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On Books

The other day, I wrote that it would be nice if more people read novels and saw plays; because in addition to the important entertainment value, one can learn from and be enriched by them.

I grew up with books. I loved to play with balls, and to swim, but my favorite childhood hours were spent stretched out on the rug, reading books. My parents had great taste in childhood books. I learned to read at a young age, and devoured Uncle Wiggily stories, and the Thornton W. Burgess animal stories, and Winnie-The-Pooh. And my father read “Treasure Island” to me at bedtime, and then “Kidnapped,” and “The Jungle Book,” and “Robinson Crusoe,” and sometimes my mother came in to listen.

“Treasure Island” may still be my favorite book of all time, even though the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, intended it for young adults. I would say, “boys.” but female readers have loved the book, too. What an amazing adventure, with a treasure map, a sea voyage, pirates, a treasure in gold doubloons and pieces of eight, battles, drama and excitement throughout! I don’t know that I could say that this book changed my life, but every time I went to the beach with my parents, I brought my pail and shovel, and I was not digging to get to China, but in the hope of finding buried treasure. I actually buried some pennies in my back yard, just so I could dig them up years later, but somehow I could not find them, maybe they are still there?

I was thinking about the concept of “Books that changed one’s life.” And although that phrase is used, I don’t know that one book can do that, although it can certainly have a powerful effect, and stay with one forever. Not so much in “telling you how to live your life,” but in a greater perception of things, an understanding of humanity, and an emotional catharsis.

It is interesting that at one period in our cultural history, many people might have listed Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge’ as a book which impelled them to abandon the rat race, and search for inner fulfillment. I read it, but I did not like it too much; and apparently the various movie versions of it were also rather tedious. And of course there was “Catcher in the Rye,” which had a great effect on a generation of young adult readers, though it doesn’t seem to be read as much much today.

I was thinking of some books (besides “Treasure Island”!) which have stayed with me. And maybe you will think of those books which meant a great deal to you. One of those, is actually a play, but I read a lot of plays, which is actually very rewarding, though not as good as actually seeing them, which of course I have always tried to do. There was a whole series of volumes edited by John Gassner, which each contained, fully reprinted, his choice of the best American plays of a certain era; as early as about 1908-1920 or so, and then going on to a least the 1970’s. It was fascinating to see how popular taste in drama changed over the years, and to be introduced to plays which I had never seen nor read.

The play which is my favorite American drama, is Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Men inhabit a bar in New York City in 1912. They have variously given up on life or cannot cope with it, so spend their days getting drunk and sleeping it off, while they talk about an enhanced past or an imagined future of greatness. The proprietor, Harry Hope, is kind enough to put them up and give them some food, but he also depends on them for some kind of meaning, and he is also afraid to leave the bar and go back into the real world, where he once was a ward heeler and knew people, but had lost his job, perhaps for drinking or a scandal.

So these people talk and tell their stories, over and over. They are excitedly waiting for Hickey, a jovial salesman who always comes in on his birthday for a week-long bender, where they all celebrate and drink. The Iceman of the title initially refers to an old joke which he loves to tell, which I will not repeat here, but one could look it up. The other meaning of the title “The Iceman Cometh,” implied by the older formal phrasing, is a play on the joke, and also a symbol of death.

I would love to tell the whole story of the play, but it seems that O’Neill is saying that one can either try to escape life, and imagine oneself as being heroic in it, or actually go out there in the world, and get crushed. It may not be as hopeless as that, because O’Neill had a romantic aspect, and gave a poetry to most of his characters, no matter how downtrodden or doomed they might have been. If you ever want to see this, and it is rarely done on stage, although Kevin Spacey was supposedly very good in a Broadway version of about 15 years ago, see the AFI film staged version. There was also a live TV version done in 1960, with the supreme O’Neill actor Jason Robards playing Hickey. I don’t know why he did not do the AFI version, but Lee Marvin did pretty well in the role. And Robert Ryan at his very best as Larry, and a very young Jeff Bridges, absolutely amazing as Don Parritt, are unforgettable.

Now, as to novels which have stayed with me since I first read them, there is “The Great Gatsby,” which is short, perfectly written, and open to so much worthwhile analysis, about the the nature of people, and what critics love to refer to as “The American Dream.” Then there is “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner,who should be read much more. That novel I carried around in my head for days after reading it, It is complex and emotionally wrenching. “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, full of passion and intensity, and a haunted quality.

“Lolita” by Nabokov, which some have misunderstood, and which is a dazzling tour de force of wordplay, commentary on America of the 1950’s, and a strange love story despite its apparent theme. “The Brothers Karamazov,” by Doestoevsky, which I was pleased to hear was Hillary Clinton’s favorite novel. “The Heart of the Matter,” by Graham Greene. “Riddley Walker,” by Russell Hoban. “American Pastoral” by Philip “Roth one of the few more recent novels which I have thought was great. It “explains” the political nature of the ’60’s, at least from his very intelligent perspective.

The mystery novels of Ross Macdonald, which indelibly capture Los Angeles in the ‘period of the ’50’s to the ’70’s, and are immensely entertaining stories of a variety of human characters. Thinking of mysteries, so many of the Agatha Christie novels, very rewarding for their plots and incisive psychological analysis. And of course as a young adult, all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have always loved his theory, as explained to Dr. Watson, that, “If you list all the possibilities, and eliminate all of those which are impossible, the one which remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Many of the novels of Philip K. Dick, whom I finally started treading about 10-15 years ago. So much of what the world is today, he sensed; but his books are not at all just worthwhile as prophecies or even cautionary tales, but as existential problems for his characters to deal with as best they can. And Shakespeare’s plays, it should go without saying.

There are others, of course, but these stand out as I write this. Fiction which made me think and consider the human condition. Nothing that called out to me, “You must do this!”, or “Live or don’t live this way!” But stories which were enhancing, and which I can remember so well, because I always remember the emotional content of things, even conversations or events from fourth grade.

I wonder how many people read novels today. Obviously some sell in great numbers, but how many actually great books and plays are there now? When I would recently go to bookstores before the pandemic, I would rarely find a novel that I wanted to pick up and buy. Earlier, there were a great pair of independent bookstores here, Dutton’s Books, owned by each of two brothers. The store in Brentwood was very nicely ordered, and the employees all read a great deal, and had many suggestions for me, some of which were great. The other Dutton’s, in North Hollywood, was wonderfully cluttered, with books piled up everywhere and little in the way of employees, though the owner was very affable and obviously loved literature, like his brother. Both of these stores closed, apparently because of rents charged by the people who owned the mall in the one case, and the street property in the other. As you know, there are very few independent bookstores now, and that is a great loss, for literacy, the communal sharing of books, and a general cultural aspect.

Other people will of course have different tastes, and different favorite books. But as one reads more, hopefully starting at a young age, one gains something from almost every book or play, even the ones we don’t like as much, because that can tell us something about what is missing, or necessary in great fiction, and what touches and stimulates us more than something else. I do worry that as literacy declines; as more people choose to read junk (there is room for junk fiction, but not as a constant diet!), or political propaganda designed to cement the reader in his or her already formed opinions, much is lost. And I am not as sure as Tennyson’s “Ulysses” how much still abides.