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My 'Updike year' – why I appreciate the man more now than ever

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(Read caption) This reader's favorite memory of Updike is not a particular subject or turn of phrase but rather the heroic moderation of the man – his quiet insistence on teasing out an insight with subtlety and grace, never raising his voice.

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Seven years ago this week, John Updike died at age 76, concluding one of the most prolific careers in American letters. News of his death grieved me, but it prompted a new possibility. Maybe with no more new Updike stuff coming out, or so I remember thinking to myself, I could finally begin to catch up on all the works in his backlist that had eluded me.

That passing thought, revisited a long while later, evolved into my New Year’s resolution for last year, announced in a Jan. 1, 2015 post for “Chapter & Verse.” Over the next 12 months, or so I planned back then, I’d try to read as many of John Updike’s books “as I can.”

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Notice that modest pledge to simply do my best, without any audacious claim that I’d make my way through all of Updike’s published works. Although best known for his “Rabbit,” novels, which chronicled life in affluent suburbia, Updike turned out 60 books in all, including poetry, a memoir, personal essays, literary criticism, and articles about his abiding avocation, visual art. To get all the way through Updike in a year, I’d have to finish more than a book a week, an ambitious project for any bibliophile.  I’m a slow reader who’s also obliged, as a professional reviewer and journalist, to tackle a lot of other books throughout the year.   

All of which is my way of saying that in 2015, I managed to read only a fraction of the Updike canon, poking around mostly in the personal essays and criticism collected in a half a dozen volumes, including “Odd Jobs,” “Hugging the Shore”  and “Picked-up Pieces.”

These thick works, recently reprinted in handsome editions by Random House, accompanied me to the doctor and the dentist, to campouts and picnics, summer vacations and office lunch hours. And Updike was waiting for me on the nightstand each evening, too – a daily companion through four seasons of my middle-aged life.

What I remember most vividly from my year of Updike isn’t a particular subject or turn of phrase; he wrote about everything from baseball to cemeteries to the postal service with precision, wit, and a mastery of language that defies easy summary. No, the most abiding memory of my Updike year is the heroic moderation of the man – his quiet insistence on teasing out an insight with subtlety and grace, never raising his voice. As the late Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, it wasn’t an accident that Updike named one of his essay collections “Due Considerations.” The title hints at his sensibility, which was perceptive but not biting, appreciative but not cloying, contemplative but not carried away.

That voice continues to be a tonic for me as I negotiate the noise of the headlines, the extremism of the political culture, the venom-tinged pronouncements of the Twittersphere. Updike’s been gone for seven years now, but his work endures, and we need it now more than ever.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”