You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I am pretty good at literary quizzes, and I especially like those where you identify a work based on its first line. I always get this one right: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." That's the opening of 1984 by George Orwell. I have never read 1984.

Orwell's novel is the first on the list of David Pringle's Best 100 Science Fiction Novels, the list I have been choosing from for these blog postings. It is the one book on the list that I can tell most any of my friends that I have never read and expect always the same response, "I can't believe that."

Is it unimaginable that I have never read 1984? I have read a lot of other books. According to my Good Reads list, I have read 84 books since the first of the year. Even though that number may be inflated because so many have been relatively short sf novels, I still consistently rank above the national average for "books read per year," which according to the Washington Post is four It's just that in my case none of them has ever been George Orwell's 1984.

Friends ask, "Didn't you have to read it in high school?" No, I did not. I am a victim of American public school education, 1957 - 1969. We didn't have to read books. We made books reports, choosing I suppose from a list of acceptable titles. (1984 was possibly on these lists.) But never in my English classes were we all assigned the same book for outside reading, and there were certainly no such things as Summer Reading Lists. It was during this time that I read several of the other books on the Pringle list: Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters; several by Ray Bradbury, who was my idol at the time; and, in seventh grade about half of us read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. (This was only a year after the Cuban missile crisis and we all still thought we might be blown up in the near future. I think Alas, Babylon remains popular on reading lists for early teens. Apocalypse never goes out of style.)

I could blame Aldous Huxley for the fact that I never read 1984. I had around that same time read Brave New World and found it dull. It was a poor introduction to dystopian fiction, as well as probably a denser and more adult novel than a thirteen-year-old needed to read. I have ever since associated the Huxley and the Orwell novel, and never picked up the latter.

So what difference does it make if I go to my grave having never read 1984? As with most rhetorical questions the answer, I think, is obvious. None whatsoever. There are no more pop tests in my future. I don't think I will lose any friends having revealed my dark secret. And I still get that question right on Famous First Line quizzes.

I am feeling brazen. Here are some other things I have never read.

1) Anything by Charles Dickens from beginning to end. (There might be an exception for A Christmas Carol, although it could be that I have seen so many film adaptations so may times that I feel I know it by heart."There is more gravy than grave about you, Marley.")

2) No Faulkner since 9th grade. And then I only had a go at The Sound and the Fury and felt pretty much at sea the whole way through it.

3)Very little that would have been considered "age appropriate" when I was in elementary school and junior high. No Black Beauty or Old Yeller - saw the movies. (Films adaptations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells made me want to read the originals, which I discovered were long and had few if any of the Ray Harryhausen monsters found on screen. A TV presentation of John Huston's Moby Dick lead to a disastrous encounter with that novel when I was around eleven. I have read it a couple of times since)

4) Nothing by Dostoevsky.

5) None of the following: Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Jack Kerouac, or Stephen King.

I have a copy of 1984 sitting in front of me now. I still don't know if I will read it. For one thing it has the wrong cover. The one pictured above is the proper cover. It also has that ugly, Signet Classic typeface -- so dark it looks like a stain, narrow margins. Whether I ever read it or not will remain my own, dirty little secret.

Friday, August 6, 2010


My disdain for science fiction reached its peak in the mid to late seventies. I was working in a used bookstore, and more and more of what went into the sf section featured dragons or gladiators with leopard heads on the cover. It was the fantasy invasion, and the baleful influence of J.R.R. Tolkien was everywhere. Spaceships gave way to cliff dwellings reached only by young couples in loin cloths riding pteradactyls. Overnight it seemed aliens went from looking like respectable, multi-tentacled, horny invaders from another galaxy to gnomic helpmates. Who could take such crap seriously?

I was egged on in my disdain by a co-worker who shared my feelings. He, too, had read science fiction as a child. (We were now in our ultra-mature mid-twenties.) We noticed that just about every other science fiction paperback we shelved had won a Hugo, a Nebula, or a some kind of award. How hard could it be, we wondered. We decided to have a contest to see which of us could win a Hugo or Nebula award before the other. It could be in any category, although we admitted that Life Time Achievement was setting the bar to high. The only requirement would be that the story, novella, or novel had to end with this sentence:

I never knew kweqwolhs could cry.

