Rick Bragg's latest, Prince of Frogtown; and better well-read than dead

It’s pretty clear that we’ll be getting our information online or through some form other than newsprint. Will this generation be the one that kills off the newspaper as we know it? [image-1]

Ah, but The Book … despite the Kindle and digital downloads  … The Book is still sacred, right? Is there anything more perfect than a book?

But now I wonder: Is The Book ... gulp ... dying?

Book publishers are having their moments of doubt and faith. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has decided it is no longer interested in finding new writers. Sorry. We’re all full up here. (Apparently in disgust, one of the company's senior vice presidents resigned today.)

Publishers figure this will be the worst holiday book-buying season since they’ve been keeping track of these things.

It seems that there’s more going on that just a downturn in the economy. People’s attitudes toward news and information – and reading in general – are changing. What does that mean those logomaniacs among us? Will we run out of words on paper to read?

At the Miami Book Fair last month, a number of celebrated writers were asked about the future of the written word. This is what Rick Bragg had to say: “Books in their traditional form will endure. I hope I’m dead before I have to read a good mystery by tapping keys or on a touch screen.”

Events such as the [image-2]closes off a few blocks for a weekend and thousands celebrate books (and funnel cakes and frosty beers, too). Assloads of authors show up. This year’s cast included Peter Matthiessen, Joyce Carol Oates, Gore Vidal, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Belzer (Munch! My man! Love the wingtips, Babe!) Dave Barry, Dennis Lehane, George Hamilton (Nice tan, Dude!) and a cast of thousands.

Events like the Miami Book Fair can pull you out of those misanthropic doldrums. Maybe if people like Bragg keep writing great books, there will be a future for publishing.[image-3]

I can tell you this: Bragg is a great friend to any teacher of writing. I used to let students choose a book to write about in my introductory journalism course at the University of Florida. The papers sucked. Hell – they worse than sucked. But I noticed that people who wrote about one of Bragg’s books generally wrote good papers. I developed a theory: If they read great writing, they will try to emulate it. (For me, this is a theory on par with Einstein's best work.)

So I started requiring Somebody Told Me (Vintage, $13.95), a collection of Bragg’s journalism. Fadoop! The quality of the students’ writing went through the roof.

Bragg’s latest, The Prince of Frogtown (Knopf, $24) completes a family trilogy that began with his magnificent book about his mother, All Over But the Shoutin’ (Vintage,  $14.95) and continued with his paean to the grandfather he never met, Ava’s Man (Vintage, $13.95).

In The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg delves into the character he danced around in those earlier books: his father.  The wounds uncovered and explored in the book are heart-breaking – but then, heartbreaking has always been Bragg’s specialty, back to when he reported for the St. Petersburg Times before winning a Pulitzer for that paper in New York City.

These books aren’t merely memoirs. They form part of what I hope will become a large body of literature from Bragg. 

His books break your heart but they also restore your faith – in writers, readers and publishers.

LET’S BE CIVIL:  Readers never seem to get tired of good books about the Civil War. Three recent books carve out different aspects of the war for history buffs.[image-4]

Saving Savannah by Jacqueline Jones (Knopf. $30) is a 500-page epic of what happened to one of the South’s most beautiful cities during the war.  Much of the book is told from the African American perspective, so it fills a void in the saga of the war.

We all know about the battle of the ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. The H.L. Hunley (Hill and Wang, $26) by Tom Chaffin tells the story of the Confederate submarine (yeah buddy!) that became the first such vessel to ever sink an enemy ship in battle. I’ve always had more than a passing interest in the Civil War, but never knew this story. The H.L. Hunley is a revelation.

We’re about to mark Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, so a group of historians put together Our Lincoln (Norton, $27.95), an assessment of the 16th president as commander-in-chief, defender of civil liberties, and as a family man. Trust me on this: Abe never goes out of style.

William McKeen is chairman of the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism and author of several books, including the Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist.

BRAGG-ING WRITES:  Rick Bragg (at right) is a great storyteller and I’ve always had faith that people will continue to want stories. Ever since we sat around campfires in the days of the hairy and unhygienic cavemen, we’ve always wanted stories.

I’ve always been a sucker for them (stories, not cavemen) – whether in newspapers, magazines or books. Bragg made his mark in newspapers, writes frequently for magazines and has published several best-selling books.

Still — these are scary times for storytellers and people who love to read.

Alarms started going off in the newspaper industry, but still I had faith. I told myself: The nature of the publication might change, but people will still want stories … won’t they? They will still care about other people ... people unlike themselves … won’t they?

Even though the delivery system has changed for the young folks, I still hold on to my newspapers. I guess that makes me a weirdo.  I look at my friends leaving the Tribune and the Times and ponder a world crushed by information and the incredible shrinking product from which I prefer to get the news. I don’t think a laptop can compete with a newspaper for pure portability and information storage. What a great invention.

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