Wednesday, October 14, 2015


I’m not sure I remember a more satisfying moment from my childhood than the movie moment when Charlie Bucket unwrapped the Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket from Mr. Willy Wonka… In your wildest dreams you could not imagine the marvelous surprises that await you!”

So you can imagine the thrill a generation later when I wrote a magazine article about Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie.

His rise to fame was remarkable. Here was a kid from Ohio who was performing at the Cleveland Playhouse children’s theater in 1970 when he was discovered by agents casting the film. They took some Polaroid pictures, tape-recorded him reading from some lines, called him in for a screen test a couple of months later… and suddenly 12-year-old Pete was Charlie Bucket, traveling overseas for the first time, to Munich, and acting opposite the likes of Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson.

He was basically playing himself—down to earth and able to be awed without losing a sense of self. But unlike Charlie, who gratefully inherited Wonka’s factory, Ostrum returned to Cleveland with the suspicion that filmmaking wasn’t quite his (edible) cup of tea. He even turned down producer David Wolper’s offer of a three-picture deal. “I enjoyed making the movie,” he told me, “but at that point, did I want to be a film actor for the rest of my life? I guess I didn’t.”

Instead, he found an entirely different calling. Shortly after he completed the film, his family acquired a horse. When a veterinarian arrived at the stables one day, Ostrum watched him work and had a life-changing epiphany. Three decades after his single film credit, Peter Ostrum has a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree on the wall of his practice in upstate Lowville, NY, instead of lickable wallpaper. He is surrounded not by Oompa Loompas, but by a handful of dogs and cats.

No, he doesn’t actually own one of the dozen or so original Golden Tickets, said to be a valuable collector’s item nowadays—just a clapstick slate and a couple of Wonka Bars. But Dr. Peter Ostrum is so content in his choices that perhaps the final lines of his sole movie appearance were prescient after all:

“But, Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted."

"What happened?"

"He lived happily ever after."

So in the only movie he ever made, Ostrum had a starring role, grabbed a Golden Ticket, piloted a Great Glass Elevator, inherited a candy conglomerate and cemented his place in film history. Might he be the ultimate one-hit wonder?

Malcolm Gladwell would plotz. The most talked-about and compelling part about Gladwell’s outstanding book Outliers was his decision to repeatedly trumpet the “10,000-hour rule”—the notion that the key to success in almost any field is, to a large extent, a matter of simply practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. The notion stems from the widespread belief, certainly generally valid, that achievement is all about perseverance. Practice makes perfect. Never say die. Try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed…

But sometimes, at first, you do succeed. Wildly. Like Peter Ostrum, a handful of folks have tried something once, achieved near perfection, then left it at that. They batted 1.000 for eternity.

A fellow named John Paciorek did so literally. He appeared in exactly one major league baseball game—for the old Houston Cold ‘45s on the last day of the 1963 season. In five times at bat, he singled three times, walked twice, scored four runs, and recorded three runs batted in. He also made a couple of nice running catches in the outfield. Paciorek was anointed Houston’s star of the future, but a series of injuries that began in the offseason derailed his career. That remarkable first game would prove to be the only big league game he ever played.

There are echoes of “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams: “Back then I thought, Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” Except Graham didn’t get to bat at all.

And sure, it’s tempting to call Paciorek the can’t-miss-kid who missed, but he did make it after all, right? And in that one game, he was simply flawless—he will forever have, literally, a perfect batting average.

But what about music, you ask? Isn’t that the source of the term one-hit wonder? Sure, there are scores of songs to choose from—hit singles from solo acts or band that never produced another. You know, like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, or “Come on Eileen”  by Dexys Midnight Runners, or “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. However, those weren’t the only songs by those artists—just the most successful ones.

