Back in the mists of time otherwise known as the late 1980s, I began having trouble with my eyesight. It didn’t seem like a very big deal at first, but became a significant problem by the time I started second grade in 1988. At the beginning of the school year, I was placed in the higher-level reading group, which meant that I had to switch classes for an hour or two each day. My reading teacher insisted that I sit towards the back of the classroom — probably because I was generally well-behaved and, therefore, trustworthy — and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I could barely read anything she wrote on the blackboard. I complained to the teacher over and over again that I couldn’t see the board, but she never believed me. As I grew increasingly frustrated, Mrs. C. discovered that behavioral problems were not beyond the pale of possibility with me.
At seven, I was already an avid reader, and, at the time, was engrossed in a series of novels for children by Lucy Fitch Perkins; the novels concerned the adventures of twins growing up around the world. I found them utterly fascinating — often much more so than whatever we happened to be reading in class at the time, and, under the guise of having to go to the bathroom, I would sneak them out of the classroom with me and lock myself in a stall in the restroom so that I could read a few more pages. Although I no longer remember exactly how the situation resolved itself, I suspect that my absences from class grew longer, more frequent, and more noticeable. It seems to me that Mrs. C. may have called my mother in to discuss my deception, but, at any rate, my nearsightedness was discovered soon enough, and I was swiftly fitted with a new pair of glasses: thick (for my age) lenses, with thick brown plastic frames. My eyesight grew worse nearly every year until reaching a sort of plateau by the time I was in my late ‘teens. Thirty now, I’ve had only three or four small changes in my prescription since the late ’90s. Nevertheless, one habit I acquired as a myopic youth carried over into my bespectacled life: a fondness for reading without glasses by, quite literally, burying my head in a book.
I am so nearsighted that a text can be no further than three or four inches away from my face before it becomes illegible, yet I enjoy reading without my glasses. Serendipitously, this works to my advantage as I’m an easily distracted reader. I can’t read and comprehend while someone else watches television; the noise is too intrusive. (But I can listen to the radio while I read — figure that one out!) I’m also distracted, when I read, by other physical objects that are within my reach: another book, a magazine or newspaper, even my computer or iPad. It all aids in ruining the concentration I need to comprehend what I’m reading.
So, in some ways, I’m grateful for my nearsightedness. There are times when it’s the only thing that makes it possible for me to read with purpose over a sustained period. It’s how I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; frequently, it’s how I read the New York Times. Something about burying my head in a book — something about being so close to the text that I can see its texture and smell the ink — enables me to concentrate within the shallow depth of field I experience when my glasses come off.
Hooray for nearsightedness!
Indulging my taste for mid-century fiction, I recently purchased a copy of Sloan Wilson’s 1963 novel, Georgie Winthrop. Like his (probably better-known) contemporary John Cheever, Wilson was at his best chronicling the trials and tribulations of a certain class of post-war suburbanite. Most widely known today as the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which could be viewed as a 1950s precursor to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Wilson also penned A Summer Place, which was turned into a film under the same title in 1959, as well as a number of other novels and one work of autobiographical non-fiction. Sloan Wilson has been a particular favorite of mine since I first read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit several years ago, and I’m slowly working my way through all of his novels — one every couple of years. Georgie Winthrop was his first book since 1960′s A Sense of Values, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
I always enjoy finding artifacts of the previous owner(s) of used books that I purchase, and I found a cute bookplate in this copy of Georgie Winthrop. As far as I can tell, Betty and Edmund Shimberg are both still alive and well, still married, and both are psychologists practicing together in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. If you ever stumble on this post: Hi!
I’m more than a little saddened by the news of Borders’ bankruptcy, and it’s not just because I’ve probably spent more money there in the past 15 years or so (I wasn’t able, single-handedly, to keep them afloat?) than I have in any other retail establishment with the probable exception of Giant Eagle. Oh, I know that Borders is really just another big box retailer, but I have some fond memories of the place.
