Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review: "New Seasons" by Wiley Hilburn

I grew up reading Wiley Hilburn's columns. They were a big part of what made me want to go into the newspaper business. (Little did I know then that if you're lucky enough to be able to write a column like Wiley's, it's only a very small part of the job.)

Even after I began studying the business, his columns still inspired me. As I was dealing with the "just the facts" lessons that were stifling to a college student with big dreams of being a novelist, Wiley showed me that you could be creative and have fun in the journalism business. That's why I eagerly dug into "New Seasons" ($24.95, Jack Dog Press), Hilburn's latest collection of columns from over the years.

The book features columns from January 1989 through 2004 and covers a wide variety of topics from local folks to childhood stories to history and politics.

While he's right at home writing about history and politics, it's the stories of life that stick with me. I remember a column he wrote only a few years ago about sneaking down to a pond when he was a child to go fishing. It really struck a chord with me because my brother and I did that very same thing so often - and well after we were old enough to know better. Unfortunately for me, that one didn't make the cut for this book, but a similar and just as engaging story about rediscovering Corney Creek from 2003 did.

That's the appeal of Wiley's work for me. Even though he and I grew up generations apart, we had a lot of the same experiences on the backroads of northeastern Louisiana, and I bet a lot of other people can relate as well. He tells stories about life, about places we've all been. While I've never been locked out of my vehicle by my dog, as Wiley relates in "Car-Jacked," I've certainly been in situations just as strange and embarrassing.

In the 205 pages and 70-plus columns, you'll meet people that you didn't know lived next door and you'll travel to places that you didn't know existed in northeastern Louisiana. You'll find funny tales, tragic tales and heartwarming tales, all told with a down-home candor that makes you feel like you're sitting across the table from him at the Huddle House.

The book takes you from a rollicking misadventure of childhood in "The Great Cap-Gun War" to a somber, yet fitting end as he remembers a long-ago fishing trip with his father, Wiley Hilburn Sr., following his death in 2003.

I have to admit that one of the most daunting things when I came to work as a copy editor in the Accent department at The News-Star in 1999 was the fact that I'd be editing Wiley's column. I'd have to edit a man that I'd read for a good portion of my life, a man that taught me at Louisiana Tech. Even in that, I learned something from Wiley - that no one is perfect, and even the teachers make the occasional mistake. (Though, if he asks, you didn't hear that from me.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Loss of an old friend

I get more books for review than I could possibly ever read, so I don't really get to the bookstore as much as I would like anymore. It's a decision to save money and my wife's sanity. You see, I'm physically incapable of leaving a bookstore without at least a couple of purchases, and with thousands of books already stacked around the house it's just adding to the problem of too many books, too little time. (Which, in my mind, is not a bad problem to have.)

When I found myself at the local mall the other day, I decided I'd drop in on one of my favorite shops, Waldenbooks. Sure, I know it's a national chain, but it didn't really feel like one. It was a smaller shop with kind of an intimate feel. It felt to me what a bookstore should feel like. I use the past tense because when I arrived at the door to the store, the metal gate was down with a sign that said "Sorry, closed" hanging in front of a forlorn landscape of empty shelves. It truly saddened me.

When I was a teenager, I worked in that same mall and was in the store at least a couple of times per week. The people who worked there knew me and knew what I liked. They'd often make suggestions or even hold books that they knew I'd want back for me. When I got my check every other week, a good portion of it went to pick up a stack of books from Waldenbooks.

Eventually, I took a "real" job in another city and moved away from the store. Then, when I moved back, I started writing book reviews and really had no need to visit so often. Still, I wandered in occasionally. The people no longer knew me, but the place still felt cozy and comfortable, even when they moved to a bigger location.

Thankfully, we do still have one nice independent shop here, even though it's a little out of the way for me. I guess that's where I'll have to go to get that same cozy feeling. The other choices are not so appealing. There's independent where the staff sniffs and looks down their noses if you ask for fantasy (at least the last time I shopped there, which has been quite some time). And we have a massive national chain store that's more like a warehouse than a bookstore. It's in a converted Wal-Mart building, and it's the kind of place where the staff probably wouldn't remember you if you did go in a couple of times a week. It gets the job done, but it takes away from the book shopping experience for me.

I guess it's a sign of the times. With books becoming so cheap and easy to get over the Internet, I'm sure scores more brick-and-mortar shops will be shutting their doors. Perhaps I lose some credibility since I'm saying this while offering books for sale on my site through Amazon (although at the rate I sell, I'm certainly not cutting into anyone's sales), but still it's a sad thing to me. I guess I'm torn. While I love the convenience of ordering online, there's nothing quite like walking through rows and rows of books in your local bookstore. I'd hate to see that go away.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Riding the wave of the past

I love technology. Take a quick look around the room you're sitting in right now, and I'm sure you'll see dozens of ways technology has made your life easier. We've got gadgets that will do things our parents and grandparents thought couldn't be done. It's wonderful.

That said, there are just some things I prefer to do the old-fashioned way. I have e-mail and my parents have e-mail, but if I want to talk to them, I call. It just seems right. I have a computer and printer, but if I want to write a letter to a friend, I sit down with pen and paper. It just seems right.

For six or seven years now, I've had friends and fellow writers trying to sign me up for the "wave of the future," e-books. I'm not opposed to e-books, but I prefer the old-fashioned ink and paper book. To me, it just seems right.

I've read two e-books, and I thought it was a miserable experience. I only finished them because I had promised both of the writers reviews. They were just too cold and impersonal to me.

I can't remember a time when I didn't have books around. I got my first one when I was in the crib, and still several years away from being able to read it. Since then, I've been surrounded by them. I currently own thousands of paperbacks and hardcovers that I've collected over the years, and that number will probably grow to thousands more before I die.

For me, reading a book is almost like a religious experience. I love the feel of a book in my hands. I love the smell of a book. I love to look at my favorite books on the shelf in my office. I love to browse through aisles in a bookstore. Those are things I just can't get from an e-book.

I have other issues with e-books. For one, they make books seem disposable. Just read and delete. I know you can save them, but what guarantee do you have they'll be there if you want to read them again? Not much. Lots of things can happen to zap them. It's one of my greatest fears of the convenient technologies we have, that the books, letters and photos that give us perspective on history will be lost to the generations that come after us -- gone because they're now in electronic rather than physical form. But that's a rant for another day.

As I said at the beginning, I'm not against e-books. If you prefer e-books, by all means, read them. If you've been published in electronic form, congratulations. It's tough to get published by a reputable publisher in any format. If you never want to read an ink and paper book again, don't. Just please don't try to shove e-books down my throat.