Ah, but one particular can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head tune was recorded by a specific group of little-known musicians who joined for a single recording session. Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo, and Dale Frashuer couldn’t come up with suitable lyrics, so they substituted words like “hey hey” and “na na.” They were said to be so embarrassed by the song that they attributed it to a fictional band called Steam. The result: “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” became a number one single on the Billboard Top 100 in late 1969. To this day, it remains a sports stadium crowd-chant staple.
Nearly everybody knows the one song they recorded in a single session. That’s a one-hit wonder.

Okay, how about filmmakers? Well, if you’re a fan of zombie films, you surely have seen Night of the Living Dead, the paragon of pasty animated corpse flicks. But director George Romero once said his film was directly inspired by another, a 1962 black-and-white called Carnival of Souls, which was a micro-budget horror movie filmed by a guy named Herk Harvey in his Kansas hometown. It was the only film he ever completed before returning to a quiet life as a Kansas businessman, but it is referenced reverently by modern horror filmmakers.

If we’re talking reverence, however, let’s talk literature.

Let’s start with A Confederacy of Dunces, the unforgettable romp of fat and flatulent Ignatius J. Reilly. John Kennedy Toole wrote it, couldn’t snag a publisher, and committed suicide in 1969 at age 31. His book was published posthumously and, twelve years after his death, won the Pulitzer Prize. However, not many folks know that it wasn’t actually his first novel. He wrote The Neon Bible at the age of 16 in 1954 and couldn’t get that published either. It was eventually released eight years after Confederacy hit it big.

While a whole bunch of people consider Confederacy to be one of their favorite books, consensus suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird is THE most-loved piece of literature ever produced. Nearly every student has read it. There are nearly 30 million copies in print. In 1999, a Library Journal poll voted it Best Novel of the Century. I’m pretty sure I agree. And the movie was great, too.

Lee published the Pulitzer-winning book in 1960, then never published another novel for 55 years, although she did help her childhood pal Truman Capote in his research for In Cold Blood—and how’s that for another classic? “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again,” she once explained. Which is one reason publication of Go Set a Watchman was so… disappointing. Well, that and the fact that Atticus Finch turned out to be less than perfect.

But while I will be forever grateful to Harper Lee as an author’s inspiration, she no longer qualifies as a one-hit wonder. And I genuinely liked Peter Ostrum, but he’s not number one either. Nor is John Paciorek, even though I’m a baseball history nut.

No, I think I most love the story of John Daniels.

Daniels is believed to have snapped one photograph in his life. He did it on December 17, 1903, on a cold and windy day on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And he made it count. Daniel’s photograph is depicted on the North Carolina quarter. It has been blown up to a 10-foot-by-10-foot size and paraded through the state. It has been recreated in statues of bronze at almost the very location that it occurred. It is simply one of the most significant snapshots in human history.
On that day in 1903, Daniels was among a handful of people keeping busy at a particularly wind-ravaged spot in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a placed called Kill Devil Hills. The busiest two people were brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Daniels, a rescue worker from the local lifesaving station, was merely helping out where he could.

The story of the Wright brothers is the tale of the right men coming along at the right time. Daniels happened to be in the right place. After years of preparation, the Wrights pointed their aircraft into the wind. Orville set up a camera on a tripod, aiming it at a point he hoped the machine would reach when it left its take-off rail. He instructed Daniels to press the shutter if the aircraft actually left the ground. After about 45 feet, the flying machine lifted into the air, and 120 feet later it touched the earth again.

Daniels later claimed that he was so excited at the flight’s success that he thought he had forgotten to squeeze the bulb. But the photo was perfect, capturing the craft two feet off the ground, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. It was the very moment that changed the world.

The photograph has since been analyzed endlessly—from the location of footprints in the sand to the speed of the propellers—but it was actually the lesser of Daniels’s major thrills that day. After the Wright’s fourth successful flight, a gust of wind caught the Flyer, causing it—and Daniels, who had been holding on—to cartwheel across the beach. The Flyer was damaged and never flew again. Until 1937, when he finally took a flight to Cleveland, the same could have been said of Daniels, who explained, “I’ve had all the thrill I ever want in an airplane.”

