Monday, October 8, 2007

Reading for Pleasure

There was a time when reading for pleasure had a wonderful, secret innocence about it, where you read away fro and beyond what teachers and parental figures expected from you. It was truly your place of escape and, even more, your place of transportation. In so many words, you knew nothing of deconstructionism or postmodernism or Marxism or feminism, much less historicism, you knew only that there were worlds you could quickly reach wherein you were no longer at the mercy of adults or authority figures. It was by no means an easy world, which was one of the things you so admired about it; it was a world of adventure, of potential dangers, of run-away horses and Sir Reginald Front-de-boeuf, about to come at you lance at the ready, his horse more battle ready than your borrowed nag. Pap Finn would see you hiding in the corner, whereupon he could easily come after you. Don't mention Injun Joe. Forget Simon Legree, and be careful, be very careful of becoming too fond of Lad, a Dog, because there were dangers for dogs--everywhere.

That began to change for you when it rained one day, screwing your chances for recess. Mrs. DeAngelo, in some Plan-B mode, began to read from a book she suspected most of you would relate to.

"Tom?" the book began.

"No answer."

She read all the way to the point where Tom deliberately tells his teacher he was late because he was out talking to Huckleberry Finn, knowing his "punishment" will be having to sit on the girl's side of the class room, in the one empty seat, next to the new girl.

That evening, having mortgaged hours of your life to chores, you took the twenty-nine cents being charged for an edition of Tom Sawyer at a five-and-dime store, read through dinner and pretty well ran through the rest of your alert hours until you finished, then dreamed of those people, asleep and awake until the next day, when you arrived at school early to await Mrs. DeAngelo, there to ask her if it seemed likely that people could make a living from writing such things. "You could," she said, "but you'd have to be as good as Mr. Twain or it might not work for you."

Thus was set in motion a hopeless competition you could never hope to win, but could not help yourself from trying.

For a while, a few years, really, you still read for pleasure, but it began to catch up with you and you were at that time where much of what you read was undertaken in the interests of learning, which is to say memorizing things in order to quote them or refer to them in examinations, the better to sound as though you had indeed learned things.

Some years later still, you were called into Lou's office, where you were told that even though your last six books were doing well enough, Lou would get to be pretty damned old, waiting for you to make good on your boast of being able to write all the titles on the list he'd paid a consultant ten thousand dollars to assemble, a list of books written about subjects that would sell. He even spoke of reprinting a book you'd written about the Marquis de Sade, which subject was high on the list he'd paid ten thousand dollars for. Lou, in his way, was as much a force as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. "You must know some other writers," he said. "The thing is, you'd get them to write some of the titles and go through them and, you know, fix them up, for which I would pay you, not as much as I pay you for writing them, but enough to make a nice weekly salary."

Years later still, you tell students that their days of reading for pleasure are over, and then you tell them the rest, that the pleasures of childhood and escape may be gone, but the joys will increase the same way an artist's pleasure increases when learning to "read" Mary Cassatt's technique, or El Grecco's or Tieppolo's. You will see how they do it and square what it is they do with what you need to do, and from now on there will be no more badly written books, only books whose techniques and ranges of understanding you will have surpassed, the better to see brother and sister writers whose works radiates before you, alluring with the promise of technique you only now begin to appreciate.

It is of a piece with being in a delicatessen. You are from a place and background where delicatessen means one particular style against which you measure all others. To be sure, there are delicatessens of stunning number, and they often provide the same kind of transportation such books as Ivanhoe and Treasure Island and Oliver Twist provided you back then. Papa Christo's on Normandie, across Pico from St. Sophia's Cathedral, all a reek of olive and garlic and lamb and pita. And here in Santa Barbara, Pan e Vino and Villa Maestra, two trattoria whose displays of aging provolone and gouda amid the salami cotto and bottles of olive oil set the mouth to a slather. You can smell the wood-burning pizza oven and lust after the bowls of thick lentil and spinach soup as they are carried past you. But your heritage delicatessens bring more than the sight and smell of the food and ingredients; they bring the Talmudic banter of the waitpersons, wanting to know if something maybe is wrong you don't order knishes; the raucous dialectic of families arguing their way into the meal, the impassioned disquisitions on whether Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray cream soda is in fact the champagne of the Negev. There is comfort and reassurance in a delicatessen. There is peace and surprise and identity all about you there. People talk with their hands, nod or shake their heads to the point where they will soon require the services of a chiropractor. Down on Pico now, between Robertson and Doheny, there are beards and black hats and severity and dark eyes radiating value judgments.

If You really exist and if You hear this, when my time comes, let it come when you are in a delicatssen, reading, a book clutched in one hand, an absurdly thick pastrami in the other, dripping deli mustard. Let there be other books than the one you are reading, books you will then have no time left to read, in symbolic recognition that of the making of books and life and sandwiches, there is no end.

At some historical point, you believe it was The Age of Reason, a good deal was made of the "good death," a cheerful crossing over, an inspirational, calm transition from one state of being to another. Screw that. You want the deli ambiance, the cross-talk, the dialectic, the pilpul, the Now you come for me! Now that a glorious sandwich and a splendid book are given me, now you say, Okay kid, time's up? You, too, if You exist, are an editor, calling shots the way you and Whatzisname called them on Job. You can freaking well wait until I finish this sandwich and this book! Here, try some of this Dr. Brown's. What, you're worried my glass is maybe tref? And this! Don't tell me You don't like pickled tomato. What, Your stomach! Mamser! Next thing, you'll be telling me you don't like Hopkins and that crazy Yeats.

Joe Heller was right about You.


R.L. Bourges said...

Shelly: Oy. What else can I say? Except to add: and the loading up on books at Steimatsky's before going to the Romanian restaurant on Ben-Yehuda in Tel-Aviv - The Black Tulip, it was called, I think. Such a soup that man made with the barley and the split peas. And reading Henry Miller at the long-gone place in Montreal, with matzo balls the size of a full moon. And the waitress saying:"a bowl of soup you call a meal?"
Oy. Thanks again.

Smiler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Smiler said...

"People talk with their hands, nod or shake their heads to the point where they will soon require the services of a chiropractor" reminded me of so many people I've seen sitting in caf├ęs, in line for the bus, in their cars, ANYWHERE in Israel. So dramatic, and so very funny when you come from a much more reserved place like Canada for instance.

As for Lee's mention of matzo ball soup, there's still that restaurant on The Main called... I believe "The Main"- easy enought to remember - just in front of Schwartz's (which, wouldn't you know it, is now allegedly owned by a greek family, can you imagine??) I've had plenty of matzo ball soup meals there in my student days. Wish could remember what I was reading back then. probably Zola, Simone de Beauvoir or Carson McCullers.

Anonymous said...

Too wonderful...
thank you.

x said...

You really appreciate the pleasures well, don't you? What a virtuoso!

John Eaton said...

Since I gave up teaching for pecans and emerging light, I've enjoyed reading again for its own sake.

Shelly, Menuhin would be so proud of you. A violin or a fiddle?

It depends on what you're playing,


P.S. Yeats rocks.