Harvey H. Jackson: For those who like books
Apr 10, 2013 | 2776 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
More than once I have decried the decision by the owners of the Mobile Press-Register and its sister publications in Alabama to print their papers only a few times a week. I complained how this has left my mama without her daily “Jumble” and “Puzzles.” I expressed concerns over what I felt would follow when our politicians discovered the ranks of investigative reporters were thinned and legislators without oversight could get away with all sorts of shenanigans.

And I mentioned missing those columnists whose insightful commentary delighted me all those years.

Of those writers, there is none I miss more than John Sledge.

Sledge began as books editor for the Press-Register in 1995, when he was brought on board by the late, legendary editor Bailey Thomson. He stayed in that position until 2012, when he and a host of fellow employees were given pink slips because they did not fit into what was to be the mostly-online foray into modern journalism.

Thus it was that Sledge lost a job and Mobile lost a connection to its culture.

Book pages were once common in the larger city papers. Usually running on Sunday, they gave pre-church readers a break from the often-dismal front-page news, something to mull over coffee and come back to in the afternoon. More than that, if the page had an editor as aware of his surroundings as John Sledge, the page gave readers a look at their community that was more positive, more uplifting and more creative than reports of city government scandals or the latest robbery downtown. That is what John Sledge did for Mobile and the region around it.

Sledge knew the landscape well. As architectural historian at the Mobile Historic Development Commission, he was familiar with both the built and the human landscape that characterized the community and its environs. This, plus his love of books and his knowledge of Southern literature, made him perfect for the job.

A job that is no more.

Happily, however, many of Sledge’s book columns have been collected in a single volume and published by the University of South Carolina under the title Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart. Now his fans can return and remember and new readers can get a taste of what once appeared every Sunday.

Let it be noted that this is not just a collection of book reviews, though more than a little critical analysis is found here. It is a celebration of the variety of literature that is Southern, or that appeals to Southerners, or was written by Southerners, or, in some cases, written by authors who could pass for Southern in one way or another. In other words, there is more than regional appeal in this book, though regional appeal would be well enough if that was what you wanted.

If the writer was not a Southerner, the subject often was; however, if neither fit that category, Sledge still took it on. One section of the book is devoted to “Classics,” which explores subjects ranging from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Herman Melville’s Omoo (in which he discovered the author’s “lighter side”).

I don’t have the space to cover all of Sledge’s covers, but suffice it to say these columns, essays if you will, are uniformly excellent and interesting. Ranging from commentary on architecture in literature — including a fascinating piece on how Faulkner used architectural settings to enhance his story — to books that survey the international scene, John Sledge gave readers a weekly dose of cultural insight that sadly they lost.

But rather than dwell on what the newspaper’s transition did to the community, let’s be happy that this book has been published to remind us of what once was.

As a travel writer as well as a book critic, Sledge takes his readers with him to Oxford and Greenville, Miss., Monroeville, Ala., Archer City, Texas, New Orleans and Paris. He also introduces readers to other bibliophiles, to bookstores and bookstore owners.

And, perhaps without meaning to, he makes a point. While other towns and regions might lay claim to being the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” none can make that claim more justly than Mobile and the counties around the bay.

Essaying authors like Mobile’s Eugene Walter, Baldwin County’s Frank Turner Hollon and around-the-Perdido, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson, Slade pays homage to the rich literary heritage of the region.

A disclaimer here: One of the essays included is on a book I wrote, which happily he liked. I can think of no better affirmation for an author than the approval of John Sledge. But even if it had been otherwise, I would still have to recommend Southern Bound for your summer reading list. You will enjoy it.

I promise.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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