About a decade ago on a slow news day, Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg invited me for a quick bite at the last decent dive bar on Kinzie Street.
He washed down a juicy burger with Jack Daniel's, and then slugged a second tumbler of sweet Tennessee whiskey for dessert. It wasn’t shocking. Steinberg was a regular at saloons frequented by reporters and had earned a reputation about town as a hard-drinking newspaperman.
A few months later, Steinberg hit rock bottom. He was arrested for domestic battery for drunkenly slapping his wife.
The charges were dropped, but it was a defining moment in Steinberg’s personal and literary life. He shared the story of his struggle with addiction in a memoir, “Drunkard: A Hard Drinking Life,” that was equal parts confession and cautionary tale.
Steinberg's now tackled the topic of addiction, again.
This time he teamed up with Sara Bader, founder of Quotenik, in a literary collaboration that weaves together an anthology of works by writers, poets and playwrights well versed in the arduous journey between “the hell of addiction to the frequent bliss of recovery.”
“Out Of The Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion To Recovery,” reads like a patchwork quilt of wisdom and perspective on addiction.
It tackles recovery milestones in nine chapters, each one fronted with advice and perspective written in flowing prose easily recognizable to Steinberg’s regular readers.
It is written to help the afflicted and comfort people who love them with insight they might not find elsewhere.
“This collection can be shared with family and friends to help them understand what you are going through, that this isn’t some weakness that you foolishly embraced and refuse to abandon, but a sickness that has seized you, a trap you’ve fallen into and are now trying to climb our of — with their help, if possible, without it, if necessary,” Steinberg writes.
It took more than four years of collecting quotes from the well-known writings of literature’s most infamous drinkers and addicts — Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Virgil, Eugene O’Neill and David Foster Wallace, among them — and laboring to secure necessary permissions to crib from their works.
“It was an insane task. I would have never done it if I had known how much work it would take,” Steinberg said. “But, really, I loved it. It made me happy. … I think it’s a book that is going to save people’s lives. It’s not that I’m that nice of a guy that I want to help people’s lives. I just knew that this book could do it.”
Steinberg told me he hopes recovering addicts find solace reading the insights of history’s greatest writers and poets who know what they’re going through. That’s what it did for him. In the introduction titled, “Why Put It Off?” Steinberg reveals his mission statement: He believes “poetry helps … philosophy helps." And "other people's words,” to quote British novelist Zadie Smith, “are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you’re going.”
How does he know? Well, reading people’s words have helped him in his battle with alcoholism.
“You cannot just give up something. You have to have something to replace it. … For me it’s reading,” Steinberg said.
“I loved finding these quotes. … When you’re an addict, recovery is an intimate thing, and reading these quotes is almost as if you take your deepest, darkest secrets and every great poet and writer is going to talk to you about it.”
Frankly, “Out Of The Wreck I Rise” is a book that could come in handy this time of year — a season of boozy company holiday parties and two-fisted gatherings with family and friends.
Of course, a book of inspiring poetry — because really that’s what it is — would be a thoughtful gift for someone you love who struggles with addiction.
But it’s also good read for anyone who might benefit from the smart, witty, insightful and brutally honest words of a pal, someone who knows a thing or two about how difficult it is to recover after being blindsided by life — a break-up or the shocking results of an election, for instance.
“It’s a book about finding a way to get out of the hole,” Steinberg said.
“Recovery is the path of the hero. It’s a difficult, arduous effort, and most people can’t do it. It’s like climbing a mountain. And these people, these writers, can help you make it.”
Steinberg told me the words in the book save him all the time.
“Why didn’t I drink over Thanksgiving? I poured beer in the stuffing. Why didn’t I take a drink?” he said.
"I’ve read this book 50 times. I know I wrote it, but I find comfort in it all the time. There’s a quote from Virgil: ‘Yield not to evil.’ … That’s true. You can’t f--- around with evil. If I drank some beer I know what it would lead to. Why is it better to hear it from Virgil? I don’t know. It sounds better. It feels good. It helps.”
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