I try to be sophisticated. In Atlantic City.
November 10, 1983
This column doesn't need an introduction, it explaining the who and the why of the incident it records. I felt very foolish about the book when I got back home, and more than once I had the impulse to give it away. Telling the story of why I kept it probably would have made a better column, but I didn't know why. Still don't.
The book—cloaked in yellow cloth which has since become specked by paint of a hideous robin's egg blue, a souvenir of some forgotten, indeed, unimaginable gesture at home improvement—shows its eighteen years. It's worn more by being shoveled into and out of cardboard boxes than by any reader's attentions. If it survives notice at all, it is out of respect for its writer's other achievements.
"It" is Assorted Prose by John Updike, published by Knopf in 1965. As its title and date suggests, it is a collection of that writer's early efforts in a miscellany of forms—parodies, New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces, reminiscences, book reviews. It had stood on my bookshelves for years, little regarded and so little remembered that when I went into my library to look for it yesterday I had to try hard to remember where I had shelved it. But several reviewers of Updike's new, similar collection, Hugging the Shore, recalled his earlier effort to my attention, and yesterday I spotted a copy of it—the old one, not the new one—on B.'s desk.
I had purchased my copy improbably enough from a stall on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the summer of 1965. U found myself washed upon that alien shore during the convention of international Rotary Clubs, my attendance being my punishment for having been elected president of a Rotary-sponsored service club in my high school back in Springfield. It was an unhappy errand. I made the trip east by car in the company of an insurance man with smelly feet. I was prey to carsickness and further wearied by the obligations of my position: While I had joined the club from the same cynical motives as my classmates—to earn a credit for my college resumé—I was astonished on arrival to discover that my adult Rotarians regarded the enterprise with an impossible earnestness.
Among my duties was an impromptu morning speech before a group of delegates of indeterminate sobriety in which I sang the praises of community service as a necessary, even uplifting adjunct to the arid intellectuality of the classroom. I was a successful student, and thus accustomed to lying to adults, and I was such a huge hit that a bleary-eyed Aussie in the back room rose to lead a chorus of Hear, hear!’s before they all adjourned to lunch. I adjourned to the boardwalk, where the amusements, while no less fraudulent, were at least peddled out of more honest motives.
I had read Updike's The Centaur, and liked it. I didn't know anything of Updike beyond that, indeed, I hadn't known anything about him before reading The Centaur; I'd picked up a paperback copy of the novel while browsing at Shadid's and bought it because it sounded interesting—a reminder to me now of how much my education owes to paperback blurb writers.
No such pleasures awaited me in Assorted Prose. My education then encompassed only the more mundane literary forms. The casual essays, especially the "Talk" pieces, mystified me, unequipped as I was with any sense of the city, the magazine, or the literary sensibility which gave them rise. The book reviews were more intelligible, but they were about books by people I'd never heard of, much less read—Max Beerbohm, Karl Barth, Swiss theologian Denis de Rougemont. What did not puzzle me irritated me. I recall feeling something like anger when I first read "The Unread Book Route"—not because I found it precious, although it is, but because I was young and book hungry and all too ready to resent anyone who could afford to buy books and then leave them unread.
Closer examination of the book on the boardwalk would have made all this clear. But I bought on impulse. I had spending money in my pocket, the gift of my sponsors, and I had never before been able to purchase a spanking new, hardcover book. That my first trophy proved to be one which I was able only intermittently to understand left me feeling foolish, and reminded me that for all the miles I'd driven in that infernal Chevy I was no closer to New York than I had been when I left home.
Since then, however, I have concluded that my extravagance of eighteen years ago confirms the wisdom of occasionally buying books on impulse. The wisdom of keeping books lies in their capacity to lie ticking away on the shelf until the day when, taken up again on impulse itself triggered by circumstances like the ones I've described, it explodes.
Since 1965 I have come to know the "collection of dazzled farm boys" whom Updike reveals as the "indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic 'we' " of The New Yorker's "Talk" section. And when he speaks of his "first literary idols," Thurber, Benchley, and Gibbs. tempting him to parody, I now know not only "who" but "how."
In fact, when I reread Updike's foreword I was startled to realize that when he published his collection of odds and ends he had been writing for a living for ten years. That is less a span than my career to date by a couple of years, and while longevity is the only way in which Updike's career and mine compare, it enables me to understand the young Updike as a colleague rather than that faraway guide.
For example, I now wince at Updike's description of his own reminiscences, which he bravely insists have "the under-cooked quality of prose written to order"—wince because I have written no other kind. He is observant and fair about writers who devote themselves to what he calls "the private game of translating life into language, of fitting words to things." He notes in a way useful to any young writer how James Agee allowed the idea of the "Great Novel" to "hound him out of contentment with his genius," which lay in other forms. He does his former heroes the kindness of not being kinder than they deserve; he laments the pointless irritation of Thurber's last pieces, and wonders whether Thurber will weather as well as the "ephemeral" Benchley. And he is, occasionally, funny: "A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience."
A better investment, in short, than I thought in 1965. Or could have thought. And I am grateful to the happy accidents of this week which took me back to that neglected corner of my library. Not so much because of what I relearned about friend Updike, understand, but because of what I relearned about books. ●