Guest Post: Travis McGee & Reading for Survival

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By Kevin Comer

In 1928 at the age of 12, JDM—then known as Jack—contracted Scarlet Fever, a life-threatening disease common in children caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes. Young Jack’s infection was made doubly serious by accompanying Mastoiditis, a painful and sometimes deadly inflammation of the air pockets in the skull behind the ears. Today, Scarlet Fever and Mastoiditis are treated with antibiotics, but in 1928, bedrest and the body’s own defenses were the only treatments available. JDM was in bed for a year.

During that year of solitary confinement, JDM developed two signature lifelong habits. He became a voracious reader, reportedly tearing through both classics and pulps. And he became comfortable with being alone. He later wrote: “I entertained myself with the exercise of imagination.” 

Not bad preparation for becoming a writer, but eventually JDM came to believe reading broadly was an essential habit of the educated citizen that was increasingly underdeveloped by the education system and generally unappreciated by society. In Free Fall in Crimson (1981), JDM has Meyer deliver his take on the state of literacy in America when Travis surprises him upon his smiling return from a stroll on the beach by asking: “Back a winner?”

“Oh, good afternoon! A winner? In a sense, yes. There was a gaggle of lanky young pubescent lassies on the beach, one of the early invasions of summer, all of them from Dayton, Ohio, all of them earnest, sunburnt, and inquisitive. They were huddled around a beached sea slug, decrying its exceptional ugliness, and I took a hand in the discussion, told them its life pattern, defensive equipment, normal habitat, natural enemies, and so on. And I discovered to my great pleasure that this batch was literate! They had read books. Actual books. They had all read Lives of a Cell and are willing to read for the rest of their lives. They’d all been exposed to the same teacher in the public school system there, and he must be a fellow of great conviction. In a nation floundering in functional illiteracy, sinking into the pre-chewed pulp of television, it heartens me to know that here and there are little groups of young-uns who know what an original idea tastes like, who know that the written word is the only possible vehicle for transmitting a complex concept from mind to mind, who constantly flex the muscles in their heads and make them stronger. They will run the world one day, Travis. And they won’t have to go about breaking plate glass and skulls and burning automobiles to express themselves, to air their frustrations. Nor will these children be victimized by the blurry nonsense of the so-called social sciences. The muscular mind is a cutting tool, and contemporary education seeks to take the edge off it.”

When I read passages like this, I’m certain JDM must be spinning in his grave.

We owe JDM’s belief in the value and power of the written word for our last glimpse of Meyer and Travis McGee, whom he enlisted as evangelists in proselytizing the essential necessity of literacy in understanding the world and our place in it. In 1985, he wrote “Reading for Survival” as a contribution to the Literary Heritage of the States program of the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book at the request of Jean Trebbi, then executive director of the Florida Center for the Book. It was Trebbi who asked why he didn’t couch his ideas in the form of a conversation between Meyer and McGee when he reported he was struggling with the essay. He responded: “Why indeed…I am very sorry for taking so damn long.”   

When JDM finally submitted the work, he provided this preface: “The theme will be the terrible isolation of the nonreader, his life without meaning or substance because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.” He added: “The best way to make my words fall usefully upon deaf ears is to use such colorful language that it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many of the nonreaders.”

In “Reading for Survival,” Travis and Meyer engage in a broadranging conversation over the course of a number of days which ultimately focuses on the role of reading in developing the understanding necessary to survive—and flourish—in our increasingly complex world. It is perhaps less a conversation than an informal lecture delivered in bits and pieces as Meyer expands upon the topic which begins with musings on the nature of ideas and the forces shaping human evolution.

We’re not used to Meyer going on at such length and some points of reference are a bit dated. Nonetheless, this is our last visit aboard the Busted Flush; the last time T. McGee and Meyer share Boodles on the rocks in a pair of big old-fashioned glasses; and the last time we share the Lauderdale beach with Travis keeping himself in shape and Meyer firmly rooted to his towelthe last sunny day together with McGee and Meyer, friends forever.

I take solace in the knowledge that the subscribers to Travis McGee & Me are all readers and do not need me to quote the colorful language required by nonreaders. Click here to enjoy the final appearance of Travis McGee and Meyer in  “Reading for Survival.”

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16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & Reading for Survival

  1. Spinning in his grave, indeed! MacDonald was an early enthusiast of the computer revolution, reasoning that “at least the user needs to know how to read to use one.” That might have been true in the era of text-based operating systems, but in today’s world of the ubiquitous smart phone, one wonders what he would make of the new language. I don’t think he would have anticipated a world of LOL. L8R and IMHO.

    • I should re-read it because I can’t recall any theological language in it. I’m sure there is though if you said so, Clem. I need to re-read it after reading the input here.

      Like D.R. said, I was excited when I found it “Reading for Survival,” because I knew it was the last “new” interaction, the last new conversation that Travis and Meyer I would ever have and I would ever read. Does that make sense?

      Also, I’m a moderator on the Travis McGee site on Goodreads.com and I posted this blog on the site. Been meaning to tell D.R. that.

      But if you guys get a chance, please check it out and let me know if there’s anything I should post for members of the group or please feel free to post anything you would like. I would be grateful and most honored. You guys know TM and JDM inside and out and anything you can share would be appreciated.

