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A Man, a plan
The reader Robert A. Parker ’50
If you dream of being a prolific scribbler of books, you might consider assuming the name Robert Parker—a binomial of robust literary standing. Think of the late crime novelist Robert B. Parker, or the renowned wine writer Robert M. Parker. Or, for sheer volume, salty opinion, and critical acumen, there is Robert A. Parker ’50, P’84, who has to date published more than two million words. This is a man who has written a considered review, for his own benefit and that of intimates, of nearly every book he has read for the last 60-or-so years. The essays are collected in the five-fat-volumes-and-counting of A Literary Cavalcade.
Robert A. Parker is a man of remarkable energies. A retired corporate communications man, he enjoyed a long career as magazine editor (New Jersey Focus, Financial Executive, and others), publications manager (at Metropolitan Life, Touche Ross, McGraw-Hill, etc.), journalist (writing for numerous periodicals, from the New York Times to Caribbean Travel & Life), and photographer. So it is that a goodly chunk of his two million words were published in magazines such as Cruise Travel and the Jesuit weekly America, and another healthy percentage in his four books of travel writing, a memoir, a collection of his six plays, his five books of photographs, and now a blog. But Cavalcade is unquestionably his magnum opus.
Each volume of Cavalcade, available in hardcover and paperback, is 400-pages-plus. Only the hardcover editions contain an illustration inside (a single photo of Parker, above a biographic note, looking like a stern and bookish Elton John). The total page count for the set stands at 2,500 pages, covering more than 1,000 authors. The books are organized alphabetically: Volume I is A to C (Kobo Abe to Michael Cunningham), II is D to G (Henri Daniel-Rops to José María Gironella), III is G to K (George Gissing to Milan Kundera), IV is L to M (Jean Lacouture to Henry de Montherlant), V is M to S (Brian Moore to Neil Sheehan), and Volume VI, which should be published later this year, will cover S through Z (Ignazio Silone to Émile Zola). A miscellany may follow to scoop up books read most recently.
Cavalcade is the end product of Parker’s daily two hours of reading, usually from midnight until two in the morning, during which he devours mostly novels, two or three a week, generally in his study, the walls of which are lined with some 3,000 books, divided into those he has read and those he hasn’t, yet. When he finishes a book he immediately jots notes on his impressions, especially of the plot (“the most important element in my enjoyment of a book”), but also on style, theme, and character. “I am most interested in works that explore the inner workings of characters,” he says, their “moral, intellectual, and spiritual aspects.” He polishes these notes into prose and—voilà—another entry for the Cavalcade. The essays are usually 300 words or so, although here and there are disquisitions of 3,000 words, and Parker notices that he is writing longer in recent years.
There are many writers he seems to have read all of—Russell Banks, James Carroll, Robertson Davies, E.L. Doctorow, Shusaku Endo, Carlos Fuentes, Graham Greene (his favorite writer of all), John le Carré, Alice McDermott. There are also many writers I have never read (William Boyd, Jack Finney), never heard of (Darryl Brock, Julien Green), or read once but forgot, though once they were glittering stars (Paul Horgan, George Gissing).
Two hours of reading, seven days a week, year after year? “Yes,” says the equable Parker. “Reading is integral. Life interferes, occasionally.”
Parker traces the genesis of his ever-expanding masterwork to three moments: the day in grade school when he won a new book of his choice as reward for the excellence of his book reports (he sensibly chose Treasure Island); a 2008 golden wedding anniversary party for him and his wife, Margot, thrown by their three children, after which he wanted to thank them with something substantive and permanent (“Books last forever!”); and the moment in 1954, not long after graduation from Boston College, when he met a fellow young alumnus who told him that he wrote critical comments in novels after he finished them. At the time, Parker thought, “What a strange idea.” But now, he says, “I get much more out of the books by writing about them immediately afterward. When you keep notes . . . you train yourself to read and think more clearly, and that has been a pleasure.” The habit of the reviews began in 1954. The first book he wrote an essay about? “Could well have been a mystery,” he says. “Probably Ellery Queen.”
Despite a vast scope, Cavalcade is a highly personal commentary, laced with Parker’s dry wit, blunt honesty, and sometimes tart dismissals of the canonical aristocracy (of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “dry, overbearing, no room for the reader to breathe”; Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not: “badly organized, and breaks down completely at the end”). Also in evidence is his patent delight after finishing a book that blew his mind (Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest: “Wow! A combination of Greene and Dostoyevsky, with depth and simplicity that strikes closer to the truth than either of those two.”) Again and again, Parker pierces the critics’ harmonious chorus and says bluntly what many readers have felt but perhaps could not articulate. Of Dante’s Inferno, for example, he writes, “There are certain great books that one cannot simply read and appreciate. They must be studied. . . . I should have learned this lesson long ago when I tried to read the Confessions of St. Augustine. But I forgot. And so was reminded here that there will be depths far beyond my comprehension.”
I asked him once about a possible review of the Bible as literature and got this terse Parkerian response: “I read the Bible long ago, and, working in the corporate field, it reminded me of a house organ, with the writers conveying a message to their internal community. This is not, of course, a comment on the content, only perhaps on the style.”
Parker says his greatest ambition is to get Cavalcade into the hands of students. As a handbook to literature, it is, after all, nearly inexhaustible. For me, the deepest pleasure of the opus may be the acquaintance with its demanding and engaged author. If ever there was a man you could happily sit with of an evening to talk books and writers, it is the estimable Robert A. Parker ’50, of New Jersey.
Brian Doyle, an editor for this magazine from 1987 to 1991, is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The print version of the article reported that the paperback volumes contain a biographic note and a photograph of Parker. However, only the hardcover editions contain those elements.