Summer Reading Program
July 9th, 2013

‘But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!’ exclaimed Dora.
‘No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’

I’ve been reading one of my favorite authors, George Gissing, a “minor Victorian” whose work I discovered by accident many years ago whilst browsing the shelves of an off-campus bookstore on a foggy night in of all places Provo, Utah. At the time, I was a student at BYU and thinking of killing myself; however, Gissing’s “Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft” gave me the courage to go on. The Modern Library pocketbook cost me only twenty-five cents and was probably the best investment I ever made.

Gissing’s usual subject is poverty, to which he was no stranger. If anything, he was even worse off financially than his character Edwin Reardon, who labors “in the valley of the shadow of books” and gradually starves to death because he’s unwilling to compromise his lofty principles. When at last he is driven by financial necessity to write a mediocre novel just for the money, he finds he can no longer write well afterwards. He can no longer tell the truth. In any event, he can’t tell the truth in the space of just two column inches.

“The New Grub Street” took me five days to finish, and I could scarcely put it down, even though I knew from the start how it would end. It ends pretty much the same as all Gissing’s books end. Reardon’s novel is a flop, his wife leaves him, his child dies, his last remaining friend commits suicide. Then comes the grim reaper for Reardon. Meantime, “Chit-chat” succeeds and becomes the template for all the publications you see on the magazine racks in airports and the televised daytime talk shows and newzak programs that you can’t escape no matter where in the terminal you sit. Indeed, I can’t even pump my gas nowadays without being subjected to the latest gossip regarding Miley Cyrus. What is that poor girl wearing now? She’s like a human artichoke; you peel off layer after layer until finally you get to the core, only to discover there’s nothing there.

My summer reading program is a tad different from whatever everyone else is reading at the pool. In addition to Gissing, I’m a huge fan of George Orwell. Check out Orwell’s “Down and Out In Paris and London” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” And don’t miss “Travels With Lizbeth” by Lars Eighner. These are books I just couldn’t set down.

“Why do you read such depressing stuff?” asked my girlfriend Karen when she caught me reading Gissing. Determined to perk me up, she dragged me to see the film “Sound of Music.” In Utah, which leads the nation in the use of anti-depressant medication, “Sound of Music” was the most popular film ever. There were people who had watched it hundreds and hundreds of times. Even today, it’s often referred to as “Mormon Prozac.”

Did the movie perk me up? Well, no. I came out of the theater more depressed than ever. And not just depressed, but paranoid. I was thinking maybe the hills are alive.

Hills are Alive
-Richard Menzies