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Monday, September 14, 2020

A NICE READ, ABOUT BEING A BOOK WHORE AND ITS VALUES


As we continue to slodge our way through the Lovecraftian horror that is 2020, and as I idiotically continue to watch cable news, my fascination with being able to see inside the homes of news pundits grows. This fascination, though, isn’t limited to their living rooms, too-neat kitchens, or spookily exact décor; I’m into bookshelves. Everyone, it seems, wishes to be photographed in front of a bookshelf, presumably to show just how damned bookish they are.

They are right about one thing: bookshelf set-up tells us a lot. I have divided the people on TV into groups.
 
1) “Books as Decor” book people. These folks have bookshelves that seem more like décor than a place to store books that have actually been read. Usually vases and knick knacks share the shelves with the printed volumes. Worse, books are neatly organized by size, sometimes only six or even or eight to a shelf. This is absurd.
 
2) “Too Neat” book people. More books here than the décor people, but things still look too uniform and there is no spillover – meaning, no books that had to be stacked horizontally on top of vertical books due to just sheer unwise accumulation.
 
3) “Promoter” book people. I admire this! These are folks who have clearly decided to kill two birds. If you’re going to be on MSNBC or CNN, may as well turn your own book cover out to the camera, and if one copy, why not two or three? All good. And, if they haven’t written a book themselves that must be plugged, sometimes it’s a social agenda. Talking about Black Lives Matter often means the viewer peering at book covers of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, MLK. This is laudable.
 
But sometimes the pundits reveal more than they probably wish to, their very bookshelf choices giving us greater insight into their insecurities – or their misunderstanding about what being a book person is -- than their intellect.
 
I’ll go a step further. I think their book choices tell us exactly why we are all currently starring in the political, sociological, economic, and medical shitshow in which we find ourselves. Here’s why:
 
The great political movers and shakers out there, the commanders of our legal system, the chroniclers of our moral dilemmas, the journalists and social philosophers and economists, are all reading exactly the same things.
 
Don’t even think of challenging me here on the question of proof. I have what many loved ones have said is not just a photographic memory (not true), but also a wickedly sharp eye for book art. I know my spines and covers. If I own it, I know it; if I’ve taken it out of the library, it’s seared in my brain.
 
So I can tell you that everyone on cable news – everyone -- owns Robert Caro’s three exhaustive explorations of the character of Lyndon Johnson, just as everyone has a tastefully laid out copy of David Blight’s book on Frederick Douglass. This is a fine book, but I’d literally play Russian roulette against odds of anyone having read it all the way through. I guarantee you I’d be standing at the end of it.
 
It appears everyone also owns a copy of “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and there is a surprising amount of interest in Eisenhower, but only tastefully so, and occasionally Winston Churchill walking with destiny. Bob Woodward has never written a book anyone has read all the way through, yet his last book, “Fear”, is exceedingly well represented. And so on. My point is this:
 
It’s all one subject.
 
Seriously. Is this all our social architects read? Or buy?  Wait. The rub may be even worse than that. Consider that most of them know one another, so half of the books on their shelves are probably freebies from their also-author friends, or sent by publishers looking for a blurb. You add that calculus in and things start to look very bleak indeed.
 
I hope I’m not taking potshots unfairly, but the uniformity in bookshelving and books themselves and the uniformity in our social thinking suggests something to me.
 
For this reason, perhaps, my favorite bookshelf by far belongs to – of all people – Robert Gates, ex-Secretary of Defense, Air Force, Republican, super straight establishment dude. And yes, he has the same books as everyone else so yes, his club membership in The Club is solid, but there, over his right shoulder, yes, is a book on W.C. Fields. Not one, but perhaps two! How fascinating is that?
 
Therefore, as a result of all my biblio-voyeurism, I’ve invented a theory that goes something like this: the state of the world is due not to dummies who don’t read (we have always had dummies who don’t read), but due to smarties who don’t know how to read. I propose that their lack of understanding of reading, in fact, of the very joy of reading, has led to where we are today because their tastes and insights just aren't broad enough.
 
To be clear, I’m guessing that the joy of reading is like hardcore drug use. Those who know how great it feels are in a sort of brotherhood the rest of us can’t imagine. Sadly, more and more readers are having to come to grips with just how similar and exclusive our little club – which once ruled the world -- is becoming. Like the Masons.
 
In his terrific book “Deep South”, Paul Theroux chronicles his journeys through the towns and homes of the pre-Trump American South. One of his side observations is just how few bookshelves he sees, with even fewer books. Then, when Paul comes across a fellow writer and visits his book-challenged home, they immediately launch into a language which Paul suggests a non-reader simply can’t comprehend or even appreciate. Not particularly high falutin stuff, Paul points out, but a shared language some of us simply learned and others didn’t.
 
