Let’s be real. When I return to this recurring feature, plucking a new author from the misty library of the already read that resides in my brain, I usually opt for a wordsmith who will confer some amount of coolness on me, in much the same way that the tomes that speak well of the reader usually have conspicuous placement on the household’s most prominent bookshelf. (For years, Richard Ben Cramer’s massive What It Takes was front and center in my collection, despite the inconvenient detail that I only made through about a third of its thousand-plus pages.) But I — like most, I suspect — have devoted plenty of my hours turning pages with writers saddled with reputations of lesser literary honor. Sometimes celebration and confession coil their fingers tightly and move forward together. Thus we come to the moment when I acknowledge that I’ve read a decent number of John Grisham novels.
I read my first Grisham book right at the point when the career of the lawyer-turned-author was first soaring. Indeed, the first signal of Grisham’s transformation from a writer to an entertainment business model was the impetus for me purchasing the blocky paperback edition of The Firm, his second published novel. In the summer of 1993, I got my paper and I was free. Suddenly blessed with the ability to chose reading material without the burden of assigned texts, I raced through as many books as I could. One of the motivating factors for me to select a title was its status as the subject of a pending major movie adaptation, in part because I was still writing stray film reviews for the college radio station. I spent many days early that summer walking back to my movie theater gig while, page by page, Mitch McDeere found himself embroiled in an extremely compromised position thanks to his introductory position in the legal profession. In possession of an English degree with mildly damp ink, I recognized Grisham wasn’t delivering high art, but it was eminently readable, which sounds like faint praise but absolutely isn’t. Grisham’s writing was fluid, direct, and engaging. He had an instinctual command of plotting that approached that of masters like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.
For a time, I read Grisham with some regularity, often, I will admit, as a sort of palate cleanser between weightier fare (I read The Rainmaker as a way to figuratively catch my breath before plunging into Don DeLillo’s Underworld, for example). They were unerringly mass-market paperbacks and a film version was always in the offing. I largely stopped picking up Grisham’s books when he decided to largely refrain from selling any more of his books to Hollywood, admirably deciding he had enough money and the steady stream of film product was creating oversaturation. Even now, padding his bank account is a small enough concern that he’s willing to give his product away if he feels its important to get it in front of more eyes. In general, Grisham has used his clout to fight the right fights. If nothing else, that makes me feel good about those old purchases.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin