Shelf Talks #6: Lee

Lee's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Lee Wochner is a playwright and also a partner in the marketing agency Counterintuity in Burbank, CA. In this interview, he discusses his appreciation for Gore Vidal's erudite voice and historical novels, but also critiques Vidal's tendency to write only one character - himself. He also expresses admiration for polymath Benjamin Franklin and his humanitarian accomplishments, as well as his troubled upbringing. Wochner notes shared characteristics between Franklin and silent film star Buster Keaton, including difficult childhoods and a spirit of resilience.

OLEG: Let’s start at the top…Gore Vidal. He was a stalwart public intellectual (the progressive counterpart to William F. Buckley, Jr.) and novelist, angering prudes with his The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, and other works, I’m sure. Though he’s only one of the many authors of whose you have multiple books, why Gore Vidal?

LEE: It’s difficult to remember why I started reading Gore Vidal as a teen. In the late 1970s, he was ubiquitous on talk shows, so it was probably that. He sounded erudite and I was drawn to erudition, and an escape from the woods I was growing up in. That, plus what literary teen wouldn’t be drawn to Vidal’s sort of sneering disparagement of everyone and everything? And so, yes, I read many of Gore Vidal’s novels — more than a dozen — and many of his essays, wherever they appeared (as they did, frequently).

Decades later, I find that I like Gore Vidal more in theory, as a man of letters, than I do in practice, as a writer. As someone said, Vidal writes only one character — and it’s him. The historical novels, such as Burr, Lincoln, and 1876, were fun and fascinating — especially the latter, revolving around the contested U.S. presidential election of that year — and I remember Kalki as being entertaining. But his weary practiced cynical voice started to grate in my ear. That said, I reread Creation five years ago this month, and still hold it in high regard and am grateful for learning a lot about a dimly viewed ancient past, especially ancient Persia. It also shows you what might have been, as Vidal for perhaps the only time wrote a sympathetic character he seems to like and we should too:  Confucius. It’s a surprisingly warm portrait, and turns out to be moving, which was the first and only such instance I found in this writer’s catalog. Had he dropped his act and showed the wounded romantic inside, as he did this one time, imagine the writer he could have been.

OLEG: Vidal’s writing sounds like my acting — I was cast in different roles and managed to do great as myself in all of them. But Gore Vidal was, truly, a singular character though also an archetype of sorts. In both cases, I don’t think the world tolerates the witty patrician so much anymore. I see you have Edmund Morgan’s biography of Benjamin Franklin on your shelf. Franklin is probably my favorite among the founding fathers, though I haven’t read that book about him. Similar to Vidal, Franklin was also a major wit, very rich (though he got that way by way of printer’s ink and not family fortunes), and world famous. Thinking about his range of achievements in business, science, diplomacy, culture (and what else?), it’s hard to pin him down as an archetype. Do you think today’s world would tolerate whatever Ben Franklin was?

LEE: Benjamin Franklin is close to my heart. When I was a boy growing up in southern New Jersey, the best day trip to be had was to go to Philadelphia to the Franklin Institute and marvel over his inventions and the very great spread of his intellect and his humanity. He had a big heart, and so does the Franklin Institute: an apartment-sized simulacrum of a human heart that you can walk around inside, and which for every boy of any age remains the highlight of the entire institute.

Franklin was indeed a polymath and a great humanitarian. In addition to his widely known accomplishments, he may have been the inventor of the franchise system, which is how he made his wealth:  setting up printers along the eastern seaboard, in exchange for a percentage of their revenue. This achievement helped him afford the largesse of simply giving away the lightning rod, rather than charging for it, as so many advised him to do; this gift saved countless lives.

You ask if today’s world would “tolerate” whatever Ben Franklin was. Well, we certainly seem capable of tolerating many things that were formerly intolerable — you’ll note that even after a failed insurrection, Donald Trump has tens of millions of supporters — so I don’t know why this would be in question. Clearly, we’ll tolerate anything:  thousands of people living on the streets and sidewalks of major cities; a family netting billions of dollars off addicting millions of people to a ruinous drug; and the final episodes of “Lost” and “Game of Thrones.” (Okay, almost anything.)

I would be thrilled to have Franklin back. We should be so lucky.

OLEG: I heartily co-sign your paean to Mr. Franklin. I ask my next question with a somber grin and a terrible levity, and no sense of a possible answer because I know a lot more about one subject than the other. What are the shared characteristics that make Ben Franklin and Buster Keaton special (or at least special enough to share your shelf)?

LEE: More things unite Benjamin Franklin and Buster Keaton than one might think:

  • Both had troubled upbringings that we would now call child abuse. Franklin was very unhappily indentured to his older brother at age 12, who kept a tight leash on him and worked him to the bone. As a toddler, Keaton has literally thrown into the audience by his parents as part of their stage act, and encouraged to hide his emotions because they wouldn’t play well.
  • Both were mechanically inclined to an advanced degree. Franklin invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod and more. Keaton very early on disassembled a motion picture camera so he could understand how it worked, and spent a lot of time engineering his gags. One of his biographers called him the “civil engineer of comedians.”
  • Both were iconoclasts who brought very different approaches to their fields.
  • Both appeared before the British House of Lords to argue the case for colonial tolerance. (Wait — that was only Franklin.)

