The Boneyard

Augustine J. Fredrich (Jay) is Associate Dean Emeritus of the School of Science and Engineering Technology at the University of Southern Indiana. He is a civil engineer who worked 19 years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before coming to Evansville to teach. In 1972-73 he served as a Congressional Fellow on the staff of U.S. Senator John L. McClellan. He is the author of "Sons of Martha" an anthology of readings on civil engineers and civil engineer projects. In 1993 he received the Julian Hinds Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in recognition of his career achievements in the field of water resources engineering.
Jay Fredrich passed away in 2020

A Reader's Life -

by Augustine J. Fredrich

I can not remember a time when I did not love to read. I started kindergarten when I was four years and one day old. Several months earlier my mother had already written in my baby book, 'A. J. can look at the newspaper and find words that he can read.' At Christmas time in 1943, when I had been in kindergarten three months, she wrote, 'A. J. has already read three books.'

Books were regular gifts every Christmas and many birthdays. I remember 'Call of the Wild,' 'Bob, Son of Battle,' 'White Fang,' and 'Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates,' and I remember reading them with a flashlight under the bed covers. There were five children in my family and we all enjoyed reading. We accumulated a lot of 'Bobbsey Twins' books, many of the 'Five Little Peppers' books, and a few books from the 'Hardy Boys' and 'Nancy Drew' series. When I was about 12 years old my mother purchased a 'World Book Encyclopedia' set and gave them out to us one volume at a time. We read them for pleasure.

I remember being given a dime to ride the trolley car (and later the bus) to the Little Rock Public Library and back every couple of weeks to check out the maximum number of books allowed (six) and having almost finished the first one during the return ride home. I particularly enjoyed the 'Childhood of Famous Americans' series, many of which were written by Augusta Stevenson. They were in a separate area of the library; it was the first place I headed, and I think I read every one of them. I also loved the Chip Hilton sports stories by Clair Bee. Another series I enjoyed was the 'Freddie the Pig' series by Walter Brooks.

And then there were the comic books. We spent virtually all of our allowance at the drugstore around the corner from our house buying penny candy and ten-cent comic books. 'Superman,' 'Batman,' 'Captain Marvel,' 'Archie,' all the Disney characters, 'Roy Rogers,' 'Gene Autry,' 'Red Ryder' and even numerous 'Classics Illustrated' were among the titles that could be found in the stacks of comics that were scattered around our house. Over the years we amassed hundreds of them and regularly traded them with neighborhood friends, classmates and relatives.

We didn't subscribe to many magazines in our home. I remember regularly reading at least parts of 'Life,' 'Colliers,' and 'Saturday Evening Post.' And if I was really desperate for something to read I would pick up 'Family Circle,' 'Parents' or 'Good Housekeeping' which my mother subscribed to for herself.

In the summer of 1954, between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I read my first paperback book ' 'Battle Cry' by Leon Uris. It was my first exposure to a 'historical' novel and it opened up a whole new world of reading for me. Before I finished high school I read dozens of Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, 'I, The Jury' by Mickey Spillane, several Shell Scott detective novels by Richard Prather and many other paperback novels that I have since come to refer to as 'chewing gum for the mind!'

In my senior year in high school I followed the trail broken by 'Battle Cry' to Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead' and Arkansas author Francis Irby Gwaltney's 'The Day the Century Ended.' The latter was subsequently made into a movie re-titled as 'Between Heaven and Hell,' starring Robert Wagner, Terry Moore and Broderick Crawford. I also stumbled onto a wonderful novel 'The Left Hand of God' by William Barrett. It was a war story, a love story, and a faith story about an American pilot downed in China during World War II, and it too was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Gene Tierney, Lee J. Cobb, Agnes Moorehead and E. G. Marshall. Finally, near the end of my senior year I discovered 'Hiroshima' by John Hersey ' a hard cover version of a very long article Hersey wrote for 'The New Yorker' magazine based on a series of interviews with Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945.

The engineering curriculum at the University of Arkansas didn't leave a lot of time for reading, but I did manage to find time to read Grace Metalious' 'Peyton Place,' by far the raciest novel I had encountered up to that point. It would be tame by today's standards, but at the time it was scandalous. I also discovered Ian Fleming and began to work my way through the James Bond novels. Eventually I read all of them.

Except for the books given as gifts and books from libraries, most of the books I read until I graduated from college were paperbacks (because that's all I could afford), so it was usually at least a year or more after the book was originally published before I read it. That all changed once I was out of college and could buy books as soon as they were published. All of the twenty-five books on the following chronological list immediately come to mind when I think of books I purchased (usually within a few weeks of their initial publication) and really enjoyed for the reason indicated.

Ordeal (1938) by Nevil Shute. Shute was an English aeronautical engineer who was also a prolific author. (A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1957) are two of his novels made into well-known movies.) This is one of the books on this list that I read long after it was originally published. It makes this list because it was the first time I had ever read a novel so prescient (in its descriptions of the bombing of England) that it caused me to repeatedly turn to the copyright page to convince myself that it really was written before the beginning of World War II.