Daniels spent the rest of his years in relative obscurity on the Carolina coast, and he may have been most proud not of his seminal photograph but of his pioneering bruises as the first airplane casualty. In fact, Orville Wright, who died within 24 hours of Daniels in 1948, used to joke that his friend “rode further in the plane than either of the inventors.” Of course, there were no photographs to prove it.


In chapter three of The Phantom Tollbooth, young protagonist Milo and his dog-clock-sidekick Tock arrive at the gates to the city of Dictionopolis, where they encounter a gateman. There follows this exchange:

“You can’t get in without a reason.” He thought for a moment and then continued. “Wait a minute; maybe I have an old one you could use.”

He took a battered suitcase from the gatehouse and began to rummage busily through it, mumbling to himself, “No… no… no… this won’t do… no… h-m-m-m… ah, this is fine,” he cried triumphantly, holding up a small medallion on a chain. He dusted it off and engraved on one side were the words “WHY NOT?”

“That’s a good reason for almost anything—a bit used, perhaps, but quite serviceable.”

And that is as good a reason as any why, when we started our publishing venture, we named it Why Not Books. Well, that and the words of George Bernard Shaw: “You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream thing that never worry and say, “Why not?’”

With that in mind, I offer 31 philosophical musings from some of Juster’s most memorable characters—from the Humbug to the Mathemagician to Princesses Rhyme and Reason. They are life lessons from a lively mind:

1. King Azaz and the Mathemagician: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

2. The Princess of Sweet Rhyme: “It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

3. The Humbug: “Things which are equally bad are also equally good. Try to look at the bright side of things.”


Did you know that Tom Clancy’s favorite book is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Stephen King’s is Lord of the Flies. Jonathan Franzen loves Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Or how about creative types like Tom Hanks (In Cold Blood) and Matt Damon (A People’s History of the United States). Steven Spielberg? His favorite book is The Last of the Mohicans.

Doesn’t it give you a dash of insight into the artist? Professing a literary love is an especially intimate admission, perhaps a tiny glimpse into someone’s soul. Books stay with you—intellectually, emotionally, and often quite literally. A favorite story offers a sense of sensibilities, as it were. And this may be particularly true when you get specific.

Peter Orner is the author of four critically acclaimed books of fiction, including Esther’s Stories and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. The latter was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book for 2013 and a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2013. He has established himself as a master of the short form, and his stories have appeared in Best American Stories, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review.  He also happens to be an old high school pal of mine. So I asked him for a favor in the form of a list of favorites.


National Book Award-winner Maya Angelou once wrote, “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” About a century earlier, Oscar Wilde declared, “Mere color, unspoiled by meaning and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”

Color can turn a setting into a sonnet. Just consider Jack Kerouac’s description of a sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

So while Georgia O’Keeffe one contended that she could “say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things I had no words for,” we at the Why Not 100 think color is as integral to a good book as it is to a good painting.

Here we offer a multi-hued menagerie of colorful book titles. And we’re not going to repeat a color (sorry Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Green Mile and The Bluest Eye, not to mention The Red Pony, The Red Tent, Where the Red Fern Grows, and The Hunt for Red October).

The sheer variety of color names out there is remarkable. Huckleberry? Chocolate? Mango? Cornflower? But out of respect for literature, we refuse to list Fifty Shades of Grey. On the other hand, out of self-respect, we did include a recent Why Not Books title at the very end:

1. The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
2. The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
3. The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
4. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
5. Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)
6. Blue Highways (William Least Heat-Moon)


Baseball Hall of Famer and language mangler Yogi Berra is famous for saying many things. Among them is this: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” He’s not alone. Were we to choose, along with Yogi, an all-star team of the misquoted and misattributed throughout history, we could include the likes of Shakespeare and Churchill, Bogart and Cagney, Marie Antoinette and Paul Revere, Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk. Indeed, the misquote has become something of a national pastime.

