty well in the cargo bays and break rooms “back in the day…”

    Mitchner’s _HAWAII_ and _CARRIBEAN_ kept me warm during winter quarters~ and a way from the lunch-break cars game…

  8. Leaving aside the pros and cons of the Common Core approach to teaching,a pair of middle school teachers put together what I think is a fabulous study guide based on The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. It’s a work in progress, with a lot of the supplemental nonfiction material being added to, but early response tells me it’s proving an effective means of combining learning with imagination–which as you say, is the way to really reach kids (or, all readers..)
    The guide is here: http://www.laurierking.com/books/mary-russell/the-beekeepers-apprentice-1994/core-curriculum

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