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In Reading, Pa., Memories and Monuments of Updike

The pagoda, with views of Reading, Pa., sits atop Mount Penn, Mount Judge in John Updike's books. The author renamed the city Alton or Brewer in his works.
The pagoda, with views of Reading, Pa., sits atop Mount Penn, Mount Judge in John Updike's books. The author renamed the city Alton or Brewer in his works. (By Ben Chapman For The Washington Post)
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By Ben Chapman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reading is required for any John Updike pilgrimage. That's not "reading," as in books, but Reading, as in Pennsylvania. It seems you can't go a block in this city of about 83,000 without running into one of the author's old stomping grounds or a scene from one of his books, where often the city is named Alton or Brewer.

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"He would typically take his experiences and give them a little spin so they weren't so recognizable," said Jack De Bellis, author of the John Updike Encyclopedia. But without looking too hard, you can easily spot scenes from the recently deceased writer's stories all over Berks County (Brewer County in his books).

During summers in high school, Updike worked as a copy boy at the Reading Eagle, the city's paper, on Penn Street between South Third and South Fourth streets. Though little but anecdotes remains of his time at the paper, he did publish several poems elsewhere while on staff and reportedly entertained co-workers with a rapier wit.

Across the street from the paper is Jimmie Kramer's Peanut Bar and Restaurant, an old reporter hangout patronized by Updike, who was born in 1932. Since the 1950s, local newspapermen have come to the bar to meet with sources and have drinks after closing the paper at night. In Updike's time, "they'd come in an hour before our closing time," remembers bartender Peter Johnson. "Then they'd stay all night drinking."

Today Jimmie Kramer's is more of a family spot, but Eagle staffers still come by to eat the famed hot wings and throw peanut shells on the floor. Plasma screens show historic front pages from the Reading Eagle, and old typewriters decorate the walls, though young Eagle reporters are more apt to celebrate closings around the corner at the Ugly Oyster Drafthaus. (Coincidentally, bivalves were another Updike favorite.)

At the end of the block is Marvel Ranch, a busy greasy-spoon diner that was a favorite of Updike's when he worked at the paper. Owner Roger Bermel remembers the young copy boy. "We'd see him in the morning when he came in for coffee and scrambled eggs," he said. "He was a nice guy. A burger-and-fries type." Sit down at Marvel Ranch's green counter today and you'll find that the prices haven't changed much from Updike's time (coffee is 85 cents) and that the food is still hot and fresh.

Just a few blocks away, Updike spent hours as a young man scouring the stacks at the Reading Public Library, at South Fifth and Franklin streets. The library's archival Updike collection is a must-see for any fan. It's a set of 136 noteworthy books donated by the author, including 58 titles from his mother's collection, many inscribed to her by her son, who personally delivered them to the library when she passed away in 1989.

"Yet another wrestle with the ineffable, from your loving son, Johnny," reads the inscription in "The Witches of Eastwick." The collection also has letters written by Updike, including dispatches from book tours.

"He was a real guy, no airs," said library director Frank Kasprowicz, who helped Updike carry in boxes of the books when the writer donated them. "He took a quick tour of the library. He was pressed to move on, so he did. But he was gracious and kind."

On April 5, the library hosts "Remembering John Updike," featuring a talk by Updike scholar James Plath and a panel of Updike's childhood friends and contemporaries.

For a commanding view of the city, visit the Reading Pagoda, at the top of Mount Penn. (Rabbit Angstrom takes his mistress to the Pinnacle Hotel on Mount Judge on a romantic evening early in Updike's 1960 breakout novel "Rabbit, Run.") The pagoda lookout offers fine views of East Reading, where the 1970 film version of "Rabbit, Run," starring James Caan and co-written by Updike, was shot on South 15th Street. Look across the Schuylkill River to West Reading, where young Updike had some of his first cultural experiences at the Reading Public Museum. The stately structure, called the Alton Museum in his stories, is directly across the street from Reading Hospital, where the writer was born.

Until he was 13, Updike lived nine miles south of Reading in Shillington, a town known as Olinger in his books, in a house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. The old white house is now home to an advertising agency, but a dogwood tree that was planted in the side yard on Updike's first birthday still stands.

Around the corner from the house is Governor Mifflin Senior High School, where Updike studied when it was still called Shillington High School. There he got his literary start as editor of the yearbook and the school magazine, the Chatterbox.

At age 13, Updike and his family moved about nine miles south of Shillington to a small sandstone farmhouse just off Morgantown Road, in rural Plowville. In "The Centaur," Updike writes of the drives he used to take with his father to Shillington High, Olinger High in the book. On the way, they'd pass by Robeson Lutheran Church, where Updike's parents are buried.

From Plowville, Updike moved on to Harvard and Massachusetts. He never lived in Berks County again, but the place never left him. His was, he wrote in the New Yorker article "A Soft Spring Night in Shillington," "a fortunate life, of course -- college, children, wives, enough money, minor fame. But it had all, from the age of thirteen on, felt like not quite my idea. Shillington, its idle alleys and darkened foursquare houses, had been my idea."


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