23 February 2012

It's a small store. You have to choose carefully.

Everyone assumes edifying thoughts can be found in books. Often everyone is right.

“The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. That’s a good one. Speaking of newly-minted Americans he added, “Can we never extract this tapeworm of Europe from the brain of our countrymen?”

I post-it-noted those lines in my copy of Lions of the West by Robert Morgan. The context – a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward the frontier –  doesn’t much matter. The lines quoted are simply –  juicy.

A college professor, a novelist married to a novelist, first turned me on to reading with a kind of focused detachment – letting the story carry you along but also paying attention to the craft.

In The Enemy author Lee Child has a small-town character who owns a small hardware store in a small town. He understands that of the things he sells, a few could be used as murder weapons.

The old guy shakes his head. “I have to choose what I carry very carefully. Which in some ways is a burden, but which is also a delight, because choice is very liberating. These decisions are mine, and mine alone. So obviously, for a crowbar...” and so forth into the weeds of quality crowbar sourcing.

We’re talking crowbars, of course, and that paragraph suddenly struck me as a semi-hidden anti-big box store message. Lee Child may have intended nothing of that sort, but that’s what his words did for me. A few words on the joys and pitfalls of business. It’s a small store. You have to choose carefully. It’s a burden, also a delight.

“I sell one of these crowbars a year... two, if I’m very lucky,” the old man added. “They’re expensive. And appreciation for quality is declining shamefully. Pearls before swine, I say.”

Another passage in the same book might as well be addressing the disaster unrolling right now in Syria, even though The Enemy was written eight years ago:

“... The twentieth century’s signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street. That sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin. Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, and Seoul and Saigon. It’s a brutal sound. It’s the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference... the very noise they make tells you they can’t be stopped. It tells you you’re weak and powerless against the machine.”

That is so Syria, so accurate and so visionary.

In Adam Hochschild’s recent book on the moral drama of World War One, To End All Wars, I found sentences everywhere that speak to the current condition. Describing the German invasion of Belgium and the emotional British reaction he remarks, “... citizens of a great imperial power always like to think of themselves as anointed protectors of the weak.”

Good one. And this passage, concerning the prolific pro-war novelist John Buchan:

“Like the best propagandists, he was not just a manipulator but a believer, for his sunny personality allowed him to imagine the upside of absolutely anything. The inevitable British victory, he claimed, would produce a more democratic society, and so ‘this war may rank as one of the happiest events in our history.’”

Happy, of course, if you don’t include the countless deaths and massive devastation. And for the opposite feeling, this passage from To End All Wars:

“Recruiting posters... appealed to shame: one showed two children asking a frowning, guilty-looking father in civilian clothes, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ ... Bob Smillie, leader of the Scottish mineworkers, said his reply would be: I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.’”

I quote these juicy words for no other reason than to share with you some small part of the pleasure I get from reading. Pretty much wherever you look, in the most unlikely places and least likely contexts, authors may speak in terms that resonate through the years or hit the reader like an unexpected slap.

And that’s something almost any author seeks – to have a more than trivial effect. To change things, open eyes, move mountains, or at the very least simply share.

This two-way exchange between storyteller and listener is one of the most human aspects of being human. Perhaps it’s the only thing.


Lions of the West by Robert Morgan. Algonquin Press hard cover $29.95. ISBN: 1565126262. paperback will appear in August, 2012 at $18.95. Also available on compact disc read by David Drummond.

The Enemy by Lee Child. Dell Publishing Co. paperback $9.99. ISBN: 0440245990. Also available in compact disc, Mp3 audio and large print.

To End All Wars, A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin hard cover $28. ISBN 9780618758289. Also available in compact disk and Mp3 audio.

Interesting what a large difference there is between what can be published and what can be aired. Too bad the free speech pioneers who fought for TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and V. Nabokov couldn't have managed to establish similar free speech principles for American radio...

Because of one word, I can’t use this quote on air (from The Enemy) ... "The cotton items were worn and soft and the jacket was neither cheap nor expensive. Together they made up a soldier's typical Saturday-night outfit. Shit, shave, and shower, throw on the civilian duds, pile into someone's car, hit a couple of bars, have some fun."

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