Reading For Survival

The man who won’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. — Mark Twain

By PJ Parrish

Saw a depressing video on Facebook the other day. People on the street were being polled about what was the last book they read.

The guy then asks folks to name an author. Any author. Crickets. Sigh.

I know we here at TKZ are preaching to the choir. But I also think maybe we need to be more worried about this.  I’m not going to talk politics here, rest assured, but I am going to say that our ability to absorb information seems to be questionable, at best, these days. And we need to be smart right now. About a lot of things.

We need to read.

The latest Pew poll I could find on this subject says that  28% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 20% of adults under 50. . And as a country, we’re at the bottom of the reading pack.

This subject slid to the front of my brain only because I was cleaning out my file drawer in my office. I found a slender little booklet that I had thought I had lost years ago. It’s a copy of an essay that John D. MacDonald wrote for the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s called Reading For Survival.

Now, if you think it’s some dust-dry diatribe, some shrill screed about how we’re raising a generation of morons, well, then you must not have read John D before. It reads like, well, one of his novels. (By the way, I didn’t know James and I would be writing about JDM in the same week. Click here to go back and read his post on what JDM taught him.)

A little background:  Years ago, a friend of mine, Jean Trebbi, had a local TV show in South Florida called Library Edition. Jean was a force in the literary community. She was the head of the Broward County Center for the Book, a tireless supporter of all authors and most any book. In 1985, she interviewed MacDonald on her program, and when the camera stopped rolling, he kept going, but wanting to talk about non-readers instead of his own books.

Jean suggested he should write something on the subject for NEA and the Library Association. MacDonald didn’t want to do it, fearing he would be just preaching to the converted, but he finally agreed — with the caveat that he could use “colorful enough language to it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many non-readers.”

Things didn’t go well. “I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why,” he recalls in the booklet’s forward. “I must have done two hundred pages of junk.”

Does hearing that make you feel any better about your own writing problems?

Jean Trebbi, finally wrote him asking what he hold-up was and MacDonald told her he had written a hot mess. Jean suggested using the device of a conversation between Travis McGee and and his friend Meyer. And that is what he did.

MacDonald called it “a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words.”  But as I re-read it the other day, I realized its message is as vital today than it must have been thirty-one years ago. MacDonald said the theme of his essay was “the terrible isolation of the non-reader, his life without meaning because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.”

If that doesn’t set off in a bell in your head, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in our country these days.

The essay opens like a vintage MacDonald novel.  Thunderclouds are gathering over the slips at Bahia Mar and McGee and Meyer are sitting on the deck of the Busted Flush. And next time someone tells you never open with weather, read them this:

The big thunder-engine of early summer was moving into sync along Florida’s east coast, sloshing millions of tons of water onto the baked land and running off too quickly as it always does.

An impressive line of anvil clouds marched ashore on that Friday afternoon in June, electrocuting golfers, setting off burglar alarms, knocking out phone and power lines, scaring the whey out of the newcomers.

The power goes out and Meyer puts down his book, and McGee says that it’s too dark to read anyway. (weather as metaphor!)

“I wasn’t reading, Travis,” Meyer said. “I was thinking about something. A passage in the book started me thinking about something.”

Over the next twenty-two pages, Meyer — whose mind is like a maze — spools out his argument — that man’s brain evolved the way it did, creating a genetic storehouse of memories, out of the pure need to understand his environment and thus survive.

Meyer concocts a prehistoric man named Mog and his modern counterpart Smith. Mog happens upon some fruit but he’s wary of eating it. Using all his memory skills, he decides to not chance it, that it’s a trap. His modern counterpart, Smith, gets a job offer at twice his salary. But using his memory skills, he deduces the employer is in a high risk banking arena with bad management turnover rates. So he says no.

“Back in prehistory,” McGee offers, “man learned and remembered everything he had to know about survival in his world. Then he invented so many tricks and tools, he had to invent writing. More stuff got written down than any man could possibly remember. Or use. Books are artificial memory. And it’s there when you want it. But for just surviving, you don’t need the books. Not any more.”

Books are artificial memory. Don’t you love that? But then Meyer lays it on him:

“So why are we doing such a poor job of surviving as a species, Travis?”

