Jim Burger’s What’s Not to Like? Words and Pictures of a Charmed Life, Reviewed by D.R. Belz

Jim Burger, What’s Not to Like? Words and Pictures of a Charmed Life, Self-published, Baltimore, Maryland 2021, ISBN: 978-1-936328-99-4  157 pages

Full disclosure: I have been friends with Jim Burger since he arrived at The Baltimore Sun Company in late 1988. So a thirty-year friendship is as good a vantage point as any to review a career, a body of work, and the shenanigans we’ve shared along the way.

The way he once told it, just before coming to The Sunpapers, Burger was sitting at the desk of a mind-numbing state government job. “I was ready to put a gun in my mouth,” he said. Figuratively, of course. But just then the phone rang: it was the promotions manager with an offer of a job as a commercial photographer in the marketing department at the “Sunpapers,” at that time still one of the top ten daily metropolitan newspapers in America. You believe him when he tells you that the call saved his professional life and set him on the path to publishing the wealth of memories he shares in What’s Not to Like?

I’m in this book once and on the first page in the introduction. I’m the “immediate supervisor” at The Sun who submitted his request for reimbursement for a writing class at Johns Hopkins University to my immediate supervisor, a man he calls “the jerk.” Reading Burger’s recollection of the incident today, I suppose I could have pushed a little harder for his chance to take a writing class at Hopkins on The Sun’s nickel. On the other hand, the obsessive navel contemplation of such courses can sometimes scotch real talent. So maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t go to Hopkins night school, which just might have corked the vinting that What’s Not to Like? finally required. Had he taken that class, Burger’s memoir might very well be a different—but most likely not better—book.

The study of people is Burger’s true and magic forte and he is above all else (as a glimpse of the book’s contents confirms) a collector. Of artifacts, souvenirs, moments, places, images—and people.

He writes, “I realized I had lived in Baltimore longer than I had lived in the town where I grew up. I had a new hometown. Baltimore took me in, and paraded a cast of characters before me. As the years rolled by, I could only sit and watch, accumulating a lifetime’s worth of stories, not knowing what I did to deserve the honor.”

Like any avid collector, Burger saved these things and recently has meticulously curated them. (An alternate subtitle might as well be “Words and Pictures of a Charming Life” because, if nothing else, Burger is a charmer. If you have in your possession an “Alonsoville” lapel button, you know that one of his personal logos is a martini glass—symbol of a convivial lifestyle, philosophy, and spirit.)

So—what is not to like? Almost nothing. And here are just some of the things to especially like about this book.

It’s a big, warm-hearted memoir. But “memoir” does this book only half justice. Better: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Jim Burger—and Then Some. It’s the encyclopedia of Burger’s life thus far, with both humorous and bittersweet revelations on every page.

It’s a 900-pound gorilla— in a good way. While Burger’s book is not furniture, you can sit it on a coffee table and you’ve got an immediate conversation-starter. “What is that?” A coffee table book to end all coffee table books.

Its cover price is worth it. That’s $75 ordered directly from the author. Remarkable, but not unmerited. The book’s production includes glossy paper and full-color printing throughout. About the book’s self-publishing costs—design, production, printing, promotion, shipping, and handling—Burger says, “I’m doing it all my self.” And as his own agent, publisher, bookseller, and distributor, he’s earning every penny.

It’s idiosyncratic—like Baltimore. It’s a sno-ball, a crabcake, an espantoon, a water taxi ride to Fells Point, a Berger cookie, a Ouija board. The book is full of those “only-in-Baltimore” things that happened to him. But unlike so many who live here, he’s never become a victim of the place. You come to learn that, Zelig-like, he appears everywhere, seems to know everyone. When Netflix makes the movie of the book (“Ferris Burger’s Day Off”?), it will be set in an imagined 24 hours before the last Preakness Stakes.

It’s beautiful, a visually stunning artifact. And not just because of Burger’s photos, which are truly arresting. There’s also captivating design, as well. Baltimore artist Laura LeBrun Hatcher created the look: “I truly love to make books and Jim Burger’s book was a joy to work on,” she says. “Hundreds of amazing photos…are paired with dozens of stories that bring the characters in the photos to life. Some are very funny… some are heartbreaking, and some are simply beautiful.”

It’s a revised and expanded magnum opus. Burger’s What’s Not to Like? visually recapitulates much of what appeared in his first, orderly look back in the 2018 Retrospective show at the Baltimore Creative Alliance and its catalogue, A Charmed Life. The new book takes another look at that life and career.

But pick up this new iteration of that life and prepare to be charmed all over again. This time, you’ll notice that the vignettes add a depth that the gallery show, like that Ouija board planchette, could only point toward.

What’s not to like? This edition is Burger’s full-throated oratorio, a love song to Baltimore, his adopted and adored hometown.

© Jim Burger and D.R. Belz

Jim Burger is a photojournalist working in Baltimore, MD. His work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Examiner, The Sacramento Bee, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Over the years he has had his own column in The Baltimore Messenger, STYLE Magazine, and Smart Woman Magazine. For more information, visit https://burgerphotobook.com/buy-the-book/ols/products/whats-not-to-like.

D.R. Belz is an editor at The Loch Raven Review.

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