June 1st, 2006


Speaking of libraries...

There was time some ten or fifteen years ago when  I got stuck for a couple of hours waiting for somebody in a  small town near  where I live, and  I waited by arrangement in the library.  After a while of looking over the best seller cart and reading the paper, I wandered into the fiction stacks.  I started pulling books at random from the shelf -- no authors I knew, just books that looked old, forty or fifty years old, and not much read.  I'd read the first sentence, and could  instantly see what kind of book it was -- the same way you can tell , not just from what's said but from the lighting and the tone, what a TV show you've happened on is likely to be about.  "Not much happens in the little town by the river where a few families have been talking to each other since about the birth of the Republic, so  the news went around pretty fast when a young lady in an elegant frock got off the 1:05 carrying a hatbox.  A hatbox! Well..."  Or:  "The beat of the great city:  down the avenues at nightfall the streams of cars crying out their cries of impatience and eagerness, the wail of sirens rushing to the "bad" part of town, the hiss of a bus's hydraulic brake.  Jeff Marlowe drank it in.  This was the real thing at last, this was Life!..."  Or:  "I don't know that anyone will ever want to read the story I have to tell, but I pick up my pen now even as I feel the shadows gather around me.  I may not have long in which to say what I must.  Yet now in those shadows I discern faces, faces from long ago in another place, pleading with me for answers..."  Or:  "Pig farming just ain't all it's knocked up to be:  That's what the Reverend told me the day I brought my wife, my four kids, my dog Ralph and my parrot Billy to the little rundown place outside town.  Well heck, it wasn't much but it was mine!  Little did I know then the lessons I was going to learn -- and not in church either."  Or ... but you get the idea. All those are factitious, but they were really like that -- you got a sense of a realm of lost entertainment, mild and pointless and just intriguing enough to keep you turning pages.  A lot of them were illustrated, pen-and-ink drawings also just barely intriguing enough.  A lot of them followed that rule about what constitutes a story -- many of my crrespondents will know who said it:  "Somebody leaves town.  Or somebody new arrives in town."  (You could usually tell that the somebody who leaves town would go back, and that the somnebody new probably wasn't really new. )  This wasn't classic genre -- noir, historical, whatevefr -- it was just an evening's read. Try it in your own local.  Is that era over?  Or does the formulaic fiction of today fill the same need?