MacDonald goes on to say that the world of prehistoric man was small, limited to what the man could see, hear, taste, eat, kill, carry and use. But to modern man, who can read and remember, the world is huge and monstrously complicated.

“The man who can read and ponder big realities is a man keyed to survival of the species. He doesn’t have to read everything. That’s an asinine concept. He should have access to everything, but have enough education to differentiate between slanted tracts and balanced studies, between hysterical preachings and carefully researched data.”

Makes you wonder what MacDonald would have thought of today’s fake news debate, Facebook’s propaganda problems and the isolated little echo chambers we’ve crawled into. MacDonald and McGee go on:

“To be aware of the world you live in you must be aware of the constant change wrought by science, and the price we pay for every advance. These are our realities, and, like our ancestors of fifty thousand years ago, if we — as a species rather than an individual — are uniformed, or careless, or indifferent to the facts, then survival as a species is in serious doubt.”

So what’s the answer? Meyer thinks he knows:

How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we take stock of these memories? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review part you did not quite understand. You cannot carry conversations around in your coat pocket.

Ha! What would MacDonald have to say about Tivo and iPhones?

Meyer is worried, he tells Travis, that non-readers are disenfranchised, cut off from any knowledge of history, literature and science. And worse, they become negative role models for their children, who will in turn, “become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”

“The non-reader, Travis, wants to believe. He is the one born every minute. The world is so vastly confusing and baffling to him that he feels there has to be some simple answer to everything that troubles him. And so, out of pure emptiness, he will embrace spiritualism, a banana diet, or some callous frippery like Dianetics.”

Or worse. Name your modern opiate.

MacDonald died Dec. 28, 1986, a few months after finishing the essay. I really wonder what he might think of where we are today, of what he might think watching those blank-eye folks on the beach, trying to think of one author’s name.  What would he make of the fact we are barraged with information twenty-four hours a day, yet we seem to be growing not smarter but more lost and disconnected?

The essay ends with Meyer saying that he has no cure to offer, but that just identifying the disease is a good first step. But then he adds:

“Bleak, my boy. Bleak indeed. And so let us trudge back toward home, and stop at the bar at the Seaview for something tall and cold, with rum in it.”

“Beautifully said,” I told him.

On the way back, I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.

Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed, and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”

I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

I ordered the Tuchman book from Amazon. (My local bookstore can’t get it, I tried). Now I am going to go mix a stiff gin and tonic, crack it open and try to get some badly needed sense of perspective.

Happy reading, folks.  By the way, I am on the road today, probably somewhere near the Michigan-Indiana border as you read this. So if I can’t reply quickly, please chat among yourselves.  Will check in when I get home to Traverse City, MI.


This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

21 thoughts on “Reading For Survival

  1. I guess I’m going to have to start reading MacDonald. Anyone who can describe lightning and Florida so perfectly deserves to be read.

    There’s a lot more to reading these days than picking up a book from a shelf. I always have at least 2 ebooks and an audiobook on my phone. With search engines on our phones now I think we may be reading more than ever, just in new ways.

    As long as there is hurricane season and week-long power outages, there will still be okf-fashioned books.

  2. JDM once again~

    Funny how the “Good Old Stuff” keeps popping up, like a south Florida thunderstorm in June…

  3. First time trying to reply via iPhone. Wonder what JDM might think of this as well—trying to talk to each other via keyboards the size of a pack of ciggies.

  4. Wow. The video shocked me. Only one man could name an author? How sad. Between this post and Jim’s, I’m sold on MacDonald. Safe travels!

    • Am sitting in coffee room of a B&B in Saugatuck Michigan and they are giving away books from previous owner. Just picked up a hardcover of JDMs One More Sunday!

  5. Not being able to read enough is one of the things that eats at me all the time. I usually can’t get through more than 1.5 books a week because of all the other time pressures. That is maddening given how many bazillions of books there are to read! I simply can’t imagine not reading at all. And it HAS to be reading. I’ve tried audio books and it just doesn’t reach me when I listen rather than read.

  6. Kris, there must be something in the zeitgeist this week. My post for Thursday will be about Book Expo, the biggest publishing convention in North America.

    When you quoted JDM’s booklet, it rang faint bells from when I read it years ago, probably when it was new. What a visionary.

