Sunday, August 27, 2006

    Last Sunday’s Boston Globe carried its usual fine book column by James Sallis.  This time Sallis discussed old books versus new ones.

    “The problem with new books is that they keep us from reading old ones,” Sallis writes.   “Every serious reader has a list of neglected writers.  And perhaps it’s proper that writers be in a sense kept down: that they stay hungry, remain outsiders.  There’s quite a gulf, however, between that and going unread.”

    I don’t seem to have the problem Sallis cites.  The older I get, the more appealing the old books seem to me.  Not that I neglect new books entirely.  But keeping up with all the flavors of the months, important new trends, and sweatily promoted newbies gets to be taxing.

    I guess I rely mostly on recommendations.  If somebody whose judgement I respect says you should read so-and-so, I generally do.  Same with reviewers I respect.  If they push hard, I tend to pick up the book they’re touting.  You learn pretty quickly which reviewers you trust and which you don’t.

    And yet there’s comfort in the books I’ve read and reread over much of my life.  Gatsby and Tender is The Night, Day of the Locusts, Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle, Ethan Frome, The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell My Lovely, virtually all of Graham Greene, The Maltese Falcon, virtually all of Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, Double Star, Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar, Greener Than You Think and Bring The Jubilee, virtually all of Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch and Charles Williams and John D. MacDonald, much of Day Keene and Harrry Whittington,  much of Joyce Carol Oates, most of Wm. Goldman, Three Hearts and Three Lions (Poul Anderson’s sly definition of science is or should be immortal), much of Charles Bukowski, Kerouac and on and on.

    Graham Greene did an essay on the books he read as a youth and commented that these probably shaped him more than anything he read later on in life.  I don’t know if I’d agree with that absolutely but I suspect there’s a good deal of truth to it.  In his case he talked about the H. Rider Haggard view of existence, Haggard being the favorite author of his youth, and the romance of She as a metaphoric view of mysterious womanhood.  (He talked about how Haggard late in life still wept openly about his son who had died something like fifty five years earlier.)

    I suppose my Haggard was Hemingway.  I first read A Farewell To Arms in eighth grade and it had an almost crushing effect on me.  It certainly disabused me of my boyish sense of heroics and how so much popular fiction is a lie.

    I’m not sure any book I pick up tody could have the same impact one me.  And I suppose, for that reason, I seek the solace of the old ones.

    Of course, this afternoon I spent $30 on new paperbacks so I guess I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination of seductive covers and the smell of fresh ink.

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