Five Best Books: Dave Isay on Lost Worlds
You may remember listening to one of our most recent broadcasts between Gay Talese and Bob Walsh, as they discuss the construction of New York City’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Laced within this story, you will notice beautiful passages from Mr. Talese’s book titled, “The Bridge,” which documents the Verrazano’s construction.
“The Bridge,” was on one of StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay’s “Five Best Books on lost worlds” list which originally ran earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal. Today, we are happy to be sharing this list with you!
Enjoy getting lost in Mr. Isay’s recommendations and happy reading!
REVIEW — Books — Five Best: Dave Isay on lost worlds
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2014, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
“The Jollity Building”
By A.J. Liebling (1962)
1. This paperback collects some of the legendary New Yorker writer’s best-known profiles of midtown Manhattan characters, including the classic title piece, which documents the human ecosystem of the Jollity Building on Broadway somewhere in the upper 40s — a place populated by scam artists, two-bit orchestra leaders, hat-check concessionaires, struggling sign painters and casting agents, all under the watchful eye of Morty Ormont (ne Goldberg), the rental agent. The lowest rung on the Jollity’s totem pole is the Telephone Booth Indians who operate their “businesses” from eight pay phones in the lobby. At the top of the heap, tenants who have the luxury of an office with a door. Alongside tenants like Skyhigh Charlie, Three-to-Two Charlie and Hairynose, “There is a fellow known as Paddy the Booster, who sells neckties he steals from haberdashers, and another known as Mac the Phony Booster who sells neckties which he pretends to have stolen but are really shoddy ties he has bought very cheaply. Naturally, Paddy looks down on Mac, whom he considers a racketeer.”
“They Called Me Mayer July”
By Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Mayer Kirshenblatt (2007)
2. Folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett spent 40 years interviewing her father about Apt, the small Polish town in which he grew up. After decades of prodding from his daughter, Mayer, a retired house painter, picked up a brush at the age of 73 and began painting his memories of the town as well. The resulting collection is breathtaking — a building-by-building, person-by-person re-creation of Apt. A hand-drawn map at the front of the book lays out the streets, alleys and stores that come to life in the pages that follow — along with the characters who inhabited them. The book’s text is composed entirely of Mayer’s oral histories, amounting to a priceless portrait of a world wiped off the face of the earth. “The places I remember exist no more,” he tells his daughter. “They are only in my head, and if I die they will disappear with me.” Mayer Kirshenblatt died two years after the book was published. His memories and paintings live on in this book, as do the spirit and stories of the Jews of Apt.
By Ben Katchor (1991)
3. Ben Katchor’s sublime collection of 91 cartoon strips chronicles the wanderings of Julius Knipl, a rumpled photographer-for-hire taking pictures of buildings in a gently surreal streetscape that vaguely resembles Manhattan’s financial district of old. Knipl laments a fading world of dairy cafeterias, tchotchke salesmen and trophy manufacturers. On one page, eight exquisite frames serve as a memorial to the eternal flame beneath a stainless-steel sauerkraut pan. On another, an ode to elevator inspection certificates (“One elevator inspector caught Mr. Knipl’s eye / with his distinctive signature. / He was here five years ago on April 27 / to examine not only the elevator’s mechanical operation / but more importantly to peer into the dismal void which lies at the heart of most buildings.”) Don’t miss the Knipl-esque comic-book novelties for sale on the covers of the book: a torn-sock repair kit, a 15-cent adenoid remover . . . and a radiator hot-dog steamer (“Popular in rooming houses all over the world . . . Perfectly legal . . . 50 cents”).