Leo Durocher could manage this all-star team. Before a 1946 game with the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager declared, “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.” Sportswriters took over from there, increasing the pop and decreasing the wordage, and Durocher’s legendary line became “Nice guys finish last.” He long denied having uttered those exact words, but in a lesson in the perpetuation of myths, it became the title of a 1975 book co-written by Durocher himself.

The words also lent themselves to another book title: Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by quote collector and corrector Ralph Keyes. Unlike most of us, who accept classic quotes without a need to verify, Keyes did some painstaking research to find out the truth. According to Keyes, misquotes take three basic forms:

The wrong words in the right mouth
The right words in the wrong mouth
The wrong words in the wrong mouth.

So let’s take a tour of some of history’s most famous misquotations, each categorized and corrected:

Friday, October 9, 2015


I stay up late. That’s just how my biological clock rolls. But it’s also because I’m a writer, and I traffic in ideas, and the middle of the night is when everyone else asleep. So all the ideas are hanging out there, ripe for the picking.

I’ve been a fulltime freelancer and author for nearly a quarter-century, since I was 23 years old. I write for a living. But for some reason, people often think that all I do is write. When really, what I mostly do is think. I imagine. I wonder. I research. I query. I pitch. Then I write it up. But the pursuit of the idea is the large part of the adventure.

I love the idea of ideas—the fact that it’s possible to summon some sort of creative notion that hasn’t necessarily been conjured before. To be honest, I tend to enjoy the imagining even more than the writing. But if my file cabinets brimming with past and future (and occasionally rejected) story ideas are any indication, finding subject matter is the easiest part of my job.

But rather than telling you that, I’ll just show you—by exploring the articles that I have written for a single magazine and musing on the origins of many of them.

I have long been listed as a contributing editor for my college publication—Cornell Alumni Magazine. Basically, that means I write for them so often that they kindly added my name to the masthead. I have always welcomed the opportunity to write for CAM because it’s not a magazine about sports or quilting or parenting. It’s about anything. A story simply need be compelling and have some attachment to the university—a place that has churned out thousands of fascinating graduates over the years.

So how have I found suitable story ideas? You name it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sleeping Bear Press has published hundreds of titles since releasing its first children’s book in 1998. It may be best known for its excellent (and seemingly endless) series of alphabet picture books, all featuring an innovative two-tiered format. That means that each letter of the alphabet contains three elements—a beautiful illustration, a short poem (for young readers) and a more extensive sidebar (for older readers). So kids can grow with the books while they grow as readers.

Sleeping Bear has published an alphabet book for each state—from A is for Arches: A Utah Alphabet to Y is for Yellowhammer: An Alabama Alphabet. There are also alphabet books devoted to Canadian provinces (including S is for Spirit Bear: A British Columbia Alphabet) and cities (W is for Windy City: A Chicago Alphabet) and countries (K is for Kabuki: A Japan Alphabet).

But wait, there’s more. Much more. Sleeping Bear is to alphabet books what Pooh-Bear is to honey. You can never get enough, and suddenly you’ll look on a forgotten shelf and find an unexpected gem. The subject matter ranges from ancient Rome (G is for Gladiator) to writing (S is for Story) to fishing (H is for Hook) to Halloween (J is for Jack-O’-Lantern).

I’m proud to have contributed nine sports-themed alphabet books to the mix—covering everything from baseball and football to soccer and stock car racing (my latest is W is for Wrigley: The Friendly Confines Alphabet). I’m also proud of the award-winning S is for Save the Planet: A How-to-be Green Alphabet. But you could build a library of Sleeping Bear alphabet books (everything from A is for Airplane to Z is for Zookeeper), read them all, and find that you’ve ingested a fine education about almost everything.