Back in the mid ’90s, when a Borders opened in Christiana, Delaware (about an hour from where I lived at the time), we stopped in, frequently, once a week while on our way to or from northeastern New Jersey, or on our way home from my harpsichord teacher’s house just north of Wilmington. I could — and did — spend hours pouring over books (mostly historical tomes and biographies, though I did buy the occasional novel) and recordings (mostly classical, sometimes early jazz) for, in those days, Borders stocked even hard-to-find titles: a great convenience as far as I was concerned, as I rarely bought anything that would have been of interest to the average person. Even better, many of the staff people — especially those assigned to the music department — were actually very knowledgeable and seemed to care about the material they maintained. One got to know some of the staff people, and, once in a while, one of them might even point out a new arrival that would be of particular interest.
In 1998, while attending a week-long harpsichord masterclass led by Edward Parmentier at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the original Borders store, which, though much larger than the Christiana store, still felt almost like an off-beat college-town bookstore, and, of course, this was how Borders got its start. It was heaven; you could, almost literally, find anything there, and we drove back to Maryland financially poorer but culturally richer for having made the trip.
I didn’t shop at Borders quite as much during my own college years, but rediscovered the store after I moved to central Ohio in 2005; Columbus, after all, has two! By this point, Borders had begun issuing email coupons and Borders Bucks and personal shopping days, and my good friend in North Carolina and I had many long-distance telephone conversations comparing our Borders purchases and bemoaning our lack of sales resistance. It was, and remains, one of the peculiar bonds of our friendship.
I hope that Borders will be able to reorganize and pull itself out of the hole that it’s in, but I know it won’t be easy — not in this economy, not with the growing threat of easily downloadable e-books. And if they do manage to emerge from Chapter 11, what comes next? E-books don’t require physical space in a store and fewer and fewer people are buying hard-copies of films and music. How does a bookstore reorganize and work around these facts, and, if they do reorganize, will Borders even be a bookstore as now we know it?
(For what it’s worth, I’ve only downloaded one e-book, and I found reading it to be a singularly flat experience. Call me old-fashioned, but I still love the feel of paper under my fingers, the smell of a new — or old — book: the whole tactile experience of reading and handling the book as a physical, tangible object. Unfortunately, it seems more and more apparent that preserving that experience for future generations will be, in the words of John Cheever, like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon.)
I’m feeling a little better every day: slowly starting to sleep better, moving a little more freely (though I still have little strength and a very limited range of motion in my left arm), and I’m working from home for three hours a day every weekday. I’ve felt so useless around the house that working from home is actually pleasant as it gives me something to do; it’s also saving me from completely running out of sick time, as I haven’t a lot built up since I’ve only been benefits eligible for a little over year.
I am going a little stir crazy, though. I’ve only been out of town once since my accident; we drove to Columbus for lunch last Saturday, but in retrospect I really wasn’t ready for the trip and I was pretty miserable, even though I (obviously) wasn’t driving. Now that I feel stronger, we might attempt a lunch trip to Granville or somewhere close on Thursday or Friday, since we’re supposed to have warm temperatures near 60º.
Just before my birthday, I bought a copy of John Cheever’s complete short stories. I finally cracked the book open yesterday and read Goodbye, My Brother, which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1951. Given my taste for Sloan Wilson’s novels of the ’50s and early ’60s, and for the world inhabited by characters who could have stepped out of Mad Men, I think I’m going to like Cheever.
I hate clutter, but I seem to be its perpetual victim. Or creator; I’m not really sure which. This stems partly from my unfortunate membership in the Pack-Rat Society, which keeps me from throwing away anything that might be remotely important “someday.” Do I really need that newspaper that I saved back in April because there was an article in it that I wanted to reread? Probably not. What about the receipt for renewing the tags on my car three years ago? Nope, but I’ve kept both of them anyway. It takes a systematic reëvalutation of all this for me to make the logical leap that most of these things can be safely consigned to the rubbish and recycle bins.
Mostly, though, clutter in my house — and most notably in the bedroom — is due to my less-than-stellar habits as a reader. I’m a voracious reader and an insatiable consumer of popular culture (especially of the 80+-year-old variety), and my job at the library affords me plenty of opportunities to raid the stacks for the obscure books I’m always hunting down. This leads to piles and piles of books by the bed, and, truth be told, I read very few of them cover-to-cover. (For those of you keeping track, the last book I actually finished was Joseph Hergesheimer’s The Lay Anthony, Alfred A. Knopf, 1914.)
