Opinion » Bill Cope

150 Years of Reading

Part Two


Last week, I started walking you through one of my old college textbooks, an anthology of fine American literature from Walt Whitman to eminent writers still going by the year I took the class in 1967. That column combined with this one are my holiday present to you, faithful readers, though I haven't gotten around yet to explaining how my personal reading history is in some way a gift. But I will. I'm getting to it.

First, I need to tell the younger members of the audience that what I'm handing out this year isn't for them so much. If you are 20 years old or younger, this gift will hardly mean a thing. It will be slightly more suited to the 30-something crowd, but not much. Forty ... more so. Fifty ... even more so. Sixty on up ... these are really the people I'm writing this for, the folks with some significant notches on their lifelines. And even then, I would prefer them to have been somewhat prolific in their own reading habits over the years. It would help if they had been in their younger days great wallowers in the written word. Lappers of much literature. Fierce fanatics for fiction and perpetual perusers of poetry. If 30, 40, 50 years ago, you met that description, you're the one I'm writing to. And you're gonna absolutely love what I have for you.

Not that I'm asking the whippersnapper class to butt out of my gift presentation here. No, stick around. You're on your way to our age a lot faster than you think, heh heh.

So, I was telling you about re-reading Whitman and Twain and Dickinson, a bit each day, and that I started working through that enormous collection last January. As of today, I'm up to John Dos Passos, having spent an exhilarating month or so re-touring Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Hemingway's Africa, Steinbeck's California and that place to which Thomas Wolfe could never go home.

Before that, Katherine Anne Porter and I had a brief fling, and Archibald MacLeish, and Ezra Pound. I'm more a prose sort than a poetry fan--or so I always thought I was. This past year has made me question my loyalties. Here's a relatively quick test you can give yourself--quite a pleasant test, trust me--if you consider yourself not a fancier of poetry. Read--or re-read, as the case may be--"The Bridge" by Hart Crane, or "Roan Stallion" by Robinson Jeffers, or T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and then tell me you don't care much for poetry.

During the summer, I was wrestling The Hairy Ape, one of Eugene O'Neill's earliest plays, and the decline of the gilded age as de-gilded by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, H.L. Mencken ... if you're curious about what life in America was like circa 1900-1920, check what those fellows were writing, and while you're doing that, you may realize there's not a history book in the library that can make a dead era sit up and breathe like a few good storytellers can.

Robert Frost, ah Frost. When pinned against a wall as to who my favorite poet was, I had spent 40 years answering, "Robert Frost." I'd also spent 40 years not reading any Robert Frost. Or Carl Sandburg, or Edwin Arlington Robinson. Tasted a tad of them all this year, along with Willa Cather and Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton. Like surprise endings? Do yourself a favor and read Wharton's "Roman Fever." It made me gasp. And not just at the ending. It always takes my wind away when I come across something so beautifully crafted.

Henry James, oh how I hated thee. If asked who I never, ever wanted to re-read, I would have spent 40 years answering Henry James. But I forced myself--"The Aspern Papers," "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Jolly Corner"--and was sad to come to the end of the Henry James selections.

William Dean Howells, William Vaughn Moody, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable--I hasten to mention them all, the magnificent writers I've spent time with this year. But I think you must know by now where I'm going with this.

And listen, it doesn't have to be the artsy stuff I've bragged herein about reading. To test my proposal on less elevated material, I went back to some H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs--authors I adored as a kid but hadn't picked up since--and the same principle was at work: You can never read the same story twice. The words stay the same, of course, but with each passing year and expanded experience, the reader brings to those words a different eye. The greatest works are so much more than just a great story. The magic comes from the exchange between the writing and the reader. What may have put you to sleep at age 20 might shake your world at age 60.

So, faithful readers, I present you with--ta da!--your own library. All those volumes, hard-bound to frayed paperback, you were done with in another time but you couldn't toss because you still feel in some way joined with them at the heart. Those books and stories and poems that maybe you loved, maybe you hated, maybe you don't even remember reading--they wait there undead on the shelf for you to rediscover that lush garden they cultivated first so long ago.

As for myself, I am looking forward to Flannery O'Conner, James Thurber, Updike and Plath. In the book I've been telling you about, they are still to come. And I've already set aside some time 40 years hence to float down Huck Finn's river again. I am eager too see what it has to say to me the next time.