So, during our latest
enjoyable discussion fracas mêlée, John alluded to the fact that what I have is something more like a reading illness than a love of literature per se. I usually either walked to school or took the (very crowded) bus when I lived in New York. So I never developed the special skill, honed to perfection by my uncle, of folding the New York Times first, in half upper to lower; then, in halves again but along the central line; finally, in half again along the midline, and reading 1/8 of a page at a time. This sounds easy. But you really need to picture my uncle, a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, taking the subway to work down on Wall Street from the upper East side, whence he was bound to get a seat—I must note he was being rather frugal (which will seem to be belied by what follows, but having a smaller number of really well-made suits is cheaper in the long run). There he is: sitting, in a beautiful bespoke suit (I thought he would die when during a brief fever of dot.com bubbliness the firm introduced “casual Fridays,” which policy was happily discarded in 2000, as I assured him it would be), and horn-rimmed glasses, on the express, hemmed in by people, none of whom he is inconveniencing in any way by his NYT reading, because of his special, lifetime-New-Yorker ability to pick up each section, shake it into sudden crisp folds against its own grain, and repeat, as needed, until all is read and the crossword finished by 7:45 a.m. when he gets to work. (As I say, it sounds easy, but think of what happens when you must get from an article folded into the top left 1/8 of one page into the middle 1/8 of the lower part of the next page, and you may not extend it beyond your knees or your elbows beyond your shoulders.) He is a very meticulous and wonderful person, my uncle.
In any case, I’ve never mastered it. I used to read The Economist on the handlebar of my older daughter’s stroller while I walked her to kindergarten until I learned that it wasn’t merely that their articles on US and Italian politics were bunk (the only two I really knew enough to judge before), but that the more I learned about any topic, the wronger I learned they were, and I came to suspect the whole thing was an exercise at massaging my ego so I would feel like a superior sort of person who knew about water supply issues in Ghana when, in fact, I didn’t. But that probably that one article on securities fraud was real. So, I’ve often had to fall back on the old standby, walking while reading a book. I can’t read in cars or I’ll get sick. I can read on the subway as long as I’m certain no one’s going to molest me if I lose track of my surroundings (bow howdy do people ever! And by people I mean men, sorry dudes. WTF with those guys?) On long train rides, for whatever reason, I like to just look out the window, especially because I mostly only ever travel one route: the Silver Star/Palmetto Express from New York City or D.C. to Savannah, GA, in a sleeper. You go to sleep in Virginia somewhere and wake up in the pine woods of Georgia, and the porter brings you coffee and they have grits and biscuits! On planes I like to sleep. In any case, the real point is that I went into the bathroom yesterday and found the following book on top of the toilet tank:
And I thought, “John Holbo, you magnificent bastard!” This book was in our bathroom in Berkeley, California for…it seemed like forever but I surely moved it after six months. God, I hope inertia didn’t keep me in torment even that long. I think it did though. The problem was, I just kept reading it when I was in there. I don’t mean, time to settle in and have a good read because—no, I’m darting in there to wash my face and I read 12 goddamn pages. Studd is a terrible book. It is so. Bad. But then, having finished it over the course of…a week or two I guess, I just kept re-reading it! It was horrible. It was a nightmare. Every time I would think “ah fuck Studd noooo!” but then I would say, well I’ve sat down already, and it’s not as if I can reach anything else to read except for the ingredients on the toothpaste. Sometimes we had Tom’s of Maine Cinnamon, that was mildly interesting. I swear I read that book cover to cover at least six times. I’m just going to hope it was only six times. God, it was way more though. Ten times minimum. What’s wrong with me?! I eventually bestirred myself to put A Suitable Boy in there instead. Eventually. That was OK for a decent while.
So, naturally, I’m reading Studd right now. Wait, wait, wait, it makes sense! It’s out of a perverse curiosity to see how well I remember the book, having not looked at it for 14 years! Perfectly well, is how. He has two sentences near the start recounting a brief exchange with the son of a cousin he looks up after fifteen years or whatever, because the son expressed himself with a few choice words on the subject of learning Latin and got sent out of the room, but then Studd’s all, giving him manly man advice and shit. I remembered that just from seeing the cover! OK, then I told myself I was reading it on y’all’s behalfs so I could post about it. But it’s not stupid in a particularly interesting way. The author is one of those “I’m so nonchalant about sex because” handwaving “unspecified reasons” who is also “the world is going to hell in a handbasket because man in the gray flannel suit so secretly I’m a beatnik too, down inside, really, I am, please have morally wrong pre-marital sex with me?” But it’s 1972. Dude, shouldn’t you at least secretly be a hippie by now? The author lived in Africa for quite a while and hunted a lot and clearly enjoys it; the safari sections are the most readable part, and not actually all that racist. Not much at all, really. And the main character reads James Bond novels, and laughs about their implausibility. IT’S GETTING META UP IN HERE. Also Hornblower. Which is fine, everyone should read about Hornblower. Rather than, say, about Studd. I sent John accusing texts last night. “Studd is so horrible.” Him: “there are better SF novels unpacked on the shelf, read them.” Me: “WHY R U MAKN ME DO THS? I H8 U!” After they all returned from getting udon: older daughter, “but why are you reading it if you hate it so much then?” Younger daughter, to whom I had explained things in a pellucid fashion “to get it over with more quickly.” Yes, see! It makes perfect sense! Luckily I finished reading it while I was composing this post, and now I am going to throw it down the rubbish chute of our new 24th floor apartment (that we rent, but it’s new to us.)