My Great Books Course
January 28th, 2010

My big regret in life is that I didn’t spend more time reading and less time hunting rabbits on Wood Hill. Problem was, I was afraid to set foot in the public library—because at age nine I managed to misplace the first book I ever checked out, and heaven only knows how big the overdue fine has grown, at the rate of two cents per day since 1952.

It wasn’t until I went away to college that it finally dawned on me what I was missing, and it wasn’t just HORTON HEARS A WHO. I was missing out on that which separates the unwashed masses from the lettered elite. Even worse, I was spurned by a coed upon whom I had a terrible crush, after she found out I hadn’t even read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Hoping to win her back, I quickly devoured the complete works of J.D.Salinger, but it was too late. My love interest had lost interest in me and had moved onward, and—to her way of thinking—upward.

The only good that came out of the affair was that at long last I became a reader. When I wasn’t reading, I was walking and thinking. And brooding over the girl that got away. Late one foggy night I happened upon a dimly-lit establishment called Ye Olde Bookstore. Inside, my rheumy gaze fell upon a small book, THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF HENRY RYECROFT, by George Gissing. Thanks to a course I had taken in Victorian Lit, I knew a little about Gissing. I knew that he had struggled mightily to earn a living by his pen, with little success. And, like me, he was unlucky in love.

The pocket-sized Modern Library edition set me back just twenty-five cents—about the same cost as a McDonald’s hamburger with fries in 1964. Gissing, who, given a choice between buying a book or a meal, inevitably chose the book, would surely approve:

“Dozens of my books were purchased with money which ought to have been spent upon what are called the necessaries of life. Many a time I have stood before a stall, or a bookseller’s window, torn by conflict of intellectual desire and bodily need. At the very hour of dinner, when my stomach clamoured for food, I have been stopped by sight of a volume so long coveted, and marked at so advantageous a price, that I could not let it go.”


Fast forward to springtime, 1967. By now the fog had lifted and I found myself perched upon an ancient sea wall in Old San Juan, soaking up the warm Puerto Rican sun. In my hands was a dog-eared copy of PATTERSON, by William Carlos Williams. The book had been given me by a friend whose name I don’t remember. As for William Carlos Williams, I’d never heard of him. But suddenly, it was if Williams and I were two peas in a pod:

“For a great many weeks now (whenever I’ve tried to write poetry) every thought I’ve had, even every feeling, has been struck off some surface crust of myself which began gathering when I first sensed that you were ignoring the real contents of my last letters to you, and which finally congealed into some impenetrable substance when you asked me to quit corresponding with you altogether without even an explanation.”

Then and there I decided it was hopeless trying to stay in touch with the folks back home. Ditto this girl I knew who wore black leotards and read Rod McKuen by candlelight in a bohemian loft. From that day forward, I didn’t much care what, or even if, she ever thought of me.

Summer of 1967 found me living by myself in a tiny one-room cabin in the woods. What was I reading? You guessed it. WALDEN.

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Antisocial or not, Henry David Thoreau was my new best friend, soon to be joined by Richard Brautigan, whose words fairly jumped off the page as I leafed through a thin Dell paperback titled TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA.

“The two graveyards were next to each other on small hills and between them flowed Graveyard Creek, a slow-moving, funeral-procession-on-a-hot-day creek with a lot of fine trout in it. And the dead didn’t mind me fishing there at all. One graveyard had tall fir trees growing in it, and the grass was kept Peter Pan green all year round by pumping water up from the creek, and the graveyard had fine marble headstones and statues and tombs. The other graveyard was for the poor and it had no trees and the grass turned a flat-tire brown in the summer and stayed that way until the rain, like a mechanic, began in the late autumn. There were no fancy headstones for the poor dead. Their markers were small boards that looked like heels of stale bread.”


Brautigan’s words gave me goose bumps! It didn’t hurt that I was reading them while sitting on a riverbank on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Brautigan country! The following year I experienced a similar atmospheric effect. I was then living south of the Mason-Dixon line, and this time it was LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL followed by OF TIME AND THE RIVER. Assuming anyone back home was wondering whatever had become of me, they could have found me hiding out in the flat-tire brown grass down along the San Marcos River, my nose buried in a book by Thomas Wolfe.San_Marcos_Book

Nowadays I can’t think of any particular line Wolfe wrote that resonates, perhaps because I’m no longer young and restless and I no longer live in the South. As for Brautigan, what can I say? I followed him right up to the bitter end, even struggled through THE HAWKLINE MONSTER. I’ve been told it makes more sense if you’re stoned, same as the author was when he wrote it. I guess I’ll never know. I don’t dabble in dope, although from time to time I’ve gotten quite high on books.

-Richard Menzies