Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Seeking Buried Treasure

By Martha Reed

I’ve written before that my family decided to sell its summer cottage and the sale went through on April 1st, no joke. It’s kind of sad that a huge piece of my past is gone but I’m a mature adult, and I’ve learned that there comes a time when you have to take a real look at a particular situation, make the best decision you can and move on. A divorce lawyer friend of mine who has seen a lot of extreme decision-making says: ‘sometimes you just have to staunch the bleeding’ and I think he’s right.

So last summer while everyone else was going through the cottage packing up ragged quilts and chipped china candlesticks of course I was going through the damp musty old bookshelves in the back room searching for gems and treasure. I did find one or two early Dorothy L. Sayers and Baroness Orczy and one crumbling leather-bound Mary Roberts Rinehart. After I had gone through them all and filled two paper shopping bags I still managed to cram another half dozen into my suitcase in a desperate attempt to leave no friend behind rather like a bookworm Navy SEAL. Some of the books were so old and sun faded I couldn’t even read the titles printed in faint gilt along their spines but there was something priceless and wonderful about their binding that caught my eye so that when they called out to me to save them I smuggled them to safety, too.

I’ve been working my way through these books all winter long and it has been a real eye-opener. Modern-day readers simply wouldn’t put up with the pacing of some of these old classics – there’s no ‘ooomph’ to them; no car chases, no sex. One of them had a train wreck in it and because I’ve never ridden on a train I didn’t figure out what was actually happening for three pages and then had to backtrack to find out why one of the main characters suddenly caught fire. Others have narrative voices so slow and measured its sounds almost like a funereal cadence which tells me worlds not only about the way writers thought and wrote but also how their readers lived and read and conversed in the time between the two great World Wars. People must have had hours of leisure time and the desire to read literate critical opinions and not merely process data disguised as prose like we do today. The narrative voice was chummier, too, and not nearly so removed and invisible as our current modern third person omniscient viewpoint.

I’d love to see an example of the fiction from a hundred years from now.

One of the gems I discovered was a small volume of discourse from A. Conan Doyle titled THROUGH THE MAGIC DOOR. In this calm little volume the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the inimitable Dr. Watson makes himself comfortable on his green settee and critically discusses the books he could see on his bookshelf and why he liked each one of them. It’s a friendly, warm, measured conversation and tremendously soothing to the overactive modern mind. Of course, some of the opinions expressed are shockingly chauvinistic for our modern ears – for example, I’m on page 187 and he’s only mentioned women authors twice so far: a minor tip of the hat to the Bronte sisters and one passing reference to Jane Austen but if you can keep Conan Doyle’s masculine society in context there is a lot of insight and humor to treasure, like this:

“I confess to having a strong belief in the critical discernment of the public. I do not think that good work is often overlooked. Literature, like water, finds its true level. … Sheridan said that if all the fleas in his bed had been unanimous, they could have pushed him out of it. I do not think that any unanimity of critics ever pushed a good book out of literature.”

-- A. Conan Doyle, Through The Magic Door, 1908.


Annette said...

Kudos, Martha, for rescuing those treasures. And condolences on the loss of the family vacation home. You know, you can always keep it alive in your memories by setting stories there.

My word verification is housub. I'm trying to figure out if its a submarine that someone lives on (like a house boat) or if it's a substitute house.

Tory said...

Annette: I think "housub" is a derative of "unsub" (FBI for "unknown subject.") It's an unsub who lives in a house!

Yes, Martha, I often marvel at the slower pace of literature in the past, and long for the days when we had enough time to read it.

Martha Reed said...

What surprised me was ACD's assumption that his general audience was so literate that he could just make passing references to other authors and works of literature and the reader would be able to keep up with him.

Plus, this was written as a book and not a series of essays you might find in a throw away newspaper. Readers paid good money for this bit of critical non-fiction. I can't think of an example from our time. Any ideas?

Joyce said...

Every time I go to an antique store, the first thing I look for is old books. As much as I love the look, the feel, and the smell of them, I probably wouldn't be able to read half of them. I've fallen victim to the fast pace of today's novels.

Martha, yesterday's "audience" probably was much more literate, so it was a good assumption on Conan Doyle's part that his readers could keep up.

As for books a hundred years from now--think Twitter. Sad, isn't it?

martha Reed said...

I don't even know what Twitter is! I'm still trying to learn Kindle...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

For a conference that I participated in last year, Magna Cum Murder in Muncie IN, we were directed to all read the book BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey and be prepared to discuss it.

Being written long ago, it is the antithisis of what we're told today's crime fiction should be. Like Joyce said, I enjoy today's faster paced novels and wound up skimming much of the intricate detail.