Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Praise of Occasional Trash

Kindle tablets allow you to "sample" books from Amazon and peek at the first fifteen or so pages before committing the twelve or fifteen bucks it might cost to download the entire thing. It's a system that invites intellectual pretense.

I might run across a book reviewed by the New York Times that sounds like it could be a good challenge for my aging brain, like mental vitamins, even though in truth, the write-up itself is so bombastic and convoluted I can barely figure out the subject matter. But it sounds like a serious read and I download a sample anyway.

Or I might catch Charlie Rose thoroughly engrossed in a discussion with the author of a book about, say, breakthroughs in cosmology. It sounds urgent, or at least important—what's the origin of the universe anyway?—something I should know about so I can be as well informed and serious as Charlie himself.

Not until I'm finished with it. 
Even if I don't buy the book, or even sample it, I always  wonder how guys like Rose or Bill Moyers can read so much. Do they have a team of brilliant, unpaid interns working backstage ten hours a day, frantically reading and highlighting the salient points, then transcribing them to five-by-seven index cards for these hyper-erudite television hosts to peruse before the authors show up? I'm convinced nobody can be as smart or read as much as Charlie Rose.

Then there are the classics I should have read in high school and college but for some reason didn't, even though I attended fairly decent schools. Commentators cite them as if anyone with a middling education had read and digested them and is able to quote passages from memory thirty years later.

Most annoying is when recognize the titles and authors. "The Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad is one I remember from college but never read. Something about Africa, I believe. Was I asleep? So a sample is waiting in my Kindle.

I'm not a complete dilettante. I can read classics I missed in my earlier years and be wowed by them. I'm embarrassed to admit that until a year ago I had never read anything by John Steinbeck. But once I got into "The Grapes of Wrath" I found his writing so amazing both Stew and I went on a Steinbeck binge that lasted a couple of months and also included "Travels with Charley" and "Of Mice and Men." It's never too late to revisit your college reading list.

Then there are those books that I plow through because someone said they were great and for which I paid good money. Take "Paris," a new historical novel by Edward Rutherfurd that I just finished reading. It's a monumental 800-page story of the city, from sometime around the thirteenth century right up to the student riots of 1968, told through the eyes and experiences of an intricate helix of characters and their descendants, who keep bumping into each other through the centuries.

It's not a bad book, particularly if you are roughly familiar with Paris and its landmarks, like Notre Dame and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Rutherfurd is no Steinbeck but he is a good writer who must have spent years on research. Yet "Paris" does go on and on: Around the halfway mark I felt as if I was wading across a river of molasses with the other side nowhere in sight.

But I finished it, damn it, and for my reward I'm having a well deserved, trashy interlude with "Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys," by Peter Evans. I found it in a bookshelf of freebies at the church Stew and I attend occasionally.

It's a super-quick, intellectually unencumbering read: I started it two days ago and I'm a quarter of the way through it. How great? In a breathless quote on the back cover Liz Smith, former gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, New York Post and Newsday, opines that it "[A]dds an entire new dimension to the Kennedy years. What a book! What a read!"

You bet! There's enough manure in there to gag a compost pile. Jack and Bobby Kennedy's sexual appetites make Bill Clinton look like a rookie. Jackie and her sister Lee were no vestal virgins either. And the sex life of the short, gnomish Ari Onassis sounds like a sleazefest worthy of Caligula. Yow! I can't imagine what Evans is going to dig up in the remaining two-hundred pages!

We're not talking about presidential history or fine policy analysis but trashy anecdotes ladled with sex, sex and more sex! One of Onassis's mistresses recalls how he used to lick her between the toes and move up from there, while other women revealed how... Nah, I 'm too embarrassed to go there. If you want to find any additional details you'll just have to check your church's lending library.

But for the sake of research I must continue even if the book cost me nothing and I could just return it to the church. I can't stop now.

And as soon as I finish, I promise to go back to "The Heart of Darkness" or maybe "The Unwinding," a new book by George Packer about, I think, how America is going to hell. Another one of those. I'm sure Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose are thoroughly familiar with both of them.

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