Ink Soup: DID YOU SAY ONE BOOK?
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- At the gym this afternoon, Brooke, the pretty young woman at the towel desk who resembles Meg Ryan, came up to me as I was headed forthe locker room and said, "CB, you were a professor, weren't you?"
I admitted that I was. "Of what?" she asked. "Russian and Comparative Literature." (I always throw in "Russian" to ease the embarrassment of not knowing what CL might be.)
Then she stunned me: "Tell me a book to read," she said. "I went to school, but I've never read anything."
Okay, you try it. Of all the gazillion books on the planet, which one would you summon up as the one to recommend to a young person who claimed never to have read any?
I am seldom at a loss for words, but she had rendered me mute. After some clumsy muttering to keep the channel open, the best I could do was: Robinson Crusoe. I said it was full of adventures, funny in places, and so on... She'd heard of Robinson Crusoe. So have reindeer herders in Lapland, I was about to - but through the grace of God did not - say.
But I was far from satisfied with my answer and could think of littleelse all afternoon. Should I not have come up with something moresuitable for ... for what? I am almost ashamed of my question. For ayoung woman? As if I should have suggested Little Women or Anne of GreenGables or My Antonia or... But is this not insulting? Brooke mightbe fascinated by DeFoe and bored stiff by Louisa May Alcott. The more Ithought of it, the more I felt a column coming on.
How about "Alice in Wonderland"? The White Rabbit, the March Hare,the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat (who vanishes, leaving behind onlyhis grin) -- these are at least as much a part of cultural literacy as the phrase "my man Friday."
I understood her, for I was not always a professor of literature. Iremember going when I was around 10 to the Carnegie Library in my small town and asking for "Forty Ways to Amuse a Dog," by Franz Werfel (my mishearing of "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.")
"Huckleberry Finn"! Why had Mark Twain not come to mind before DanielDefoe? Was I intimidated by all the blind and illiterate school boardswho had banned this most humane of American classics as racist? And W.H.Hudson's enchanting and also shattering tale of jungle adventure "Green Mansions"! Why had that not popped into my head? I read and re-read it as a boy, and not only because I wanted to refresh my dreams of Rima the Bird Girl. I thought of "The Turn of the Screw," supposing that Brooke mightidentify with the children if not with the young Governess. But no. Shemight enjoy the ghost story but she was too young for the metaphysicalhorror behind Henry James' deceptively light-hearted thriller. As I mused on this the idea came to me that all sorts of classes areoffered at this health club: Yoga, dance, stretching. Why not (dear Godstop me now before I follow this thought!)... Reading? There.
I've written it out so that the immense stupidity of it cannot be concealed. I see myself asking Kevon Wick, "So, what then is the answer to Socrates' question about the just life?" Kevon: "I've always said that just life is just fine... How 'bout you, Teach?"
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofComparative Literature at Princeton University.