Reading & Writing
One of the vagrant memories that has stuck with me over the years concerns
something that happened when I was in grade school. The “Bookmobile” as
it was, and probably still is, so quaintly called had come to my school,
and class by class the students were ushered through that library on wheels.
I always took too long searching the crowded shelves and had to be rushed
along. After I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, though, a subtle but distinct
change came over my book selection habits. Where before I had chosen from
the standard, slender (and dull) volumes organized by grade, now I began
to explore other areas of the crowded vehicle, even those intended for
high school students. ERB had shown me how wonderful a really good book
could be, and I was determined to find as many others as I could.
One such day I found a thick, heavy, illustrated (but not abridged or rewritten—the
original) edition of Scott’s Ivanhoe. I don’t believe any of the
well meaning but often misguided library workers tried to dissuade me,
and so I took the volume home to read. Certainly its subject matter—knights
and chivalry—was promising. But each time I attempted to get into the story,
something went wrong. The magic of reading just didn’t happen. No matter
how hard I tried, I couldn’t make the words fit together one after the
other so that they consistently made sense. I was probably ten or eleven
at the time, and I decided with disappointment that the book must be “too
old” for me. Luckily such experiences, of which there were a few, did not
unduly discourage me from continuing to attempt challenging fare.
I was reminded of this recently when, through the kind offices of John
Guidry, I acquired a small stash of new-to-me H. Rider Haggard volumes.
When I discovered Haggard during my teens, a few of his titles gave me
something of the same sort of experience as Ivanhoe. Because I was
older, however, I felt free to wonder if the fault were actually mine,
or if it might not lie with the author’s prose. Since that time I’ve probably
read two dozen or more Haggard titles, and he’s one of my favorite writers—when
he’s at his best. There are other times, however, when the man’s prose
is so thick and stilted that reading him is like trying to run through
quicksand, or up the side of a gravel pit. Furthermore, my general impression
is that the books that gave me trouble years ago are not especially easy
Of my newest acquisitions, I found Montezuma’s Daughter so discursive
in its opening chapters that I gave up on it. I suppose this was supposed
to be part of Haggard’s technique, intended to gain verisimilitude by being
as round-about in his first-person narration as real-life sixteenth-century
conquistadors would have been (but actually weren’t, if I may judge by
my edition of Bernal Diaz del Castillo), but it’s far more than I have
Allan’s Wife had the advantage of being short, and the writing seemed
a good deal more readable, even if the story wasn’t as interesting as I
hoped. (You may remember that Paul Spencer briefly reviewed this book some
mailings back, and that it in part concerns a baboon woman. If anything,
it’s an illustration of how close an extremely imaginative writer can get
to a really good idea and still fail to recognize it—in this case, to create
Tarzan . . . or even Balza.)
I recently also had the opportunity (again, thanks to John) to listen to
a “talking book” adaption of She, a novel I’ve long admired and
considered to be Haggard’s masterpiece. I’m sorry to report that it did
not hold up well at all, and I am left with the decided opinion that Haggard’s
intentional archaisms have not served him well. At times, at least, he
isn’t merely a chore to read, but also to listen to!
This occasional failure of the printed word (or of my aptitude with it)
can be frustrating, and enlightening. A year or two ago I agreed to participate
on a panel at a local science fiction convention, and in preparation for
that event I visited a book shop and sought out titles by writers I expected
to meet at the convention, so that I could familiarize myself with their
work. I was only able to find two such paperbacks. Later that evening I
settled down to read them. To my consternation, I found my mind wandering
after only a page or two. When perseverance did not pay off, I put the
first book aside and went on to the second. But the same thing happened.
The words and ideas didn’t seem to connect properly; they didn’t quite
fit together into proper sentences and paragraphs. They didn’t flow. I
flatter myself to think that I have a fairly good “ear” for language and
am sensitive to stylistic nuances; and I know from experience that with
sufficient effort I can force myself to read and comprehend virtually anything,
though I’m very intolerant of “unreadable” writing. But it certainly seemed
unlikely that both books would fit into that category.
Concluding that the fault must be mine, I put the books aside until the
following evening—only to have the same thing happen again! This time I
rose and paced the room in annoyance. My eye happened to alight on a copy
of the Dover edition of The Pirates of Venus and Lost on Venus.
I snatched it up, turned to the opening page, and started to read. If I
had the same difficulty with ERB, I reasoned, then the failure of communication
must be at my end.
If a female figure in a white shroud enters your bedchamber at midnight
on the thirteenth of this month, answer this letter; otherwise, do not.
I was well into the second chapter and eagerly anticipating Carson’s arrival
on Venus by the time I remembered why I was reading those pages. My little
test had been forgotten, and I had slipped effortlessly into the world
created sixty years before by Edgar Rice Burroughs. However unscientific
and flawed my experiment may have been, it convinced me to my own satisfaction
that those new paperbacks were indeed at fault, and that good writing is
as rare a commodity today as it ever has been—perhaps even more rare. It
also told me quite clearly why stories written more than a half-century
ago by an unpretentious pulp writer are still avidly read and discussed
around the world today, long after the works of 99% of his contemporaries
have sunk into oblivion.
World class storytelling. Accept no substitutes.