Usually, we use this Monday post to recommend an unfairly neglected book. Today we’d like to introduce you to an unfairly neglected writer.
I’m now at that biblical age (New Testament age, anyway) of thirty-three, which is about when many of us decide that we know the names of all the good writers we’ll need to know. Not that we’ve read all the great books, or ever will, but that coming across an entirely new name whose work, upon discovery, instantly seems essential is an increasingly rare phenomenon. The last time it happened was when I found Dave Hickey’s amazing collection of essays, Air Guitar. Or maybe it was when my friend Emily Moore introduced me to the poet David Wagoner. Well, it’s happened again. His name is Lee Sandlin.
For a class I am teaching in the fall, I assigned a terrific collection of journalism, edited by Ira Glass, called The New Kings of Nonfiction. It includes pieces by many of the greats—Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Malcolm Gladwell, Lawrence Weschler--and a couple pieces by people I hadn’t heard of. One such piece is Lee Sandlin's “Losing the War,” which originally appeared in the Chicago Reader. It is a classic essay, easily better than most of what appears in any magazine in the United States.
I won’t do much to summarize the essay, which thankfully is online, except to say that it’s a meditation about our historical memory of World War II: how war fever made it impossible for even great reporters to write accurately about the war then, and how historians have failed to find the language to write about it since. The essay does not read as if it’s written by more scholarly writers on war and memory, like the redoubtable Paul Fussell, whose books are brilliant and clear, but not, well, fun; Fussell is too much the literary critic (except when he’s not, as in the hilarious book Class, which is one of the few books that will actually make you laugh out loud). Lee Sandlin’s essay is accessible and blunt, personal and cerebral at the same time.
Sandlin has written other long, brilliant essays for the Chicago Reader. Most of them seem to be posted at his web page. It’s a cool page, filled with Desert Island lists of favorite books and songs, most of which I have never heard of. The level of obscurity is a bit maddening. This is a man who recommends that we listen to “Night Recordings from Bali” and tells us which is his favorite Icelandic saga (Njal’s, if you care). And don’t even get me started on his list of “Several Movies That Do Not, In Any Way, Shape or Form, Suck.”
I’d raise high the poseur lantern if not for the fact that a) he seems to have a sense of humor about all this (his list of recommended recordings is called “Old, Scratchy and Mostly Unintelligible Spirituals”) and b) Jesus, can the guy write. As a former alt-weekly editor, I am humbled that elsewhere in the country one of my peer publications was publishing stuff like this. As a writer, I envy the man’s gift. As a civic booster in the city of Publishing, I hope some editor will collect this man’s essays into a single volume, fast.
Mark Oppenheimer is an editor of the New Haven Review.