Here are 75 alphabet books, separated into categories—and this doesn’t even include any of the 50 state books or 11 Canadian province and territory books or, for that matter, any of the dozens of counting books that Sleeping Bear Press has produced. Still, it’s quite a list:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Whenever I have bouts of cynicism, periods of pervasive pessimism—and they’re not infrequent—I try to remedy the situation with occasional travel. That may mean physical forays into the American outback (setting a course for, say, Utopia, Texas) or fantastical forays into the literary realm (“After all, tomorrow is another day”).

Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. My first travel memoir, States of Mind, chronicled a 314-day cross-country excursion in 1995-96 that essentially was a cynical Generation Xer’s attempt to find out if that cynicism was justified—did I reflect the state of the union, or merely misjudge it? So I turned that figurative notion into a literal search for virtue in America – in places like Pride (Alabama), Justice (West Virginia), Honor (Michigan) and Wisdom (Montana).
So it was a hopeful expedition.

I would say most literary travelers allow sanguinity to ride shotgun. As Mark Twain once declared, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” We journey in search of something better.

Well, most of us do. Then there’s Henry Miller.

He’s best known toeing the obscenity/literary line in novels like Tropic of Cancer, but he also wrote a cross-country travel memoir. And it was about as hopeful as a pothole. It was brimming with condescension and despair, grumpiness and gloom. “One’s destination is never a place,” he wrote, “but a new way of looking at things.” Yet he seemed to pack a suitcase full of old biases and mean-spirited generalities, which colored his view of the American scene (after a long stay in Europe) during one cross-country trip in 1940-41.

He called his travel memoir The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

I’ve selected 28 cynical statements from his journey. There were far more to choose from:

1. “A great change had come over America… Everything was cock-eyed and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons.”

2. “The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism—I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that veneer of fatuous optimism—only now decidedly cracked.”

3. “I, on the other hand, always expect angels to pee in my beer.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


My favorite nonfiction books are the ones that examine oft-mined subjects from a new point of view, whether that means Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. So early in my career, I wrote one of my own. Twenty years ago, in 1995, I produced a book called THE SPORTS 100, published by Macmillan. It was a ranking and profile of the one hundred most important people in American sports history.

The book judges influence, not athletic prowess. If all you can say about someone was that he was the best quarterback or hit this many home runs or won that many U.S. Open titles, that isn’t enough. There are too many stars in the world of sports to have included people for star power alone. You won’t find Ted Williams or Joe Montana or Steffi Graf. But you will find jump shot pioneer Hank Luisetti and vilified baseball owner Walter O’Malley and influential bookmaker Charles McNeil. It is an attempt to show that there are relative unknowns who left more of an imprint than a great many legends.

Another aim of The Sports 100 is to put the games into historical perspective, to show how its cultural influence often manifests itself in a handful of significant individuals—from Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. The book also highlights the many cases in which one person was largely responsible for introducing an eventually monumental element of sports—be it free agency, the point spread, the minor league farm system, or the forward pass. In fact, it is not only a study of 100 remarkable people, but also of 100 components of sport’s evolution. It is as much a history of the games as a profile of the participants.

In the end, the list is as diverse as sport itself. There are athletes and innovators, activists and academics, executives and inventors, journalists and judges, agents and outcasts, pioneers, producers, promoters and presidents—all of whom made a lasting impact, in one way or another, on American athletics. Of course, readers were bound to disagree with many of the selections and omissions. But like the old argument about New York’s greatest centerfielder, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Unfortunately, the book is long out of print. If you want a copy, you’ll just have to contact me personally. And if you want some interesting bits of trivia that I discovered along the way, well, there’s plenty of that.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


In the pantheon of the profound—Churchill and FDR, Shakespeare and Twain, even Will Rogers and Woody Allen (if you prefer mirth while musing), we at the Why Not 100 think Dr. Seuss belongs. Really. He did it through allegory and whimsy, substituting edifying imagination for speechifying exhortations, replacing rim-shot one-liners with Once-lers and wonders. Indeed, many of his most famous passages are designed just as much to enlighten as to entertain.

