The Norman Transcript

Columns

April 15, 2014

Reading between the lines

NORMAN — Reading is such an improbable idea — a miracle, really. Yet simple squiggles on a page, arranged just so, can convey ideas that change the way we think or introduce to us characters we love for a lifetime. In celebration of reading — and of this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books — we asked four readers (who also happen to be writers) to celebrate books that mattered in their lives.

If you want a friend in Washington, the saying goes, get a dog. But if you’re looking to understand Washington, I’d recommend fiction.

Not a thriller or a potboiler, though. I mean serious fiction, specifically the stories and novels of Ward Just, a brilliant war correspondent for the Washington Post who decided he could tell more truth if he shook off the strictures of journalism.

“Journalism is useful,” he once wrote, “but truth wears many masks, and in Washington facts sometimes tend to mislead. All the facts sometimes tend to mislead absolutely.”

Just’s first great story, “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert,” convinced me he was right. We see Washington politicians in action all the time, thanks to the endless chatter of cable news. But Just’s characters have something television and newspapers often can’t convey: complicated inner lives. They are driven by ambition — no surprise there. But they’re also gripped by uncertainty and regret, two demons no one in public life is allowed to acknowledge.

Listen, for example, to the protagonist of “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert,” a once-idealistic Southern Democrat who worries about the compromises he’s made in his struggle for power in the House of Representatives:

“It was not a place for lost causes,” Rep. Lou LaRuth reflects. “There were too many conflicting interests … (and) too many people: 435 representatives and about a quarter of them quite bright. Quite bright enough and knowledgeable enough to strangle embarrassing proposals and take revenge as well. Everyone was threatened if the eccentrics got out of hand.”

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