So, frequently, the piles of books in my bedroom just lead to frustration when it’s time to vacuum; after I’ve moved the piles a few times from the floor to my desk and back to the floor again, I’ll decide that it’s finally time to weed through the stacks of books I checked out, to start afresh with good intentions. I’ll only check out a book if I’m certain to read it. No more piles. No more cluttered bedroom floor. No more piles to move when I want to vacuum.
Born in 1880, he published his first novel in 1914. Several books followed in the second half of the 1910s through the ’20s — including a number of autobiographical works and travel narratives. In 1922, The Literary Digest named him “the most important American writer” working at the time. Several of his short stories and novels were adapted for films, and, yet, by the time of his death in 1954, he was almost completely forgotten. Of whom do I write?
Joseph Hergesheimer. The son of a family of comfortable means, Hergesheimer wrote about what he knew best: the American upper-middle class — territory inhabited also by his slightly younger contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald. His prose was ecstatically florid. I was reminded, as I read the opening chapters of his first book, The Lay Anthony, of the style of a beautifully gauzy silent film — something along the lines of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, perhaps:
The still, watery facsimile of the banks was broken into liquid blots of emerald and bronze by the bow of the canoe. The air rose coldly from the surface to Anthony’s face; from the meadows on either hand came the light, dry fragrance of newly-cut hay; before them trees, meeting above, formed a somber reach, barred with dusty gold shafts of sunlight that sank into the clear depths. He heard behind the distant dip of paddles, the floating voices, worlds removed.
- The Lay Anthony, 105-106
The cinematic language of the silent era is certainly at play in Hergesheimer’s work, and it’s almost understandable — given the hard-bitten realism (and, in some cases, cynicism) that came to the fore in the late 1920s and ’30s — that his books gradually fell into obscurity.
Though it never warranted more than a footnote, I had run across Hergesheimer’s name several times in the past — mostly while reading biographical studies of some of his more famous contemporaries. My curiosity was piqued several weeks ago when Turner Classic Movies aired Wild Oranges, a 1924 film adapted from his novella of the same title, originally published in 1919. I have a habit of reading authors’ works in chronological order, so I located a copy of The Lay Anthony (1914) at a local library, and it proved a quick and rewarding read. It must be said, however, that The Lay Anthony (nor, I suspect, any of Hergesheimer’s other books) would not appeal to the casual modern reader. His style is dated; there is no doubt about that.
My tastes in film and music, as well as in literature, have always leaned towards products of the 1910s and 1920s, and I suspect his style and his language appeal to me for that reason. That said, The Lay Anthony is not without its flaws. Occasionally, Hergesheimer’s prose makes the not-so-distant leap from lush to lurid:
As he drove the car he was frequently aware of her exotic gaze resting speculatively upon him. On a high, sunny reach of road there was a shrill rush of escaping air, and he found a rear tire flat. Hartmann and his mate explored the road; Kuhn gloomed aloof. Mrs. Dallam seated herself on a bank near by while Anthony replaced the inner tube. It was hot, and he removed his coat; soon his shirt was clinging to the rippling young muscles of his vigorous torso. Once, when he straightened up to wipe the perspiration from his brow, Mrs. Dallam caught his glance and held it with a slow smile.
- The Lay Anthony, 159-160
Passages such as this sound as if they could have come from the pages of a modern romance novel. (Though, to be fair, it is made perfectly obvious throughout the novel that Anthony is a very attractive, if rather shiftless, young man. One could easily fall a little in love with him.) If you’ve patience with an old-fashioned, even outmoded, style, I unhesitatingly recommend The Lay Anthony. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, The Lay Anthony is “a masterpiece. It is only at the completion that the knowledge comes of how beautiful a thing it is.”
While The Lay Anthony is, to date, the only Hergesheimer novel that I’ve read from cover to cover, I have begun reading his Cytherea, originally published in 1922. So far, it is equally as absorbing as his earlier effort, and Hergesheimer displays here a deeper understanding of the complex motivations of his characters’ lives than he did in his first book. Perhaps I’ll follow up on Cytherea in a future post.