Most of them are life-affirming perspectives—every person counts and should try new things and can save the world one speck or tree at a time. They’re the kind of reminders that lodge firmly in a child’s psyche—brain-remainers, he might call them. Sometimes, too, Seuss tossed in some gentle barbs, kindly poking fun at the excesses of authority or income disparity or the diffusion of responsibility. And once in a while, he just comments on love or imagination or gratitude or 

We’ve chosen our 37 favorites:

1. “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!)

2. “Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person, no matter how small!” (Horton Hears a Who)

3. “In the places I go there are things that I see that I never could spell if I stopped with a Z. I’m telling you this ‘cause you’re one of my friends. My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.” (On Beyond Zebra)

Monday, August 31, 2015


When my son Luke started reading in earnest—that is, when he found that he had made his way through enough contemporary fantasy novels to fill the libraries of Rivendell and Hogwarts—I began to suggest some older classics.

He had already read the three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, including The Two Towers, which was his favorite one. How about Jules Verne, I said. Around the World in Eighty Days or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Then I got him hooked on Sherlock Holmes, starting with Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four. For good measure, I led him to Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None.

See a pattern? We at the Why Not100 obviously treasure the written word, but there sure are a lot of classics with numbers in the title, whether it’s 1984, Seven Years in Tibet, or North Dallas Forty. Hence, the following list.

Only once, as you’ll see, do we reference Janet Evanovich, who has written twenty numbered Stephanie Plum mysteries—from One for the Money, Two for the Dough, and Three to Get Deadly to Explosive Eighteen, Notorious Nineteen, and Takedown Twenty.

You may also notice, when you get to number 50, that a certain erotic novel didn’t make the cut.

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (Ken Kesey)
2. A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
3. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)
4. The Sign of the Four (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Monday, August 24, 2015


Ever consider that most of us don’t necessarily know the first name of the authors of such classics as The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, Curious George, Mary Poppins, Charlotte’s Web, and Winnie the Pooh? Or The Catcher in the Rye? Or The War of the Worlds? Or, for that matter, The Sixth Sense?

Oh, and the Harry Potter series, too. Joanne Rowling was asked by her publisher to adopt a more masculine pen name. So she borrowed her grandmother’s name (Kathleen) and became forever famous as J.K. Rowling. Much the same process happened with Susan Eloise (better known as S.E.) Hinton, author of The Outsiders.

So let’s take a tour of initials and explore the real names behind some literary icons.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel)
2. W.E.B. Du Bois (William Edward Burghardt)
3. J.K. Rowling (Joanne Kathleen)
4. C.S. Lewis (Clive Staples)
5. E.B. White (Elwyn Brooks)

Sunday, August 16, 2015


I just finished reading a really unusual book called “S.” It was conceived by J.J. Abrams, the brilliant guy behind the TV series “Lost,” which I absolutely loved until I absolutely hated it. (I felt like it was equivalent to reading a 3,000-page Sherlock Holmes mystery in which none of the clues actually wound up mattering because it was all a morphine-fueled excursion into another dimension). Abrams is also the guy who was handed the keys to the modern film versions of Star Trek and Star Wars and Mission Impossible. Brilliance begets good fortune—and a certain pop culture responsibility.

But about the book… “S” is an idea that would have been immediately discarded as far too expensive and outside-the-box if it had been proposed by just about anyone less creatively successful. As Abrams tells it, he was at LAX more than a decade ago, when he came across an abandoned book signed by a mysterious woman named Janet. It sparked an idea that was finally realized when he recruited novelist Doug Dorst to write up a tale (two tales, actually) and Mulholland Books to publish it.

The tagline: One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace and desire.

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger who, as evidenced by his notes written in the margins, is entranced by the story (a novel called Ship of Theseus) and the enigmatic writer (a secretive and mysterious fellow called V.M. Straka). The readers—a college senior named Jennifer and a disgraced grad student named Eric—eventually begin to write to each other on the pages of the book. So it is essentially a double-story-intertwined. One is a mysterious sort of adventure tale, the other a beguiling sort of love story in the margins. What a cool idea.