I was given this language from birth. I grew up in a world where everyone read as a purely utilitarian function. My grandparents read sitting side by side in their over-stuffed den chairs; crappy romance novels for my Nana and impenetrable Scottish history or political biographies for Papa. My mother seemed to read every paperback the convenience store or drugstore offered. She literally bought a book on her way home from work, and as a result read a lot of lurid crap. The most important thing, though, is that I saw her reading. She even set her alarm in the morning so she could read for an hour before going to work. In winter this meant she had to turn her bedside lamp back on.
 
I got extremely lucky in my own life. I wound up with a childhood and lifelong friend who read just as much as I did. Joel and I would pass companionable afternoons or whole days reading comic books or novels or whatever was at hand. By the time we were teenagers and had a social group, this made us different: we knew the language others did not, and if I was more of a traditionalist in my literary tastes and he was more adventurous and erudite, so be it. We were readers. Often we wound up reading the same book at the same time, and our back-and-forth on these are some of the best memories I have.
 
It must be clear that from this background, books were not a reflection of one’s intellectual adventurism or aspirations, but a tool. A screwdriver. Simply necessary, and so central that it wasn’t worth commenting on.
 
It would be inconceivable, for instance, to leave the house on any mission without a book. I would not head off to see a baseball game without a dog-eared paperback, simply due to the lineups and pitching changes; going to the bank (back when you did, and back when their were lineups) certainly involved a book, as did going to doctor or dentist. Subway journeys without a book would be absurd.
 
Once I had kids, books became even more important. There was, for instance, “the car book” jammed into the driver’s side door. This was hauled out while lounging in parking lots waiting for kid’s soccer games to finish, or dance recitals, or any after- school activity. The car book often stayed jammed in there for years. For a long time it was the life of Benjamin Franklin, then it was Ludlum’s “The Scarlatti Inheritance” – why that book? Who knows? Where did it come from? Who knows -- and currently I think it’s one of the Bourne books. I will neither finish nor get very far in these very poorly treated paperbacks; they are there to massage the time away.
 
And cottage books? Honestly, is there anything better than the water-puffed paperbacks discovered at the cottage?  Anne Rice, Colleen McCullough, or Ken Follett?
 
What all this has led to is a sort of catholicism about the printed word, particularly fiction. “Catholicism” may be too grand a word. “Whoredom” might be more like it. By and large, I think biblio whoredom is good for you, although sometimes I worry about the depth of my own weakness. Years ago, for instance, I did a book purge which haunts me to this day; worse, not just that I anguish over having lost my copy of “Airport,” but that I despair having lost my copy of “Hotel”!
 
My friend Joel says that the best time to read is when you’re eleven, your feet up on the wall. While this is hard to argue, I might go back further and say that being under the covers reading “Charlotte’s Web” on your own is pretty dammed solid, as was being ten, reading teenage hotrod novels (they existed). Later came tomes that ate away whole weekends of my teenagehood. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve read everything Herman Wouk wrote before 1980, and not just “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” but “Marjorie Morningstar”!  How can I explain this, really, to anyone? 
 
Well, I can say that it’s core to my belief that there should be no good taste or planning in reading. While I can claim truthfully that I’ve read all of Hemingway and all of Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Poe, and huge swathes of 19th century English literature and plays galore (I once wondered if I’d read more plays than novels) how do I justify having read all of Sinclair Lewis but also such a staggeringly unhealthy amount of Hamish Macbeth?
 
Well, I do have a justification. I came up with it years ago when school and teachers first began to suck my kids into the vortex of “these are important books” and “these are not important books”, the means by which American educators destroy the notion of educating. I invented a rule which goes like this:
 
What kind of books should your kids read? Answer: any damned book they want.
 
Looking at the miserable mess of the world around us, I can’t help but wish that our supersmart leaders and the pundits on TV had subscribed to this rule, and without shame.  Yes, put that Frederick Douglass book up there, but don’t feel bad about putting the Sidney Sheldon collection up beside it. We learn and expand from the breadth of our reading choices, and our comfort with reading, not just the titles. And by the way, if everyone had read Nora Roberts series “Year One” we might not be in this pandemic mess to begin with! Check it out and you’ll see what I mean. (Nora and Stephen King, by the way, seem to have nailed the twenty-first century pretty well so far).
 
So here’s where I stand: God bless Robert Gates for his W.C. Fields books. On that basis alone, that is the man who should be President of the United States. Certainly I would sleep better at night, after, of course, having closed my book and turned out my light.




 

1 comment:

  1. And of course, an essential criteria in a mate. Addicted readers can never live with a non-reader. They don't just speak different languages, they exist in separate universes. 'What do you mean you want to just lie in bed & read a book? I want to clean the garage or go shopping or watch football or go hiking or... Non-readers can never understand the adventures we are on while our noses are buried.

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