Rosemary's Baby (1967) by Ira Levin. When I finished this book (before anyone was writing or talking about it), I told my wife that I had never read a book like this one. I predicted it would be a best seller and told her it would make a whale of a movie.

The Best and the Brightest (1969) by David Halberstam. I was in Washington, D.C. working in Congress when I read this book. It was the first major non-fiction book I read. (We lived in Alexandria and I read it on the bus, riding to and from the Capitol every day for several weeks.)

Ball Four (1970) by Jim Bouton. This was one of the first 'tell all' books by an insider in any American sport. Bouton was a pitcher for the New York Yankees, and he pulled no punches in this book about his career as a Yankee. In addition to providing what was at the time an almost unprecedented look into a major league baseball locker room, the book is laugh-out-loud funny. I read it cover to cover on a plane trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and laughed out loud so often that the man sitting next to me went into the San Francisco airport bookstore and bought himself a copy!

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1972) by Kenneth O'Donnell and David Powers. Even if John Kennedy wasn't your favorite President, this collection of remembrances by two of his closest personal friends reveals why those who knew him best were uncompromising in their commitment to him and his programs.

The Osterman Weekend (1972) by Robert Ludlum. This was Ludlum's first thriller and it was so realistic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was a novel. He became one of my favorite authors, although the quality of his novels declined noticeably after the first three.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) by George V. Higgins. This was the first of attorney George V. Higgins' 27 novels, and many believe it was the best. I read all of them and loved every one. He wrote about life among the low-life gangsters, scam artists and politicians in Boston. The most interesting thing about his books (except for the fascinating stories themselves) is the fact that virtually the entire book in every case is in the form of dialogue among the characters. There's very little narrative, and after a while you can almost hear the characters talking to one another. A great writer.

All the President's Men (1974) by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I lived this story. The events described in the book took place while I was working in Congress. Every night, the Congressional hearings of the day were telecast in their entirety on the Washington PBS station and I stayed up until midnight or later to watch. The book filled in lots of gaps that were never revealed in the hearings. It was my first time to read a book about something that I had actually witnessed.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) by Robert Caro. This story of Robert Moses' rise to (and fall from) power in the Manhattan public works arena is one of the few books on this list that I didn't read at the time of its original publication. I read it in paperback about 12 years after it came out. This 1300-page behemoth is one of the longest books I've ever read. It's a fascinating tale about a gigantic character by an author that dots every 'i' and crosses every 't'. His biography of Lyndon Johnson is even longer ' three volumes (The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), and Master of the Senate (2002) totaling more than 2000 pages have been completed; the fourth and final volume has not yet been published.

Helter Skelter (1974) by Vincent Bugliosi. I don't read a lot of true crime books, but the crimes described in this one were so heinous and so widely publicized that I took a chance. The author was the prosecuting attorney for the crimes, so the depth and breadth of his knowledge of all aspects of the case enabled him to tell the story in all its gory detail. Well written, but not for the faint-hearted.

The Great Santini (1976) by Pat Conroy. I have lots of 'favorite authors' but if there's one that I enjoy reading more than Pat Conroy, the name doesn't come to mind. This novel based on his life with his father caused his family to disown him. It was made into a movie starring Robert Duvall as the character modeled after his father. A great movie, as were movies based on two other Conroy books, The Lords of Discipline (1980) and The Water is Wide (1972).

Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal (1977) by David McCullough. A masterful account of the construction of the Panama Canal and the people who made it possible. McCullough had already written another book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972), that brought the builders of that famous structure to the attention of engineer-readers, but his book on the Panama Canal won several awards, captured the attention of the public at large, and really launched his career as one of the most popular writers of American history.

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole. This book, published 11 years after the author committed suicide, has become an American classic. My mother, who read a lot, but mostly newspapers and magazines, recommended this book to me and claimed it was the funniest she had ever read. (And that's probably the truth; humor was not one of her long suits!) I loved it too.

A Cold Mind (1983) by David Lindsey. This crime novel tells a story as original and as terrifying as any I have ever read. Set in Houston, the story introduces an urbane detective who ultimately appears in five more Lindsey novels. This is truly a book that was almost impossible to put down.

To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985) by Henry Petroski. I liked the way Henry Petroski wrote and how thoroughly he researched his subjects even before we became friends. Even though his writing never strayed far from topics in civil engineering and the history of technology, his books have become popular with readers who care little for the subjects he writes about, but love his way with words. The Pencil (1990) and Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (1995) show that he is as comfortable writing about objects and people as he is in writing about engineering concepts and philosophy.

Lonesome Dove (1986) by Larry McMurtry. Westerns aren't my cup of tea when it comes to books, but Larry McMurtry is such a good writer that he could make a book about paint drying interesting enough for me to read. There's no way for me to describe the book other than to say that it's about cowboys in the Old West, and that just doesn't do it justice. The book was made into a great television mini-series starring Robert Duvall.