  2. Hello Kevin:

    Excellent introduction to those who are unaware of this gem of an essay (and those who are as well.)

    I was so delighted when I discovered it a few years ago and posted and reviewed it on Goodreads. I received a lot of feedback from JDM fans and TM fans who had never heard nor read it.

    Lovely post and reminds me that I need to read it once again. It’s a piece that for me, should be read from time to time as a refresher.

    Thanks for your timely introduction.

  3. I think that JDM would think, at this point, that the battle for literacy and reason was almost lost. Far more now than in the mid-80s, young people don’t read books. Older people are so used up by the demands of job and family that they hardly ever even crack a book open. Society gets less and less information from the reasoned, printed word.

    More and more people get all their worldview from the bloviators and shouters and liars of the cable news networks and internet blogs. I quoted McGee/JDM in my piece on Deadly Shade of Gold, and it’s still true:

    “There are a lot of them running loose these days, I thought, fattening themselves on the sick business of whipping up such fear and confusion that they turn decent men against their decent neighbors in this sad game of think-alike.”

    That was back in the 60s. And it’s gotten far, far worse.

  4. i’m not a big fan of that last essay, the dialogue between McGee and Meyer on the subject of books. JDM throws embarrassing cliches about the Bible into Meyer’s mouth. it’s the kind of sophistry one hears a lot of from theologians, but i’d expect better out of Meyer, and MacDonald.

    • I don’t disagree. The thing is a thick brew of Meyer/JDM’s pontifications–however well intentioned. It’s only of interest because it’s the last we will ever hear from McGee and Meyer…unless JDM’s son’s heirs have a different view of their grandfather’s most popular creation.

    • Thanks for that heads up, Steve. For those McGee and JDM fans here who aren’t aware of Steve’s blog, The Trap of Solid Gold, they should be. It’s undoubtedly the richest, most comprehensive source of McGee and JDM info available online. Many, many hours of great reading over there.

    • I am so sorry, Steve and D.R.: As you know, D.R., I’m active on Goodreads.com. Due to the lack of interest of the Travis McGee Fan Club group I asked to be co-moderator.

      One of the things the site was lacking was a page with links to other TM and JDM sites which would offer Goodreads.com readers more information on the writer and the character.

      I’ve already apologized to D.R. but so glad to know that “The Trap of Solid Gold” was your site, Steve. So please accept my apology for not contacting you before I posted the site. Let me know if there is any problem. Here’s the site:

      https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/1794-travis-mcgee-fan-club

      Great site, too. I want and need to go back and go through it with a fine toothed comb!

      Thanks and love this new “to me, anyhow” information. I’m going to the site now !

      Cheers! Cathy

      • Cathy, thanks for this info on your Goodreads group. I’d blanked on it, so glad to get the reminder. I just posted a comment re. the prospective movie and actor (glad to have Bale, but wish it were Brolin). Anyway, all you Goodreads members need to check it out!

      • Hi D.R. I’m Brolin too, over Bale. But hate disappointment and damn, those people in Hollywood don’t listen to me. So if they go Bale, I’ll be a bit disappointed but won’t be under water.

        Anyway, no actor could replace the Travis in my mind…the one I love. Yes, that one!

        You’re great, D.R.

  5. A great thread, so heartening to see how many resonate with the issue of reading / intelligence / stretching the mind with books as a life long pursuit.

    I’ve been a devoted fan of JDM since the early ’80s, even went on a used paperback buying binge to find old Travis books and discovered a cache in, of all places, Scranton, PA, his home town I believe.

    Reading him was an inspiration for me; when I first started writing fiction, I felt I was channeling JDM as if he were looking over my shoulder, offering encouragement / criticism, ‘Not quite right . . . keep after it . . . all first drafts are shitty . . . don’t give up . . . read more . . . find your voice. You’ll have a book one day.’

  6. I’m delighted to find this blog. I first started reading JDM back in 1974 (OMG, 40 years ago!) with The Dreadful Lemon Sky. After that, I found as many volumes as I could, reading (and re-reading) with fascination as I watched MacDonald develop his characters. What a wonderful series it was, and how well it characterized Florida and the US. McGee rules!

      • Hello All:

        I started reading Travis in ’68 when my sailor husband brought one home. Then I wanted all of them. I’m now reading them my third time around and this time I’m keeping them since I got rid of the first ones I read (along with my husband.) I’m tired of giving them away then when I want to re-read them, I have to scrounge the thrift stores to find them.

        I am co-moderator of the Travis McGee Fan Club on Goodreads.com and have this blog (D. R.’s) posted, as well as Steve’s blog, “Trap of Solid Gold.” Visit the site here for the fan club: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/1794-travis-mcgee-fan-club

        We have 45 members who love to talk about TM and JDM.

  7. And MacDonald takes chances. His descriptions of, and explanations for, the way Junior Allen makes both Cathy Kerr and Lois Atkinson essentially his willing, nymphomaniac sex slaves will make every self respecting academic feminist in the world scream in protest. And he scalds George Brell with 180 degree water to get information out of him, so surely the sadist charge is awaiting somewhere.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2015/03/john-d-macdonald-deep-blue-good-by.html#.VTM4qNKUc7W

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