As heady evenings go, I more than held my own. After spending a bit of time on the election, the dinner conversation eventually switched over to books we had all recently read. Being the only librarian at the table, and at one point this was indeed made known, I felt obliged to be engaging and earnest on the topic. But in fact I already knew in advance that my own reading tastes were vastly different from those of my table mates.
We were a table of four. There was my sister, a retired social studies teacher and a lover of Judaica-oriented literature. And there was also her late husband’s sister and husband, both PhD’s from Boston. The sister-in-law’s professional background is in public health, and the husband teaches ethics and philosophy. I braced myself for a discussion of Hegel, Sartre, and Uris along with perhaps a sprinkling of Margaret Sanger or David Satcher tossed in for good measure.
In the act of eating, drinking, and conversing, my own thoughts went somewhere along the lines of wondering when or how I would introduce my own literary influences — Dave Barry and David Sedaris. Somehow I figured that the wine we were consuming would give me some necessary props to do so. Or would it make me more intimidated? Like George Gobel and his brown shoes, I am occasionally intimidated by the company in which I find myself.
I went to college at a predominately working class school whose students for the most part commuted from home and worked either part-time or full-time jobs to pay for their education. All things being equal, it was a comforting environment for me. While the humanities were partially required and encouraged, I instead followed the academic path of least resistance: taking basic freshman and sophomore requirements of core English and literature courses and then quickly moved away from them.
It seemed safer to pursue a more “meat and potatoes” approach to my studies and try to avoid all them fancy words of ancient European authors. Or as my roommate actually pointed out at the time, “You know, some of those professors are smart, man. They assign a lot of books that don’t have a CliffsNotes version.” Oh, how right he was.
Except for a wonderful trashy murder mystery which kept me on the edge of my seat for three entire days, all of the books that I’ve read in the last 12 months have been completely non-fiction. I’ve read biographies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Gore Vidal, and Vince Lombardi; an account of the Vatican’s curia; a financial guide on retirement; and Patrick Kennedy’s part-memoir and part-advocacy on mental health and addiction. All were either fascinating or informative, and they certainly gave me many hours of enjoyment.
But my dinner companions preferred to discuss fiction only. I absolutely love fiction, but as I suspected, my own taste for it runs down a slightly more pedestrian avenue than theirs. As French names began being tossed around the table in uninhibited abandon (I quickly glanced at the wine list to make sure the conversation was still about books), I began to devise a way to sneak a peek at Google to find the latest New York Times best seller list. Surely there must be a recognizable name there for me. Amy Schumer’s latest bound essays count as fiction, doesn’t it?
As I was mentally running from door to door, earnestly clutching sets of mismatched keys in a sorry-ass attempt to regain access to the table discussion, serendipitous good fortune fell my way. The philosophy professor husband remarked how much he missed writers who serialized different eras for comparative purposes. I believe Tolstoy’s early autobiographical novels were mentioned. Hurrah! A door opened.
I responded by mentioning John Updike’s “Rabbit” series, which I think are wonderful, exaggerated portrayals of changes in American society from each decade of the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Of course, one does have to overlook the rampant misogyny and sexual imagery in each story first. But once that’s done, one can begin to appreciate the episodic landscape of the eras.
On a roll, I pointed out that these stories apparently have legs. If you’re looking for a modern-day version of Rabbit Angstrom, look no further than Donald Trump. He’s very much Rabbit personified. Updike would probably be amused.
Come November we collectively might not be so amused, but that’s a post for another time.
For my efforts, I received a smile of approval from Big Sis. Updike is certainly not classic literature, but why split hairs? As I mentioned earlier, the wine was flowing.
We moved on from books, back to politics, and finally to stories about my late brother-in-law, Elliott, in whose honor we made several end-of-meal toasts. But just as we paid the bill and were about to get up from the table, Elliot’s sister took me aside and asked if I was familiar with the English writer Anthony Trollope. I said no. But she insisted that I absolutely must read his classic “The Way We Live Now.” Again, the wine had been generously flowing.
In a grand gesture, I whipped out my cell phone and tapped out a note to myself, making a point of letting her know that I’d contact her when I finished it.
Now, dear readers, you are probably more aware of this than me, but Anthony Trollope lived in the 1800’s and wrote about Victorian English society. I know this now because I later looked him up in Wikipedia, as any trained law librarian would obviously do. My second-hand copy of The Way We Live Now, which by accident was actually shipped from England via my rushed and clumsy Amazon purchase, is 776 pages.
I do sometimes wonder about diabolical schemes that take place in the minds of friends and foes alike. One likes to think he’s probably immune to such shenanigans, but smiles and winks can so often be deceiving. Even the kindest of gestures just might have a different intention than how it appears, no?
I am reminded of a tale a good friend often liked to tell about the time he traveled alone to Paris and found himself completely dumbfounded by the menu at an out-of-the-way bistro quite far from his hotel. After several go-rounds with waiter on the exact makeup of a specific entrée, and absolutely certain that he was ordering a braised beef stew, my friend soon learned that in fact his waiter had good-naturedly recommended something completely different. Instead of beef stew he was served braised… calf brains.
Not wishing to give his waiter the satisfaction of knowing that he had been duped, and watching this man with his cheshire cat grin from across the room alongside his dining staff colleagues, my friend dug in and ate his meal in silent disgust. It’s rather gauche to ask for ketchup in a French restaurant, you know.
I really, really, really have no interest in reading Mr. Trollope’s novel. But I nonetheless feel as if I’ve been suckered into a dare. I’m currently on page 34. Don’t call me until at least Thanksgiving. I’ll be busy. Pass the ketchup, please.
Until next time…