By Gay Talese (1964)
4. This superb work by Gay Talese is an ode to the men who built the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and remains America’s longest suspension bridge. Talese notes that he had often asked himself: “Whose fingerprints are on the bolts and beams of these soaring edifices in this overreaching city?” “The Bridge” honors the men who “drive into town in big cars, and live in furnished rooms, and drink whiskey with beer chasers, and chase women they will soon forget. They linger only a little while, only until they have built the bridge.” Men like Edward Iannielli Jr., who tells Talese about visiting his ironworker father on a job when he was 13 or 14 and getting his permission to climb up: “As I stood up there, all of a sudden, I am thinking to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” During the construction of the Verrazano, it was Iannielli’s hands that a fellow ironworker named Gerald McKee clung to on Oct. 9, 1962, before plunging 350 feet to where “the water is like concrete.” After which Iannielli began to weep and began to slip over, too, until another worker jumped on top of him and held him tight to the catwalk.
“McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon”
By Joseph Mitchell (1943)
5. This remarkable volume of New Yorker profiles includes a fabulous history of McSorley’s, which was already New York’s oldest bar, whose motto at the time was “Good ale, raw onions and no ladies.” But my favorite piece is “Mazie,” Mitchell’s astonishing profile of Mazie P. Gordon, the foul-mouthed ticket taker/bouncer/angel of a low-rent movie theater on the Bowery called the Venice. Mazie works out of a phone-booth-size ticket cage seven days a week, lording over the theater and its patrons. At 11 p.m. each night, she leaves her booth and sets off on her “Samaritan tour of the Bowery.” When she finds men passed out on the street in the winter, Mitchell writes, “she badgers them until they awaken. She punches them in the ribs with her umbrella and, if necessary, gets down on her knees and slaps their faces.” Mazie will then guide the man to the nearest flophouse, pay for his lodging, and get him undressed with the help of a clerk. (Full disclosure: My daughter Mazie was named in honor of Gordon.) In the author’s note at the front of this collection Mitchell writes: “The people in a number of these stories are of a kind that many have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”
License this article from Dow Jones Reprint Service
SCL 2015: Looking for a Few Good Libraries!
It’s no secret that StoryCorps loves working with libraries. We understand the importance of libraries as critical community anchors, and appreciate the valuable services that libraries provide to their patrons. That’s why, in 2011, we partnered with the American Library Association to create a unique program that put tools and resources to create oral history programming directly in the hands of librarians–StoryCorps @ your library (SCL).
In creating the program, we began with the premise that the people who work at public libraries know their communities better than anyone else. We decided to create a national project that would provide StoryKits–portable sets of professional recording equipment–to librarians and library volunteers and allow them the opportunity to record and celebrate the unique stories of their patrons and others. During the pilot year, we received over 200 applications for ten program slots, and we chose–through a peer-review process moderated by the American Library Association–a cohort of libraries that included small, rural libraries; large, multi-branch library systems; and everything in between. Over the course of a year, we traveled the country to visit these libraries, delivering intensive two-day trainings and providing programmatic guidance. Then, following the trainings, we worked closely with the pilot libraries to provide them with technical and outreach support as they began to record the voices and stories not often included or represented in mainstream media.
At the end of the program, our library partners had collected over 420 stories collectively, from Greensboro, NC all the way to Gallup, NM. At the Nashville Public Library, Andrea Blackman recruited community college studies to record stories with their classmates, and those stories are now housed in the NPL’s Special Collections Division. In Chicago, students at DePaul University recorded interviews with a variety of Chicagoans; some interview participants spoke of taking part in the Great Migration; others described arriving in Chicago from Eastern Europe, and still others, patrons at the CPL’s Talking Book Center, discussed their experiences as visually-impaired individuals. In Tampa, FL, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library System created a program, “Our Lives, Our Legacies: The Hillsborough Black Experience,” in which each month a specific theme was celebrated. The Multnomah County Library collected interviews from library patrons in celebration of its centennial year, and in Smithville, TX, the Smithville Public Library recorded stories with veterans and others that will eventually become a walking tour of the town of Smithville.
Now, we are delighted to announce the next call for applications for the StoryCorps @ your library program. As in the pilot program, StoryCorps will select ten libraries to train and support, and also enhance our suite of freely available tools and resources. StoryCorps will enhance existing web-based resources, present at the annual ALA and Association for Small and Rural Libraries conferences, and support the development of DIY tools to ensure that all libraries can create programs to celebrate the unique stories of their communities.