It didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. It was so damn easy to let it happen.
When you teach, you are constantly having to read books for class. Oh, occasionally a teacher will try to wing it; if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath nine times already, you know it well enough to fake it. But inevitably, a student will ask you some fool question you would have been able to answer if you had reread the chapter the night before.
“But, was the box car on train tracks, or just in the middle of nowhere?”
Hell if I know.
But, as great as my “school” books remain — The Grapes of Wrath and In Cold Blood are in play now; The Basketball Diaries and Macbeth are on deck — sometimes I just want to read something else. Just for fun. (Students feel this way all the time, of course.)
In conjunction with Steinbeck and Capote, the third book I’m reading is the result of a shameful episode. One of my students came up to me at morning meeting all excited, wanting to talk about Jane Eyre. Before I could offer an elaborate explanation of why I hadn’t gotten around to reading that one, and how I had always planned to, the math teacher said she had read it and they had a scintillating conversation about it. Scrambling to hide my deficiencies (I also haven’t read Wuthering Heights or 1984, or Silas Marner or … well, I’m only so many years old), I decided I would read it right away and found it on my 101 Classics app.
Then, I discovered I had already downloaded on my Kindle app the recent novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and just out of curiosity I started reading it. I got two chapters in and realized if I stopped reading it now, I would have to start all over, so that made four books all at once.
Then, one rare lazy Sunday I decided to start a LeCarré book. I was just in the mood for some perfect writing, and that same math teacher had asked me to lend her one of his earlier books. That reminded me I had his last three piled up among the mass of volumes by my bedside. I like to read them in order, so I picked up the third one back, The Night Manager, and was immediately immersed in the lonely life of mercenary spy/assassin Jonathan Pine. That made five.
And then, I was asked for my book list for next year. I teach a class called Literature of Social Change, which centers on paradigm change over the last 50 years. I was wondering if the new Patti Smith autobiography might be a good replacement for The Basketball Diaries. But I had to read it before I decided for sure, just to troll for passages that might upset a parent. We seldom have censorship problems at my school, but just when you get relaxed about it, that’s when you’re suddenly going to find yourself in the headmaster’s office. So I didn’t want to go in blind. I downloaded Just Kids on my iBooks app, and that made six.
When you are reading six books, you just can’t plow ahead with one ’til you finish. No, if you don’t want to have wasted all that time getting to page 61 (or 278 iTouch pages out of 890), you just have to rotate. Of an evening, Rosasharn’s baby dies, Miss Eyre escapes the typhoid, Jonathan ponders why he always kills the thing he loves, the Major realizes he likes Mrs. Ali unreasonably well, Dick Hickock fashions a shiv, and Patti wonders why Robert is so distant lately.
Then, as I drift off to sleep, my dreams are a pentimento of Jane Eyre living and starving with Robert Mapplethorpe in Greenwich Village, British intelligence agents trying to make their way to The Promised Land on Route 66, and Perry and Dick breaking into Major Pettigrew’s house only to be beaten with a cane. The Major was in the war, you know.
Come to think of it, any of those plots would make a fascinating book. But please don’t write it. I have papers to grade.