The idea probably kept us amused for the better part of an afternoon, but I thought of it again when reading Clifford D. Simak's Way Station. This novel did not win a Hugo or a Nebula, but it is saturated with the kind of writing that had convinced me by the mid seventies that science fiction was a second-rate genre no longer worthy of my attention.

The plot concerns one Enoch Wallace. (Now this sounds like a Twilight Zone introduction.) Enoch is a Civil War veteran who 150 years later continues to maintain his family's home in the backwood of Minnesota. Thanks to a visit by an intergalactic traveler, Enoch runs a way station for other such travelers and also never ages. People in the backwoods of Minnesota keep to themselves, we are made to understand, and so the oddity of Enoch's perpetual youth is noted but never inquired about. (And I thought I left my neighbors alone.)

Way Station does a have a plot, and if it had been written by some one else, say someone with a sense of humor, it could have been pretty good. Of course Enoch is not a sophisticated man, although over a century of contact with species from across the galaxies has given him a perspective on life not likely to be shared by his Minnesota hillbilly neighbors. But there is a deadly earnestness to the prose that expresses this thoughts that would not be out of place in a high school literary magazine.

He stood upon the rock and stared out across the river, watching the lazy hawk and the sweep of water and the green carpeting of trees, and his mind went up and out to those other places until his mind was dizzy with the thought of it. And then he called it home.

Simak's treatment of his very special female character, a mute young lady from an abusive backwoods family who can heal the broken wings of butterflies, is especially cringe-inducing. But she does have her good points, as when she turns out to be the key link between some pissed off aliens and the annihilation of the earth. ("A little child shall lead them.")

Of the mid-century sf I have read over the past month or so, this is the third novel to concern itself with mankind's readiness to enter the galactic fraternity of advanced beings. The topic must have been in the air during the 1950's, a neat fit with threats of atomic annihilation, UFO sightings, and cold war politics in general. Looking ahead to what comes up next on the Pringle list, writers soon seem determined to prove that their dystopian vision of the future could outdo that of their peers.


Last week I used footnotes from Kumio Yamagita's The Legends of Tono for a blog entry.

Kumio's book is difficult to leave behind, and I want to quote extensively from it for Potato Weather.

Kumio's book contains 119 legends, seldom more than a couple of paragraphs long, each numbered for bibliographical reference. Some serve merely as transitional material, such as the following:

119. For a long time in the Tono district there has been a song that accompanies the Dance of the Deer. There are slight variations in the song depending upon the village, but I have written below what I heard. This version can be found in a document over a hundred years old.

(The following are my selections from Song for the Dance of the Deer.)

Blessing the Bridge

Come, look at the bridge!
What important person first crossed it?
Cross this way and that.
Look at the horse-riding area!
We can see the Great Gate of Sugihara.

Blessing the Gate

Come, look at the gate!
The gate is made of hinoki and sawara wood.
This is an auspicious silver gate.
Push open the doors and look!
Oh, what a wonderful new era!
Come see the Main Hall of the Buddhist Temple!
What carpenter built it?
Long ago a skilled carpenter built it.
He built it with his own hands!

Blessing the Town

Come, look at this town!
It is sixty by twenty-eight kilometers.
It is really bustling!

The Last Party of the Year

Hearing a good singer in the garden,
I'm ashamed to sing.
The fine edges of the flowered straw mats in the garden,
The splendid wine cup on a gold and silver tray,
Let's move it to the garden.
The seventeen-year-old girl pours wine from a jug.
The garden brightens with joy.
Drink a cup of this wine,
And you will live long and prosper.
With the wine goes sea-bream and sea-bass fish,
And the famous karu-ume [plums] of China.
To say we are good is impossible!
Forgive us, let us bow and be going.

From The Legends of Tono(1910) by Kumio Yanagita
Translated by Ronald A. Morse
100th Anniversary Edition published by Lexington Books