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John Updike: I Miss The Gentleman of Letters

November 30th, 2011 by Michael Tabor

The first thing I used to do when I entered a bookstore was immediately go to the fiction/literature section and look under ‘U’ to see if the prolific Renaissance – man, John Updike, had written a new book. The reality is I could have found something new written by John Updike anywhere in the store.  Mr. Updike had such wide interests and was such a cultured, erudite intellectual (he wrote about golf, art criticism, book reviews, history, and much more) that perhaps I could have found a book he had recently published anywhere in the store, e.g., a new release located under art criticism; he had written two superb books on this topic called “Just looking” and followed it with “Still Looking.”
The humble John Updike characterized himself as “a freelance writer who writes on occasion about books, bringing to the task a rusty liberal-arts education, an average citizen’s spotty knowledge of contemporary issues and a fiction writer’s childish willingness to immerse himself in make-believe.’’ The aforementioned description of himself is modest indeed when you consider that the New Yorker magazine and many of his contemporary peers such as Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth viewed John Updike as not only one of the greatest novelists of the late twentieth century but also one of the pre-eminent critics of his day.
I am a regular reader of “The New Yorker” magazine and I sometimes forget that I’ll never see a new book review, piece of short fiction, or another essay on contemporary life written by the great John Updike. He lived until the age of 76 and it has been almost 3 years since his death on January 27, 2009. He churned out polished masterpieces like clockwork, averaging a book a year and that’s not including the hundreds of stories, poems, and reviews published in “The New Yorker” and “The New York Review of Books.”
Mr. Updike loved every aspect of life – living it, examining it under a microscope, and finally recording it with laser beam precision via pen and paper. The New York Times wrote shortly after he died that, “John Updike was obsessed with turning every thought into words, every observation into prose which was a testament to his love of writing, but also to his apparent drive to preserve everything, notable or not, in print.’ And how ever so true was this statement; John seemed to be interested in everything and his mind was a bottomless repository for knowledge. Updike was also a voracious reader (as all writers are) and not unlike the recently deceased Steve Jobs was quoted very often. He said that “love was wry, jokey, casual, and even weary but nonetheless ecstatic. ” He was also quoted as saying, “I glimpse the ordinary life and by merely observing and writing about it, I attempt to turn the mundane into inexhaustible and kaleidoscopic glory. ”
John Updike won every writing award under the sun (exactly 30) including two Pulitzer Prizes from the Rabbit series: “Rabbit is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest.” There were five Rabbit novels beginning with “Rabbit, Run” published in 1960 and ending with “Rabbit Remembered” released in 2001. I have read all five of the novels and I have stated in one of my earlier blogs on literature that the “Rabbit” series ranks among  my favorite works of all time. In the end John Updike left us with 28 novels, 15 short story collections, 10 books on poetry, 13 books of nonfiction, essays, and criticism and 100s of magazine pieces on art criticism, literary criticism, and even children’s books and still, just like the Rabbit series, I wanted more- just one more. RIP John Updike, March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009.

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