The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Death of a Old-Style Bookman

June 10, 2008
Minneapolis, MN

He looked like a fourth Pep Boy. He wore a pencil moustache, a crew cut, and owlish black glasses. The cigar, I'm probably making up. And that voice! Brooklyn or the Bronx, whichever one's thicker. He used it to talk about books the way a great sports-talk host talks about sports: volubly, without repetition, as if nothing else in the world could matter. He was Matthew J. Bruccoli, and he was one of the best friends American literature and The Big Read, and any of his friends, ever had.

I first encountered Matt Bruccoli years before I met him, as the author of the Fitzgerald biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. Leave it to Matt, with his encyclopedic, even Googolic knowledge of Fitzgerald's every word, to pick out from that treasurehouse the perfect, emblematic, unforgettable title.

Matthew Bruccoli. Photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina.

 

Meeting him had to wait until years later, not long after I arrived from the San Francisco Chronicle to become program director of The Big Read. Dan in audio was putting together one of our first Big Read CDs, about The Great Gatsby, and I just knew we had to get Bruccoli. It wasn't easy. Arch-bibliophile that he is, Matt had taken to email like a duck to buckshot. Somehow, though, through a forest of intermediaries, I got through to him and, with a nervousness that looks absurd in retrospect, finally winkled him out of South Carolina and into the Big Read office.

My first impression was that he had walked up all seven flights. Bruccoli came in breathless, perspiring in suit and tie, carrying a plump satchel. After a few minutes of careening conversation that was like a table of contents for every conversation we would ever have, Dan ushered him into the audio booth, a notorious sweatbox.

In impassioned but scholarly, extemporaneous yet diagrammable paragraphs -- not just on Fitzgerald, but on Hemingway and Hammett besides -- Prof. Bruccoli held us spellbound for an hour easy, never once loosening his foulard, while all around him swigged water by the nalgene.

"Strivers!", he cried, nailing for legions of Big Read listeners in one emphatically flung word the generation of ambitious dreamers for whom Gatsby stood in. Around the office even now, at the mention of Matt's name, it's a contest between Dan and me to see who can pronounce it with a more faithful New York honk. "Strivers!" The merest hint of an audible "r" is grounds for immediate disqualification.

Bruccoli was a striver too. Like the teenager in the stacks that Salinger and Updike used to fantasize about, Bruccoli was a bookish kid from an unbookish household. One day he wandered sweatily from a stickball game into a candystore, recognized Fitzgerald's name on a paperback spinner from a radio play the week before, picked up Gatsby, and he was off to the races. If young Matt was anywhere near as good at stickball as he was at reading, the loss to American sport was incalculable.

Sixty years later, in the home he and Arlyn finally made in Columbia, S.C., he was still that same book-drunk Katzenjammer Kid, only all grown up, and living in the best candystore any kid with a sweet tooth for books ever had. People natter on a lot about book-filled houses, and they go on a lot about light-filled houses, too. Thanks probably more to Arlyn, their house is the only one I've ever visited that was both.

I'm sorry I'll never see Matt lunging across his study to show me yet another association copy he'd picked up for a song. I'm sorry we'll never put on the screenwriters conference we brainstormed about for the last year. And, maybe more than anything, I'm sorry for all the Big Read cities full of teenagers he won't get to visit now, and contaminate with his enthusiasm for Fitzgerald in particular and life in general.

It wasn't easy, but I had to smile when I saw in his local paper's obituary that Matt had died "at his Heathwood Circle home." That only made sense. Matt could never have died in a hospital room. Not enough books in it.

If I forced myself to sum up in a word this man so congenitally besotted with the American language, that word would be "bookman." Matt Bruccoli was a bookman the way old wharf rats talk about "watermen," men who, whether navigating the sea, fishing it or just looking out longingly at it, are unimaginable away from the their chosen element. Matt Bruccoli's element was books, and I can't even write about him without using the technology he so disdained to set this remembrance of him in the only possible font for it: Bookman Old Style.