It is basically two books in one, and “S” is the title of the meta-concept. Thus it is a long read with a short title. Add here’s where I finally get to the point of this post—it’s not even the first book called “S.” John Updike wrote one. And several authors wrote a collaborative novel of the same name. And Thomas Pynchon wrote “V.” Andy Warhol wrote “A.”

Here are 33 of the shortest book titles you’ll ever come across—along with a very short synopsis of each:

Sunday, August 9, 2015


August 9 is National Book Lovers Day. So I’m going to explore that in a literal sense.

There used to be a couple of communities in Florida, both of them settled sometime in the 1850s. One had a few general stores and some other businesses. The other boasted, at the very least, a post office. The towns were only about two miles apart, each one’s destiny certainly intertwined with the other’s. But today both are no more. They’re dead.

Their names? Romeo and Juliette.

Okay, so the spelling of the latter is a bit off. But c’mon, doesn’t that give you ghost town goosebumps?

Then again, there are plenty of Shakespearean places that you can visit during a cross-country excursion. We can start with a place called, well, Shakespeare, located in southwestern New Mexico, just south of the city of Lordsburg. That one’s a ghost town, too—much ado about nothing, one might say. But Shakespeare, New Mexico, actually offers occasional tours. And, in perhaps the ultimate anachronism, it has a website (

Want to further immortalize the Immortal Bard in the form of an epic road trip? Try this somewhat manageable itinerary:

1. Bard (California)
2. Romeo (Colorado)
3. Shakespeare (New Mexico)

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Happy birthday, J.K. Rowling. And happy birthday, Harry Potter, too. July 31 is the big day.

Here at the Why Not 100, we have our own favorite wizard. It’s Gandalf the Grey. And our favorite boy who suddenly steps into a world of mystery and adventure? That would be Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth. But we can’t deny that Harry Potter is a likeable combination of both, and one of the most compelling aspects of J.K. Rowling’s series is the gradual revelation of the extent of his powers and the possibilities for wizardry.

The Harry Potter books and films contain scores of spells and charms. Some are merely mentioned, and others are cast nonverbally, but at least 86 actual incantations are revealed. So here they are. Use them at your peril:

1. Accio (summons an object to the caster)

2. Aguamenti (produces a jet of water from the caster’s charm)

3. Alohomora (open or unlocks doors)

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I often give a talk to educators that I call “Hemingway was a Sportswriter.” It’s mostly about how teachers can utilize sports as a means of generating enthusiasm for reading and writing among reluctant readers and writers. But the talk also might have been titled “In Defense of Sports as Literature.”

I talk about how Ernest Hemingway patterned himself after famous early 20th-century sportswriter Ring Lardner. And Hemingway wrote about sports—skiing, jai-alai, big game hunting—for the rest of his life. Death in the Afternoon was about bullfighting. The Old Man and the Sea, which won him a Pulitzer Prize, was a simple story about a fisherman battling a fish. Hemingway tended to use sports as a metaphor, and he found profundity in the action, the detail, the things other writers might have missed. He found beauty in the precision of the hunt, grace in the movement of the matador, a sort of ballet in the struggle between a fisherman and a marlin.

Books about sports can serve as enlightenment disguised as entertainment. Sometimes it’s because a game or a season or a sports can serve as the perfect structure for a riveting narrative. And sometimes it’s because athletes or events can represent agents of change. When you read a biography of Jackie Robinson or Joe Louis or Bill Russell, you’re really reading a racial history of America. Arthur Ashe’s brilliant and beautiful autobiography, Days of Grace, is about a tennis player, sure. But it’s really about race and AIDS and privacy and death and love.

