Friday Forum: What is Your “Laying in the Gutter Dying” Book?

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

In an early scene in Walk the Line, the still undiscovered Johnny Cash wrangles an audience with an influential record producer. He knows it’s a huge opportunity and so plays a cover of a popular gospel song. After hearing Cash’s nervous, competent rendition, the record producer gives one of the more incisive short speechs you are likely to see in a movie:

 If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ *you* felt.

It’s a body-blow to Cash, but he responds with the mesmerizingly dark classic-in-the making “I Walk the Line.”

I’m not an artist of any stripe, but it occurs to me that there still are works of art that reflect something about what I feel about “my time here on earth,” that capture something about about what I want, who I am, what I believe, and how I understand the world.

In the world of books, this is East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s Steinbeck’s empathy for the fallenness of human life. The book suggests that while we struggle, and sin, and err, we can still choose mercy, and beauty, and forgiveness. It’s been hugely influential in my life, a kind of touchstone for being in the world.

So this week’s question: What is your “laying in the gutter dying  book?”