I’m interested in iconoclasts and also in high achievers, and these two fit the bill. (I’m also interested in Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism, and Keaton’s work qualifies.) Additionally, my childhood was filled with these two gentlemen; I mentioned the trips to the Franklin Institute, and I also grew up watching Buster Keaton with my father when his movies were shown on TV or included in clip shows of the time — we would howl with laughter. Keaton remains my favorite filmmaker and star. In 1995, I was able to attend Buster Keaton’s 100th birthday at Silent Movie; Buster, being dead, wasn’t there — but his widow, Eleanor Keaton, was, and I was fortunate enough to sit next to her and learn more about Buster and their stage act together. Outside afterward, I happened to overhear a disagreement about something from Buster’s career, so I offered some friendly input, and that’s how I wound up in a lengthy conversation about Buster Keaton with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, and Dom DeLuise, which certainly capped off an interesting evening. Unfortunately, despite my reverence for Ben Franklin, that has yet to lead me to meeting John Adams or any other of Franklin’s contemporaries.

OLEG: I have a feeling Ben Franklin would scoff at the idea of someone actually wanting to have a conversation with John Adams. The two seemed to be of totally opposite temperaments, at least if their experiences in France were the criteria. But as future people, I don’t think we need to abide by the dramas of the past (do we?). Speaking of dramas, one book that “conflicts” with the other contents of your shelf, mostly historical fiction and biography, reference books, and some literature anthologies, is Copi’s Introduction to Logic. How did this book wind up on this shelf? It just doesn’t seem…logical!

LEE: Applying what I learned decades ago in that logic textbook, I’d say you’re drawing an erroneous conclusion based on a false correlation — that because Franklin didn’t enjoy Adams’ company, he didn’t enjoy their conversations and therefore neither would we. We should remember that Adams defended the British soldiers who were attacked by the colonists in the “Boston Massacre.” He did so because he felt that everyone was entitled to a defense. Franklin probably respected that, and just a look at the many cases where the falsely accused are later exonerated should remind us that he was right, and we’re all in his debt.

On a personal level? Yes, Adams appeared to have been a prickly and annoying person. Worse, he was of the “closed window at night” school, while Franklin and I recognized the invigoration that the night air brings.

As to why, specifically, I have that copy of Copi’s book on logic, there are two reasons:

  • I’m interested in everything. (Which is unfortunately a curse. It certainly fills a calendar!) I’m currently reading four books:  a business book, a memoir about group therapy, “1491” about the pre-Columbian Americas, and the History of DC Comics. I learned a lot from the logic book, and still dip into it occasionally. The particular shelf it’s on is filled with other science, social science, and non-fiction.
  • It was my college textbook. (Yes, I took logic.) Only one time, when I was an undergrad, did I sell my books back to the school book store. As I was doing so, my most revered professor, who had taught me both French and about Theatre of the Absurd (!!!) and who left an indelible mark on my life, saw me making this pitiful transaction and cried out, “Monsieur Wochner — you are selling your books?!?!?” That was decades ago and I can still hear — and see — her reaction. I don’t think I’ve parted with a single book since. To make matters worse, over the years I wound up buying every one of those books back because I felt I needed them. So I bought them at full price, sold them for pennies, then bought them again. Let that be a lesson for all of us.  Books are for keeping.

OLEG: Logical or no, I’ll stick to the idea that Ben Franklin would be unlikely to recommend visiting John Adams if he were asked for letters of introduction by time travelers. That would be a marvelous scene to witness, time travelers attempting to convince Ben Franklin that they were truly from the future, and in want of social passports. Less marvelous is the pronouncement that “books are for keeping,” not because it isn’t true, but because to make room for my baby (now two), I’ve had to downsize my books by roughly 40% over the past couple of years and I have yet to come to terms with it. Though I did replace a lot of them with ebook versions, I feel like I’m ever-so-slightly less me without all of those lovely objects and their contents. Residents of West Los Angeles got to benefit, however, as I distributed most of them into Little Free Libraries along my variety of walking routes.

Anyhow, for my last question, I want to take advantage of the fact that here I have a man who is interested in everything to ask: Assuming most of us aren’t polymaths, how do you recommend people cultivate a curiosity about the world?

LEE: Most people who read widely are interested in everything, aren’t they? You’re certainly one example, and my life is filled with others. It’s important not just to read a lot, but to read widely — biography, science, history, literature, non-fiction, economics, philosophy, and certainly comic books (which provided the basis of my love of reading, and which continue to play a significant role). All of us must do whatever we can to provoke curiosity in others — because narrow, blinkered thinking isn’t going to lead us anywhere good. (As our current state of politics here in the U.S. and in much of the world shows us.) The foundational factor in Leonardo da Vinci’s polymathematic achievements was his curiosity; his close observation of light, and hydraulics, of nature and behavior, gave us great painting, including advancements in chiaroscuro, as well as all those fantastical designs and inventions. The close-minded person gives us nothing except what he already thinks — and is adamant about. This is why reading, and thought, are our greatest tools for a better future.

OLEG: Thanks for the interview, Lee! That was intellectually invigorating!