It is no wonder that sports tends to draw literary luminaries. Damon Runyan and James Michener started their careers as sportswriters. John Grisham and Stephen King have each written a few books about sports—long after reaching the point where they could write about anything they want. William Faulkner wrote for Sports Illustrated. So did Robert Frost and John Steinbeck.

So sports—which was so long derided as the Toy Department of newspapers—has been the setting for many a literary masterpiece. Sometimes really serious stuff. And sometimes not. Some fiction. Some nonfiction. All brilliant. But I’m here to rank the best of the best—with only one rule: One book per sport.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


They say everything in literature is derivative, each creation influenced by a previous one. Perhaps, but there’s plenty of imagination still to be tapped. Most of the good stuff happens late at night, when everyone’s asleep and all the ideas are out there for the taking. That’s why we at Why Not Books aim to create nonfiction that tells untold stories from unique angles, along with clever fiction that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the trend or style of the moment. We pair stories with charities, publicizing the non-profits and donating a portion of the proceeds. We try to think outside the box.

Still… maybe everything really is derivative in one way or another. Consider the following, which shows that you easily can travel from Homer to Harry Potter in 16 steps:

1. Circa 800 B.C., Homer told the tale of the Trojan War in the form of The Iliad.

2. In a 14th-century poem set against a backdrop of that very siege of Troy, Geoffrey Chaucer retold in Middle English the tragic story of lovers “Troilus and Criseyde.” Achilles and Hector made appearances, too.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Back in 2008, on their website “The Art of Manliness,” Brett and Kate McCay wrote beautifully about oratory:

“Oratory has been called the highest art for it encompasses all other disciplines. It requires a knowledge of literature, the ability to construct prose, and an ear for rhythm, harmony and musicality. Oratory is not mere speaking, but speech that appeals to our noblest sentiments, animates our souls, stirs passions and emotions, and inspires virtuous action. It is often at its finest when fostered during times of tragedy, pain, crisis, fear, and turmoil. In these situations it serves as a light, a guide to those who cannot themselves make sense of the chaos and look to a leader to point the way.”

The McCays then took it upon themselves to select the 35 greatest examples of oratory in history—based on style, substance, and impact. So of all the addresses and lectures and sermons, of all the orations and exhortations and proclamations, of all the statements of possibility and perseverance, among a cast of historical icons that might include Patton and Napoleon and Vince Lombardi and Billy Graham and William Jennings Bryan and Malcolm X, these were deemed the 35  finest speeches.

It’s a fine list—maybe a little heavy on Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, and the inclusion of Jesus Christ had some folks scratching their heads. And since it was posted on “The Art of Manliness,” it is a male-only collection. Still, it is an impressive array of oratory. Given the time, we should all read each one of them in full. But in this installment of the Why Not 100, we offer excerpts—we rank the 35 best parts of the best speeches in human history:

Thursday, July 2, 2015


A friend and I have a little game of intellectual tennis that we play, usually when we’re killing time. It’s called “The Mount Rushmore Game,” and basically it just requires us to come up with the four greatest entries in any particular category. For instance (and these are only my opinions, but I’m pretty sure they’re correct), the Mount Rushmore of…

American athletes: Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps

Rock bands: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2

Sitcom characters: Archie Bunker, Hawkeye Pierce, Homer Simpson, The Fonz

See, it’s easy, if never a source of agreement. So I’ve taken it to a literary level. Best songs about writing? Best literary doctors? Best character names? Best autobiography titles? It’s all here—and most of the lists of four have been expanded elsewhere in the WhyNot 100 (Four songs about writing? How about 95).

So here are 44 fun foursomes, all of which could be carved into rock:

Paperback Writer (The Beatles)
Every Day I Write the Book (Elvis Costello)
Unwritten (Natasha Beddingfield)
I Write the Songs (Barry Manilow)

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Almost Famous (2000)
The Player (1992)
The Shining (1980)

The Cat in the Hat
Horton the elephant
The Grinch
The Lorax