    “The price we pay for every advance” sums up the double-edged sword of today’s reading technology.

    We seem to read more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.

    Safe travels!

    • Thanks Debbie. Made it safely to Traverse City. Weathers nice and cool!

  7. I will have to dig into this man’s work. He was definitely aware of the slide toward loss of rationality and mental discipline that is running rampant in our world. Reading a diverse selection of books is critical for critical thinking.

    • JDM’S work stands the test of time. Yeah it can feel a tad dated ie his attitudes toward women but he also writes some of the best female characters in crime fiction.

  8. My problem–it is a problem–twists on the pivot of how much fiction to read over non-fiction.

    I’m retired. I could happily sit down with a cup of tea, a bit of glazed doughnut (well, okay, a lot of glazed doughnut), turn on some light classics (Doo-Wop is classic, is it not?) and read novels from sunrise and the first fake news of the day, until lunch, and then continue after lunch until it’s time to go home.

    But then there is so much non-fiction that I would like to read. The questions of history, the debate on whether the Mayans and the Creek Indians of the Southeast are related, the possibility that UFOs are in fact identified, whether FDR knew, did the guy who wrote about Thermopylae forget a zero or two on one side or the other, was there a civilization once on Mars and was it blown apart by atomic weapons; the questions of philosophy, can there REALLY be Christian existentialists, can Candide be mistaken for candida and should the question be answered by a philosophy professor or a physician, is health education really practical anthropology, is there meaning to life, or was it simply a magazine, is free will a matter for theologians or philosophers, so many; and the unknowables and imponderables, was Custer killed during the charge across the river or later, and would it make a difference when; how do you punctuate a sentence like this one?

    But of such deep, light, serious, or satirical reading, Solomon himself wrote a warning for mankind: “The words of the wise are like goads, and the anthologies of the masters are like firmly embedded nails driven by a single Shepherd.Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

    All of this, of course, begs and answer to, what would happen to my own writing and research time?

    Reading is not salvation or a way to salvation. But it certainly makes the journey so much better.

  9. I have a bound copy of that essay put out as a premium by BOMC, a rarity for JDM collectors. Cost me twenty-five bucks about ten years ago. The McGee-Meyer colloquy idea is inspired.

  10. Last week, I received a video on Facebook, from a friend regarding reading. The woman raved that people need to read one book a year to save their mental capacities. It was a terrific video, albeit the profanity was offending to some, and a wake up call to others. Or maybe its the generational aspect of this much younger lady. Her message was clear – Read a book a year. You’re brain and health will thank you for it.

    Reading fiction has been found critical for those in leadership positions (bosses, parents, political leaders, etc.). Studies show that those who read fiction tend to be more empathetic to those they lead. They actually learn some interpersonal skills not found in text or business books about dealing with people on a personal level.

    Now retired, when I was on active duty in the U.S. Army, we had an annual reading list put out by the Army’s top general. Soldiers of all ranks were expected to read at least one. Many did. More did not. But, I did and it helped me gain insights the proved useful in my commands.

    I believe it was James who recommended reading MacDonald in a recent post. I picked up his short stories and just started his first Travis McGee novel. Wonderful writing and the voice puts you in the scene with McGee.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.


  11. Great post. Take a look at the kind of reality programming that’s on television. Now we have programs where someone is expected to propose to one out of a field of ten candidates after less than an hour. What a world! Even in a romance novel, writers are expected to show a reason why a couple belongs together, right?

    I’m happy to report that I live in a community where people still value books. Every Sunday afternoon, there is a line of people waiting at the door to our local library fifteen minutes ahead of opening time. I should take a picture. There are shelves full of books waiting for people who have put them on reserve. Certainly in my family, we love books. For Father’s Day, my son gave his father a book by Neil deGrasse Tyson entitled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Perhaps it’s not the kind of book everyone would want to curl up and read, but it’s been on the NYT bestseller list for over a year. Hey, it’s a book. I’ve pretty much given up on television except for shows like The Blacklist. Give me a book over television any day, and I still prefer books that I can hold over electronic books. Have a great day, and happy reading, everyone!

    • Thanks Joanne. I also picked up at my B&B book giveaway a pristine hardcover of Cheever short stories!

Comments are closed.