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Pack Your Bags: Jon Katz's Book Is a Journey that Gets Middle-Aged Folks Opening their Suitcases

April 29, 2008

Tags Free MarketsMedia and Culture

Despite this being a nation of people who don't read, everyone seems to be in the book-selling business. My local grocery store is now peddling the printed word beyond daily newspapers and a certain financial weekly that I'm addicted to. Admittedly, I'm drawn to books, like women are to shoes and pocketbooks. I don't need any more, am running out of places to put them, and will likely never live long enough to read them all.

But, there is the ever-present fantasy of bagging the corporate life and holing up to read and write full time and I wouldn't want to be caught short. When packing for trips, the thought of not taking enough clothes never bothers me, but to finish a book and not have a fresh one to start right away is unthinkable. And not knowing for sure which one to start means I take two or three extras. Unfortunately, books are heavy.

The book that brings this all to mind is Jon Katz's Running To The Mountain: A Midlife Adventure. Running is not a book that I became aware of through the normal channels — Amazon and Barnes & Noble are so considerate to send me e-mails announcing titles that I might be interested in. And magazines and papers provide plenty of book reviews that spark my interest. Rather, I was running into the grocery store to pick up who knows what — and, well, I happened to glance over the book table, just in case there lie a book I couldn't live without at Smith's.

It was that "midlife" part of the title that sold me, along with the picture of the mid-aged author with his two Labradors, Stanley and Julius, on the cover, basking in the sunshine. There was no rational reason for thinking I would enjoy the book, but I had a feeling. Katz didn't let me down. It turns out he writes for a living. His prose is clean and simple while his storytelling is fast paced.

Back in 1997, at age 50, Katz decided to buy a dilapidated cabin in upstate New York to escape the daily grind of New Jersey. Katz had come under the spell of the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. Merton was a Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist, and Katz intended to seek solitude as Merton did, who wrote: "That I am called into solitude by God's will in order to be healed and purified."

In fact, Katz had intended to write a book about Merton while on the mountain. But it didn't work out the way he planned. Like most anything a writer starts, the story ends differently than imagined — just as life does.

Along with Merton, Katz took along H.L. Mencken to read as a complement to the monk's musings. Katz fantasized about a Merton-Mencken TV show, à la Crossfire. "Merton was forever challenging me to be brave, to keep searching," Katz writes. "Mencken kept my feet on the ground, reminding me constantly and sometimes brutally to be humble, to stay honest, to beware of sentimentality and pomposity."

Katz may have been seeking solitude on the mountain, but what he found was a charming rural area stocked with salt-of-the-earth characters. And the reader gets to know and like them all. After all, as Katz writes, he was to be "schooled in the ethos of mountain life." Always, "Complain bitterly about taxes" and "[p]erhaps most important, oppose the growth of government and any form of regulation or bureaucracy." Coming from the city, Katz didn't see what the worry was all about. The little town didn't have a mayor, police or fire department, school or zoning board. In fact, there was no municipal building. But, "To hear the big men in trucks talk, you'd think federal troops were descending on the valley."

Of course the purchase of the cabin from a guy named Lenny, who Katz never meets, is a drama that provides many twists and turns to the story. But there is plenty of time for Katz to reflect on his life, his dysfunctional childhood, his daughter's illness and recovery, and his own ineptitude at normal-guy stuff. Katz may not know how to fix things, but he can turn a phase and tell a story. His description of the Burger Den in town made me smell the grease.

Reading about Katz's journey causes those of us at middle age to reflect, and think about packing our bags.


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