all over but the shoutin’

Some people’s memoirs you just don’t want to read, but if I ever get to meet Rick Bragg I will thank him forever. How generous of him to share these stories. A journalist by profession, Bragg talks about the death of strangers: those that get shot standing behind counters in New York City, the peeled faces of Haitians, the riots in Miami. The bombing of a daycare center in Oklahoma City, the Susan Smith case regarding a mother that drowned her own children. About his personal life, Bragg bares all: his life of squalor and pain in Alabama, his mother’s back-breaking work, his absent father’s death, the many girls he has had in his life due to his inability to commit, his days in Harvard as a Nieman fellow in 1992, his rise to fame in 1996 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while working for the New York Times, and his belief, in his heart of hearts, that he is like his father – cold and mean, and ultimately lonely. I marvel both at his honesty and his way with words. This is one of my favorite moments (and one that got me teary-eyed).

I thanked him and made to leave, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm and said wait, that ain’t all, that he had some other things for me. He motioned to three big cardboard egg cartons stacked against one wall.

Inside was the only treasure I truly have ever known.

I had grown up in a house in which there were only two books, the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog. But here, in these boxes, were dozens of hardback copies of everything from Mark Twain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There was a water-damaged Faulkner, and the nearly complete set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. There was poetry and trash, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, and a paperback with two naked women on the cover. There was a tiny, old copy of Arabian Nights, threadbare Hardy Boys, and one Hemingway. He had bought most of them at a yard sale, by the box or pound, and some at a flea market. He did not even know what he was giving me, did not recognize most of the writers. “Your momma said you still liked to read,” he said.

There was Shakespeare. My father did not know who he was, exactly, but he had heard the name. He wanted them because they were pretty, because they were wrapped in fake leather, because they looked like rich folks’ books. I do not love Shakespeare, but I still have those books. I would not trade them for a gold monkey.

copyright© 1997 by Rick Bragg


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