Monday, August 02, 2004

put down that book

Another thing that distresses me is the fear that I may not be able to read all the books in the world. Of course I know that's impossible, but until I was 28 or so I kept the fantasy going by not looking into it too closely. Then, about the time I was slogging through The Magic Mountain, I decided to come up with a ballpark estimate. OK, I'm an obsessive reader, and a fast one, I'll admit. I read an average of a book a week. (Note: at this level of consumption, the idea that reading is somehow of greater merit than watching TV starts to unravel). That's 52 books a year. That's 50 more years if I live to 83, which means just 2500-odd more books if I never slow down. The first time I did this simple calculation, I was stunned. 2500!? I immediately chucked Thomas Mann, I can tell you that, and vowed not to continue reading anything that couldn't convince me that it needed to be read--either because I was enjoying it or because I believed, like bad-tasting medicine, it was doing me some good. No longer would I finish books because I felt guilty about quitting on them.

By that criteria, the two books that most justified themselves to me over the past year were The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh and A Coffin for Dmitrios by Eric Ambler. Neither are particularly high-brow endeavors--I haven't been able to read literature for about a year and a half now, because of some constitutional weakness. But both of these novels deliver the goods. Consider this passage from The Choirboys, a grim, very lewd, black comedy about the lives of policemen that was inspired by Joseph Heller's Catch 22--and to my mind outdoes Heller's classic, with a sounder, more sincere voice and greater commitment to the bleakest of world views.

"Lieutenant Treadwell, after his hair started falling out in tufts, earned his way back into Commander Moss' good graces by authoring that portion of the Los Angeles Police Deparment manual which reads:
SIDEBURNS: Sideburns shall not extend below the bottom of the outer ear opening (the top of the earlobe) and shall end in a clean-shaven horizontal line. The flare (terminal portion of the sideburn) shall not exceed the width of the main portion of the sideburn by more than one-fourth of the unflared width.
MOUSTACHES: A short and neatly trimmed moustache of natural color may be worn. Moustaches shall not extend below the vermillion border of the upper lip or the corners of the mouth and may not extend to the side more than one-quarter inch beyond the corners of the mouth.
It took Lieutenant Treadwell thirteen weeks to compose the regulations. He was toasted and congratulated at a staff meeting. He beamed proudly. The regulations were perfect. No one could understand them."

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