Pillars of the Earth (1989) by Ken Follett. Although he had written eleven previous novels, Ken Follett didn't really become well known until Eye of the Needle appeared in 1978. That blockbuster spy thriller was followed by four more novels of the same genre, so the appearance of this book about life in medieval Europe, focusing on the construction of a medieval cathedral, was a change of pace that caught his readers completely by surprise. In time, however, this book too became a best-seller. I rarely read a book twice, but this one would tempt me (if it weren't for the fact that it's more than 1000 pages long!).

A Stained White Radiance (1992) by James Lee Burke. Mystery/crime/spy novels have always been one of my favorite genres and I could easily include 25 books by at least a dozen different authors on this list, if the list was simply about books I really liked. Ian Fleming, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, David Hewson, Daniel Silva, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, and Joseph Wambaugh, to name just a few, are authors who I regularly try to keep tabs on to be sure that I don't miss any of their work, but, for me, James Lee Burke is in a class by himself. Whether it's the fact that his Dave Robicheaux novels take place in Louisiana, or because all of the characters ' good and bad ' are developed in a way that allows the reader to see the best and the worst of humanity (and how both good and evil can co-exist in the same person), or because the books are fast-paced and shed light on the societal disruption resulting from man's inhumanity to his fellow man, they appeal to me.

An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us(1996) by James Carroll. In this setting-the-record-straight book the author tries to explain how he unintentionally disappointed his father (an Air Force general) by protesting the war in Vietnam. He tried to make amends by writing a fictional account of his father's life in an excellent novel entitled Memorial Bridge (1991), but his father became a victim of Alzheimer's Disease before the novel was published and ultimately died before any reconciliation could be effected.

The Gift of Peace (1997) by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Cardinal Bernardin wrote this book as he was dying of cancer (he finished it just days before he died). It was given to me while I was in the hospital recovering from what, by all accounts, should have been a fatal pulmonary embolus, and it was truly a gift of peace. To fully appreciate this book, though, one must read My Brother Joseph: The Spirit of a Cardinal and the Story of a Friendship (1998) by Eugene Kennedy, one of Cardinal Bernardin's oldest friends, to gain real insight into the life of a man who brought peace to all he knew.

M (2000) by Peter Robb. A historical novel that attempts to shed light on the mysterious life of the great Italian artist Caravaggio. This wasn't the first book I'd ever read on the life of an artist, but it was one of the most interesting (and it caused me to spend half a day in a visit to Rome finding Caravaggio paintings and admiring them.)

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2000) by Ross King. It was hard to decide which of two books by this author to put on this list (so I cheated and put them both on!). Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (2003) and this book about Brunelleschi's design and construction of the dome for the cathedral in Florence are both great stories about the creation of masterpieces during the Italian Renaissance.

Time and Chance (2002) by Sharon Kay Penman. Ever since I was a child I've loved historical novels. This is the middle book of Sharon Penman's trilogy about English and French royalty at the time of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (When Christ and His Saints Slept (1995) and Devil's Brood (2008) are the first and third, respectively), and it is fascinating. The woman can really write (and she knows her history).

My Losing Season (2002) by Pat Conroy. I love sports and I really admire Pat Conroy's writing, so it's not surprising that this book recounting the author's senior year as the starting point guard for the Citadel basketball team would be one of my all-time favorites. I enjoyed the book so much that I bought three copies as Christmas gifts oneyear 'one for each of my sons and one for my son-in-law.

The Prince of Frogtown (2008) by Rick Bragg. This is the third of three books that Rick Bragg has written about his family (All Over But the Shoutin' (1997) and Ava's Man (2001) are the other two). Anyone who would like to understand what it's like to grow up poor in the rural South in the first half of the twentieth century couldn't find a better way to learn than these three books. I gave this book to a good friend who grew up in rural south Arkansas and he told me after he finished it that he sat in his chair with tears running down his cheeks as he read it because 'this was the story of my family.'

When I get to the end of this list and think of all the good authors I haven't mentioned and the great books I really enjoyed that didn't make it on the list because they didn't come to mind immediately (Scott Turow's legal thriller Presumed Innocent (1987); John McPhee's The Control of Nature (1989) about man's efforts to modify the environment; Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action (1995) about a community's efforts to deal with the consequences of the discharge of toxic substances into its water supply; physician Abraham Verghese's The Tennis Partner (1999), the heart-breaking story of the cocaine addiction of a promising medical student; Garry Wills' Why I Am a Catholic (2002) in which he passionately defends his credentials as a practicing Catholic after being castigated for his book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000), which questions the basis for recent papal decisions; Paul Elie's wonderful integrated biography of writers Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy entitled The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) are a few that now come to mind), I realize how blessed I have been to have discovered the pleasure of reading 'a gift that has lasted a lifetime.

Editor's note: Jay Fredrich died in 2020 and this article was originally published in The Boneyard in 2009 and an updated version would have certainly contained many more books.

Mr. Fredrich invites your comments.

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