Book Brahmin: Josh Wilker

In celebration of baseball's Opening Day, we asked Josh Wilker to be our Book Brahmin. He is the author of Cardboard Gods (Algonquin Books, March 15, 2011), a poignant and funny memoir about growing up in the crazy '70s. Each chapter opens with a baseball card--Wilker's talismans during a challenging childhood. He also has a forthcoming book celebrating the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Josh Wilker continues to examine his life through his childhood baseball cards at He lives with his wife in Chicago.

On your nightstand now:

White Mule by William Carlos Williams. I'm reading some of this 1937 novel at night, thus qualifying it for nightstand status, but most of it is coming my way on my really long, bumpy Pace Bus ride to and from work, so I will probably forever associate it with nagging back pain, intermittent headaches and the tinny beat-heavy iPod music of Other People (Sartre, I imagine, rode a lot of buses).

Favorite book when you were a child:

Hang Tough, Paul Mather by Alfred Slote. This novel about a little leaguer with cancer was the first book to make me cry.

Your top five authors:

How about a starting nine, like a batting order for a baseball team? Charles Bukowski once did this in a poem, so I figure even if I don't have permission for this I can channel his "ah, hell with it, I'll do it anyway" batting stance:

Denis Johnson, SS (dazzling in the field; .297/.398/.412)
Anton Chekhov, 3B (always makes perfect contact; .313/.402/.498)
Jack Kerouac, CF (think Fred Lynn in '75 but forever; .325/.413/.545)
J.D. Salinger, RF (glove has poems scribbled on it; .286/.374/.529)
Bruce Jay Friedman, 1B (hilarious infield chatter; .302/.397/.502)
Frederick Exley, LF (erratic and powerful; .264/.342/.512)
Charles Schulz, C (always there when you need him; .282/.367/.423)
Raymond Carver, 2B (key when things get rocky; .272/.372/.402)
Franz Kafka, P (baffling, overpowering stuff; 2.08 ERA)

Book you've faked reading:

I lie that I read Naked Lunch all the way through, not that anyone cares or considers the beat artifact a must-read classic. I just want full credit for the suffering the nightmarish repetitive anti-narrative inflicted on me during a horrific four-day cross-country Greyhound bus trip when I was 19.

Book you're an evangelist for:

A Mother's Kisses by Bruce Jay Friedman. When I discovered this book I practically wept with gratitude, which as it turns out is possible to do while laughing your ass off.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. I bought this when I was 12 because I thought it would be about basketball, which it was, though of course it was also about a lot of other things and instantly became a favorite.

Book that changed your life:

There are a lot of the usual suspects on my list (On the Road, Stop-Time, The Catcher in the Rye, Cathedral, A Fan's Notes, Jesus' Son), but since those books have all had more eloquent cheerleaders than I could ever be, I'll say Mad magazine. Does this count? I had a subscription as a kid and the Alfred E. Neuman ethos infected me for life.

Favorite line from a book:

"Swing and a ground ball, stabbed by Foulke. He has it. He underhands to first. And the Boston Red Sox are the world champions."--Red Sox radio play-by-play man Joe Castiglione, quoted in--among other places, surely--Remembering Fenway Park

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle. This book, which presents the 1978 pennant race as a daily journal from the pen of reliever Sparky Lyle, began my writing life at age 12. As soon as I finished it, I started my own journal and haven't stopped. But while I've returned repeatedly to other key personal books, I've stayed away from this one, because I somehow get the sense that it wouldn't have the same effect on me as it did then--unstoppable laughter. One more bus ride story: every summer my big brother and I visited our dad in New York City for a couple weeks, a trip that required a seven-hour slog on the Greyhound. During one visit I bought a paperback copy of The Bronx Zoo and started reading it just after the bus pulled away from Dad standing there waving in the dim bowels of Port Authority, and for the next seven hours all I did was laugh and show my brother what I was laughing at, which made him laugh, and then I'd read on and laugh some more and show him some more and we'd both be laughing, and so that bus ride flew by like some kind of new transportation altogether, flotation powered by brotherly laughs. I'd take that ride again if I could.


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