In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S. Eliot talks about measuring life out in coffee spoons, but this crisis de jour was resolved with tinkering fueled by ladles of black Brazilian roast, and so
It's embarrassing for a writer to confess that for years he hasn't read many books. It's true though, and my lack of reading predates the Internet. The Internet is only the newest slayer of books in my life. Starting in the early seventies I began increasingly to spend my diminishing spare time on my own creative efforts. When I got to law school I was barely on nodding terms with real reading. Sure, I had to read, but appellate court cases and legal treatises don't have much in common with things written in English.
Job and family responsibilities followed. After days filled with eye-glazing memos and departmental meetings which lasted till the heat death of the universe, or seemed to, I went home to an everlasting Big Bang of incontinent infants and rampaging toddlers. What few spare hours were left I devoted to my own writing which included mini-comics, small press, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletters for the local zoo and orienteering club, programming computer text adventures, and, eventually, co-writing stories and books with Mary. I am a slow writer. I hate to think how many novels I could read in the time it takes me to co-write one short mystery.
Hard as it is to believe, for most of my life I haven't been much of a reader. Less than two decades passed between my hauling stacks of Doctor Seuss back from the library and shoving aside books in order to pound away on my manual Smith Corona instead.
Even so, I suspect all the science fiction and fantasy I absorbed in that short but formative period went a long way toward forming my attitudes. I've never believed the world has to be the way it is. I spent too much of my youth reading about alternatives.
I read other genres, to be sure. As early as high school I went on a Steinbeck spree. As my reading diminished I turned to mysteries. I once had collected from used book stores, thrift stores, and library and yard sales nearly 100 paperbacks by John D. MacDonald. But a couple years ago, I realized that I rarely looked at a book anymore. And suddenly, for the first time in years, I missed reading.
The six books a month I've managed this year wouldn't have kept me going for a week in the old days. And deciding what, exactly, to read has been a problem as well. I have no favorite genre. One week I embark on a study of philosophy with Pragmatism by William James and Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. Then I'm diverted by some fifties Gold Medal type crime novels and from there lurch into some mysteries by Simenon, Tey, John Dickson Carr. Next I decide to read a few classics I never got around to. Even after Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse, and Appointment at Samarra, there are a lot of all-time great books left. And I haven't neglected my first love, fantasy. William Hope Hodgson's The Nightland is still as awe-inspiring (and in parts as mind-numbing) as it was when I first encountered it, and At the Mountains of Madness is great fun too although Lovecraft's debt to Hodgson shows.
Although genre isn't very important to me, I've noticed I prefer older books. There's something about the style or attitude or who knows what of current books that puts me off, although I sometimes find exceptions such as the remarkable sf/mystery The City and the City by China Mieville. So I tend to stick to things written in the mid-sixties or earlier. I am perfectly comfortable with novels penned back in the dark ages of the nineteen-thirties and my favorite science fiction is from the Golden Age.
Maybe this is because early on I devoured the books that were on the shelves of the local library. Most of those were probably written before I was born but to me they were brand new and they formed my taste.
But enough of this. There's a man dead in his study. The door was locked. There are no footprints in the snow outside the window. The murder's inexplicable. The heck with finding a clever ending for this essay. I've got to get back to my reading.
Then there's the alert for the imminent arrival of a tornado.
As it happens, the closest brush we ever had with a devil's spinning top was unheralded by a siren's song because we lived out of hearing of the nearest installation boasting such equipment, and even if we've been within range the power had been out for some time so a warning could not have been sounded. Thus we were alerted late one night when a neighbour who'd heard the announcement via her battery-driven radio rang up.
"Get into your basement immediately, a tornado is coming straight for us," she said quickly and hastily rang off.
We took her advice and, grabbing important items - the cat, my mug of coffee, a couple of torches, a candle in an old pierced tin lantern, and the box of important family papers - we moved downstairs to an inner room with no windows.
The cat, which had been acting strangely that evening as if it sensed its napping was going to be rudely disturbed, leapt out of my one-armed grasp as I descended and raced away to hide in the darkness under the stairs. We shut ourselves into the small room and set the lantern on top of a chest of drawers. I perched on an old chest next to an antique pot, swigging cold coffee and wondering if our computers would be damaged if the worst happened. The lantern threw sunflower-shaped shadows on the ceiling as shadows gamboled in the corners and the wind rose to a shriek, howling around the house. It roared with a shrill, high sound of rage, punctuated by dull thuds and crashes as the bin of recyclables fell over, loosing a multitude of tins to join garden chairs and the barbecue grill rolling round the garden or smacking into the side of the building.
It's been said in times of mortal stress we review our lives in the course of a few seconds. However, despite the imminent danger to life and limb, I did not find this to be so. Rather, a combination of excitement and apprehension produced an unreal sense of calm curiosity. I remember looking down at the decorative pot beside me and feeling sorry it would get smashed if touchdown happened to be in our footprint, and further hoping if disaster befell us the cat would not be killed.
It wasn't the first time I'd experienced this strange effect. The IRA were carrying out a letter-bombing campaign in London during the time I was passing through the immigration process. One winter evening I arrived at my underground station for the main line to catch a train home. I was on a tight schedule as it had already gone 5 PM and I had to be at my suburban doctor's office at 7 PM for the required medical, my commute taking one and a half hours. But the railway station was shut down because a suspicious parcel had been spotted and nobody was allowed up there until the package had been taken away by the bomb squad and defused if necessary.
A milling crowd of disgruntled travelers was therefore gathered underneath the main station and waiting with them I suddenly thought how terribly embarrassing it would be if there was an explosion, the roof came down on us, and the full specimen bottle in my handbag was broken, distributing its contents all over the place. At the time it simply never occurred me that possibility would be the least of my worries if the worst happened. In the event, the parcel was removed and normal commuter service resumed. I arrived at my appointment just in time, but the US Embassy would not accept my clean bill of health because, as it turned out, the medical had not been performed by one of their approved doctors. As for the strange package, I checked in the London paper over the next few days but saw nothing further about it.
Returning to the meteorological excitement unspooling some years later, there we were, sitting in the basement waiting to see how events played out. Suddenly an eerie hush fell, an unnatural silence more menacing than anything we'd heard all night. What those few seconds of dead calm meant I've never been able to establish, but the wind picked up again and departed in a dwindling, disappointed wail, grumbling away over the hill.
The rest of the night we took turns bailing out the well holding the basement pump until the power returned. Then we went out and started picking up tins.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/