For someone who has spent much of his life in the glamorous spotlight of Hollywood, Billy Campbell is a remarkably down-to-earth guy, as well as one of the best-read human beings I know.
Campbell’s first major role was in the soap opera “Dynasty” from 1984 to 1985, and since then he’s done everything from Shakespeare to “Star Trek.”
His acting range is evident in the breadth of his roles: he’s played everything from sci-fi (he was the lead in “The Rocketeer”) to dark characters (Ted Bundy, as well as Jennifer Lopez’s abusive husband in “Enough”), and from Abraham Lincoln to various detectives, criminals and politicians (including the mayor of Seattle in the hit TV series “The Killing”). And inevitably – given what I jokingly refer to as his disgustingly good looks – he’s had his share of romantic roles too.
I met Billy in, of all far-flung places, the Cook Islands in 2010, when he stopped in at the island of Rarotonga on the tall ship, Picton Castle. The fact that a man who has been a star of TV and film would take a year out of his life to sail around the world as a humble deckhand is testament to Campbell’s grounded nature, and to his lifelong love of sailing.
We had dinner together, spent much of the time discussing books and have been friends ever since. These days he lives on a farm in Norway with his partner Anne – whom he met on another sailing expedition – and their two kids.
Campbell grew up in Virginia, and at the age of eleven was sent to a Baptist military boarding school. There, he was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
“I clung desperately to every word of it,” said Campbell. “It sheltered and consoled me, it led me to be a reader and thus to every good thing in my life. It saved me.”
His English teacher at the school was the enigmatically named Breece D’J Pancake, a remarkable short story writer who took his own life at the age of 26.
No less a literary giant than Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about Pancake, “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read.”
Captain Pancake, as Campbell knew him, was “my usher into Middle Earth, bless him.”
When asked to name the three or four books he’d take to a desert island, Campbell – like many voracious readers – bridles (“Ridiculous exercise!”) and cheats by stacking together lots of books in anthologies. He starts by reeling off a list of books in his first collection, which is sci-fi and fantasy.
As well as Tolkien, “I’d include anything by Stanislaw Lem; all of LeGuinn and Atwood; Woolfe’s Orlando, and Seveneves by Neil Stephenson. Also Lord Dunsany, and The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster,” said Campbell. “Also I just discovered Adrian Tchaikovsky, so I’ll squeak him in. And Dune. And Peter Pan. Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. The Road. The Dog Stars.”
His second anthology is historical fiction. “Next most influential in my life are the Aubrey/Maturin novels, starting with Master and Commander… they’re why I went to sea. I ended up in thrall to a Viking shipmate,” he laughs, “Procreating like an old goat on the family farm in Norway, and all because of Patrick O’Brian.”
Others in this category include Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, which Campbell describes as about “a slightly hypochondriacal Viking chieftain off a-plundering. It’s literally bloody good fun.”
“Also The Killer Angels; the Golden Mean; Blood Meridian; Welcome to Hard Times; The Inheritors.” Campbell keeps going: “The westerns of Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker. The Orenda. Tom Jones. Madame Bovary. Butcher’s Crossing. Okay, I’ll stop!” Then adds quickly, “Lonesome Dove! The Spy Who Came in from the Cold!”
Like me, Campbell has a mental list of books with favorite first paragraphs that turned out to be favorite books.
“If ever a teacher had done what Yuval Harari did for me in the first five short paragraphs of Sapiens,” he says, “I might actually have studied and done something with myself. From page one that book blew through me like a sustained, sparkling gust of macrocosmic perspective from the interstellar reaches of… erm, you know. So thrilling it dizzied me.”
Indeed, I have him to thank for introducing me to “Sapiens.” Some years ago he asked if I’d read it, then said,
“I read the first nine or ten pages and thought it was the most brilliant book I’d ever read, and by the time it ended I hadn’t changed that opinion.”
I can’t disagree; Harari presents a history of humankind – something we all think we kind of know – but does it in a brilliantly fresh, clear and completely dispassionate way that ensures you will, as Campbell says, “never look the same at anything again”.
Harari’s equally extraordinary follow-up, “Homo Deus,” is an often dire prediction of where Homo sapiens are going next. These two books, together with his recent collection of essays, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, are collectively breathtakingly original and insightful expositions. If you read only one non-fiction book this year, I’d strongly recommend “Sapiens”.
In (very) much lighter vein, Campbell’s next choice is “My Family and Other Animals” (recently featured here in another column, and my wife’s number one desert island choice).
“These gentle, funny, sun-dappled semi-autobiographical tales, accounts of a family in Greece during Gerald Durrell’s childhood, make me warm, happy, and nostalgic for somewhere I’ve never been,” he said. “See also the summer books of Tove Jansen, creator of the Moomins, for the same sweet vibe.”
“The first paragraph of Robert Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’ is laugh-aloud ingenious, as is the rest of this door-stopper. Pure, bat-crap crazy inventiveness. At 161 chapters and literally thousands of pages, I found it too short,” added Campbell.
The next anthology is a miscellany, including books on writing.
“I love reading so much that I long ago developed a fetish for books on writing,” said Campbell. “I’d take Gardener’s ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ and his ‘Art of Fiction.’ Dorothy Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’, and Brenda Euland’s ‘If You Want to Write’ are old faves. But far atop the list at present is George Saunders’ ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’, a distillation of a course he teaches at Syracuse on the Russian masters of the short story.”
To which I’d add Anne Lamott’s wonderful “Bird by Bird.”
Campbell continues, “Hypercapitalism is a graphic documentary by the fellow who did the awesome multi-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, Larry Gonick. It’s a systematic dissection of the all-encompassing story we tell ourselves about prosperity, and that story’s effect on essential human values. As with Sapiens, it changed how I see the world, but in a way I can’t say is at all comforting.”
“So there,” he concludes, “four books!”
Funny man. I press him to give me his three or four favorites.
“So, am I banished for all time to this island?” Campell asked. “In which case, I need the thickest, richest of them. ‘Lord of the Rings’ for sure, maybe ‘A Man Without Qualities,’ and… a one-volume edition of the entire Aubrey/Maturin series. If four books I’d add ‘Tom Jones.’”
But Campbell is still not done. He’d take the aforementioned Pancake’s short stories – “heartbreaking tales set in his home state of West Virginia”.
Add Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” as well.
“[It’s] hysterically funny and maybe the story collection I gift more than any other. No self-respecting desert island should be without it,” said Campell.
But wait, there’s more… “Maybe the single book I take with me to your damned island is ‘West with the Night,’ the autobiography of Beryl Markham, a bush pilot in Africa in the 1930s. Hemingway himself was envious of her writing chops. Every sentence, let alone the opening paragraph, is purest gold.”
He adds, “And bonus: it has the single funniest description of a disgruntled panther ever written.”
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.