The Book Meme: Day 10

Day 10 - A book you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving

There are books one reads from a sense of obligation. Sometimes the obligation is literal--you have signed up for a class, or perhaps joined a book club. Most often, however, the duty is self-imposed, placed on you by you because you respect someone else's taste, or perhaps you just want to get them off your back.

Of the many, many things I've been assigned to read for class, I can point to quite a few that I enjoyed: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Scarlet Letter (except for the opening "Custom House" section), Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Return of the Native, Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, L'Etranger, The Iliad, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Marat/Sade, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Dr. Faustus, Henry IV (both parts), Beowulf, Cane, Invisible Man, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gulliver's Travels... dozens of titles. Ad that's not even considering the poetry, the short stories, or the books I'd already read before they were assigned (like The Lord of the Rings, which I gleefully re-read for Ken Reckford's course on the Heroic Journey.)

I've really belonged to a book club only once: after my ninth-grade English teacher, Zora Rashkis, had been told by the administration of Grey Culbreth Junior High that she could no longer teach the popular Great Books elective she had taught for years, she chose to recast the course as a book club. My mom had heard about the course and very much wanted me in it, so she dutifully drove me to the Rashkis residence on Sunday afternoons to sit with Ms. R and a half-dozen other students (all girls) to sit and discuss books. The titles chosen were mostly 20th-century American works, but they exposed us to a variety of writers and ideas I'd not encountered before, and some I recall liking very much. I don't remember much about Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but I definitely liked When the Legends Die and The Ox-Bow Incident. I never completed A Death in the Family, but I have never forgotten the gorgeous section of the book where Agee paints a vivid word picture of a child's summer evenings in Knoxville. I sometimes worry that if I ever pick up the book and re-read it, I will find that part less beautiful than I recall. But perhaps it will be worth it.

Unfortunately, none of these works quite fit the category established above, because these were not books I expected to hate. Some were certainly far more enjoyable than I'd expected--The Return of the Native comes to mind--but in every case, some authority or other had viewed the book as worthwhile. And me? I was a doe-eyed innocent who had no idea whether it would be any good or not. I didn't have the kind of wide experience with literature that would lead me to make presumptions about a work in advance of reading it. Generally, then, I gave every book a good-faith effort, and on occasion I was horribly, horribly disappointed.

Outside the classroom and the club, however, I was a lot more willing to presume, and my presumptions were usually based on what I knew about the person recommending the book. When my friend Kenney told me about Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, I trusted him; he'd already introduced me to everything from Asterix comics to Spike Jones records to the hilarious 1066 and All That (which taught me a startlingly large amount of what I know about British history.) I was thus completely unsurprised to find Zelazny very much my cup of tea. But there was one source of recommendations I felt extremely conflicted about: my mother.

I hasten to note that this is not an issue of trusting my mother. My mother is ridiculously trustworthy--abnormally so. She is so completely lacking in guile that she felt guilty about setting up a private email account for herself in order to plan my father's surprise 70th birthday party.

But Mom is particular about her tastes. Very particular. There are singers she does not like because they don't breathe right. There are actors she hates so much she will not watch their work--Steve Martin being prominent among them, for some reason. And she has no patience--none--with the trappings of science fiction or fantasy. She has never even attempted Tolkien, and she has spent over 40 years refusing to watch Star Wars. For years, when Kelly and the kids and I would visit my folks over Christmas break, we would make a special trip to the theater so that my father could watch a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Star Trek movie, knowing he wouldn't get to do so without us. (I did get Mom to come with me to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which she claimed to enjoy, but that is literally the last SF-related movie she has voluntarily seen.)

Our tastes, in short, do not always overlap. And knowing this, I have often dawdled a bit when it comes to taking Mom's recommendations about books. For example, one of her very favorite authors is Australian novelist Nevil Shute. Growing up, I had seen dozens of his books around the house, but it wasn't until I hit my teen years that I opted to crack open On the Beach. I found it quite wonderful, not least because it was clearly science fiction, and Mom was delighted by the fact that I'd read and enjoyed it. She immediately recommended that I read her favorite Shute novel, A Town Like Alice... and I didn't. From what she told me, the book had no SF tropes, and with my tastes at the time leaning firmly toward the fantastic, I dragged my feet until she'd forgotten about it. (When I did finally read it in my forties, I found it enjoyable in many ways, but I had definite issues with it in others.)

She did not, however, forget to point me toward another of her favorites, a guy named John McPhee. Sometimes she would launch into praise of a McPhee book called A Sense of Where You Are, which discussed the college basketball career of Bill Bradley. Both she and I were hoops fans, so she probably thought it was a topic I'd be likely to enjoy, but she was also highly vocal about another book: one called simply Oranges.

This was, I must admit, a little off-putting. I have never been especially interested in botany, or horticulture, or even in oranges. Over the years I've come to appreciate them more as a foodstuff, but in my youth I would consume only their juice. The idea that this guy would write an entire book about a topic as dull as a citrus fruit actually made his basketball book sound less appealing. So I didn't read either one. But Mom never stopped recommending them, either.

Eventually I was out of school, wandering some used bookstore, looking for something short and punchy to read, and I stumbled across a paperback copy of Oranges. I'd gotten more into creative nonfiction over the years, and this thing clocked in at under 180 pages, and after all, it had been recommended by my mother, and it would get her to stop recommending it to me, and she did give birth to me and all... so I spent a couple of bucks on it, took it home, and cracked it open.

It's wonderful.

It's the purest example I know of this dictum: "There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers." (The remark is usually attributed to H.L. Mencken, but it appears to have originated with British author Richard Le Gallienne.) Without sacrificing an iota of clarity--perhaps because he insists on clarity--McPhee manages to make the struggle to grow the proper orange (and to get a satisfying juice from it) into one that any reader can appreciate. He does the same with Bill Bradley's story, as I was soon to learn. He can make shad fishing or levee construction engaging to those who don't fish or move earth. He can turn a stop at a highway cutting in the Rockies into an adventure in geology. The man made a single tennis match worth reading about for 150 pages, for crying out loud. And I know all of this because my mom insisted I would like him.

In this, as in so many other instances, mother really does know best.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 15, 2018 7:35 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 9 was the previous entry in this blog.

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