Reading Matters

fiction 0320

While I spent easily the first four decades of my life immersed in fiction, that has not been true for the last 17 or so years. I don’t mean I was leading a fictional existence, or living in a bubble of non-truths that seems to comfort so many these days — I’m talking about my reading habits.

Sure, I read textbooks and some magazines and newspapers, and here and there a book designed to further my information, but by the time I got to college I figured out how to turn my textbooks into fiction too: I majored in English, where the reading lists centered on worlds created by authors’ imaginations.

But somewhere in my 40s that all switched, and my reading list became almost exclusively non-fiction. Part of that was my book-group, which may have read a book or two of historical fiction but which focuses primarily on history as we know it, and I imagine part of it was a factor of time. As I get older and more prone to falling asleep while reading (which could be the saddest aspect of my life — I have always loved reading) and our local bookstore is owned by someone whose staff doesn’t even know who Stephen King is (true story) and the books at the grocery stores all seem to be the same unappealing three plots with different covers, I am loathe to squander my reading time on some work of fiction that I may not enjoy.

When I do pick up fiction, it’s almost always something I’ve read before that’s already sitting on my shelves. This lack of derring-do, even while reading, is not my most admirable quality, but it does mean I’m not missing much when I inevitably fall asleep mid-page.

For some reason this year, I have given fiction another try, and here’s an even less-admirable quality: all I’m doing is finding fault with what I’m reading, even the old friend to whom I turned for quick comfort.

My salsa sibling Wendy sent Galapagos Regained, by James Morrow, and I started in on it the day after it arrived, finding the protagonist to be quite engaging and the circumstances compelling. But as Chloe has carried on with the most improbable plan imaginable to come up with money to free her father from debtors’ prison in 1840s England, the improbabilities started seeming ever more improbable on the literal level I appear to be reading the book at and I foundered, much like Chloe’s ship, on page 171.

It’s still sitting bedside, as though I might resume it someday, but in the meantime I turned my attention to a hand-me-down from my friend Kris, who loves his beat poets but somehow found himself reading Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes. Knowing of my enthusiasm for pirates, he passed his copy along (while also gifting me the wonderful John Fielder coffee table book where he took pictures from the same location as W.H. Jackson, only 100 years later).

I’ve read some of Mr. Crichton’s other books, but had no idea he’d delved into pirates. So far, as I’m reading it, he appears to have devolved into caricature rather than character: we have the requisite female pirate (dressed and acting more like a man than any male in the book), the large, taciturn black man (taciturn because his tongue has been cut out), and then he must of tired of having too many characters, because he took one and refers to him variously as both “Black Eye” and “The Jew.”

I’m on page 85 and already finding my interest flagging, because the task set up for these privateers (never pirates — those are outlaws) sounds just like the chore assigned to my beloved Captain Mallory and his small band of cliched characters in Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone: scale an insurmountable cliff and silence lethal enemy weapons.

So the other day, instead of dutifully picking Latitudes up off the floor, I reached instead for The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, a young adult book that has been a favorite of mine since childhood. But instead of just reading and enjoying it, like I’m always have done, I kept getting caught in weird places.

One incongruency that I’m not sure I ever noticed before takes place when author May Nickerson Wallace tries to pack in two extra generations she doesn’t need. This hardly detracts from the plot, about a ghost helping a relative locate lost money in order to save a neighbor’s farm from a developer. [Even as I type this from a location once a family ranch now a development, I’m always likely to side with the farmer.]

What I really noticed this time around was how much death lives at the fringes of this pleasant children’s book. There’s a ghost, so of course there has to be that death, and it’s rather grisly: a 13-year-old boy carting a lot of family money home from the fair is chased by two hoodlums, and in his haste he falls off the side of a bridge and is dashed on the rocks below.

The would-be thieves then dump his body in the river and he floats off, never to be found by his loved ones, many of whom are way too quick to assume that this 13-year-old who never seems to have done anything worse than tease girls has taken the money and run.

So it’s about the ghost and his great-great-nephew redeeming the ghost’s good name, but to get there we go past quite the pile of off-stage bodies: the nephew’s mother has inherited the family house because her great-uncle and father have died; the ghost’s body was found by someone whose son had died at sea; the neighboring farmer is taking care of his granddaughter after the deaths of both her parents; and the nephew’s best friend lives with two stepparents because his mother remarried after his father died, and then she died as well.

I haven’t even stopped to count the bodies, but this doesn’t seem a healthy place to live.

When I frame it in this context, it seems like it might not be an enjoyable book, but I’ve always liked it. Next time I’ll try to read it with a less jaundiced eye.

Last night I started another oldie from my childhood, one that pre-dated me by about two decades (re-issued by Scholastic Book Services). This time it’s the town that’s the ghost, in Ghost Town Adventure, and even as I’m wondering why the lone (non-ghost) resident of this empty town is so friendly to strangers, I noticed — perhaps for the first time — that this book is set in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

I’m trying to decide where, exactly, thinking perhaps Pagosa Springs, but the dad in the story has already mentioned the “botany lab” up above Crested Butte. Way back when the book was published in 1942, and the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab is still above Crested Butte and going strong. How ’bout that? (And maybe the man is modeled after The Man Who Stayed: Garwood Judd, who refused to leave his beloved Gothic, where the lab is housed, even as everyone else drifted off.)

Look at me: trying out some fiction, succeeding better with the old rather than the new, getting back on track with my Colorado Central magazine . . . maybe Some Day I’ll be a reader yet.

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