There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but today I’d like to tell you about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”
I could stop right there and send you all home early, but 1971 was also the year that I learned to drive. This knowledge was of considerable help to me in dealing with females of my species. But the point I am at last coming around to is this: In 1971, in my summer school English composition class, my favorite teacher suggested a way to read more books: Keep a list.
Roland had been keeping his own list of the books he’d read since the 1940s, and I’d like to think that the teacher who started Roland down this path had a list that stretched back to the 1920s, and that there was a teacher before him and one before him and so on until we’re back watching Gutenberg knock out his first bible.
Just when you thought no one could have this much fun
This month my list of all the books I’ve read celebrates its 40th anniversary, which will be observed around my house with cake and ice cream. I love fiction most of all, so this milestone seems like the appropriate time to review some highlights from my reading history and see if we can learn what keeps us turning pages at midnight. Fortunately, in the perpetual battle to decide who are the all-time greats in the novel-writing game I have two trusty yardsticks to work with:
Applying these measures to all the books I’ve read since 1971 uncovers questions that have long stumped the experts, so don’t expect any answers here. For example, why was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age, never chronicled jazz? How did John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara) sneak all that illicit sex past the censors of his era? Why do Franz Kafka’s characters invariably play the banjo?
Rest assured I am not about to embark on a survey of my entire list, primarily because I’d have to explain my early infatuation with Andre Norton. Instead I will restrict myself to the writers I loved so much that I’ve read more books by them than anyone else.
The results of my studies surprised me, as music and sex in literature appear to be mutually exclusive, unlike in real life, where it’s been my observation that music often makes sex appear. In literature the one seems to drive out the other, except in those sorry cases where they both evaporate. An incisive examination of the five writers at the head of the class will show you what I mean.
My most read writer of all time: C.S. Forester
C. S. Forester was the creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower, The African Queen, and various other historical novels where something explodes, usually after being struck by a cannon ball. Capt. Hornblower could navigate a sloop through a monsoon with nothing more than a circus tent nailed to a broomstick and everyone on half rations and a spoonful of rum, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of music. He was tone deaf. Tone deafness is a terrible affliction that makes all music sound like Boney M’s “Rasputin.” This condition was not shared by Hornblower’s crew, who enjoyed a rousing hornpipe on their way into battle, just as I do on my way into a meeting.
With Forester’s musical credentials looking a bit thin you might hope instead for plenty of sex, but if you are I am withholding your rum. Hornblower wouldn’t recognize a sexually provocative woman if she loosed her tops’ls abaft his mainmast. The only sex scene I remember in the Forester books I’ve read appears in The African Queen, when Rosie and Mr. Allnut make love in a malarial swamp on a suicide mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Only the most skilled writer can concoct an erotic scenario of such proportions.
While having sex, Rosie’s breasts grow bigger. I’d like to have a word with Forester about this.
Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no hiding it. Robert A. Heinlein’s books are a musical wasteland. I can confirm that there is a bad poet in “The Green Hills of Earth” who writes a syrupy little ballad called “The Green Hills of Earth” and then sings it. He is immediately killed by a blast of radiation from the Academy of American Poets.
However, when Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land he released his inner pornographer. From then on Heinlein’s books are fairly well swollen with sexual activity, and though most of it is leeringly hinted at or happens off-stage or on the other side of the airlock I’m convinced that Bob blazed the trail for three other writers on my list: Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), Nicholson Baker (The Fermata), and Judy Blume (Forever).
Now we’re talking adult themes and situations. Marge Pierce wrote several novels set in the 1960s counterculture; the first three, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Going Down Fast, and Small Changes, were written while the counterculture was happening. These books are packed with hungrily copulating hippies, but her characters are not much motivated, captivated, or levitated by music. There is, however, a high school dance in Dance the Eagle to Sleep that features at least one instance of intercourse. Although everyone on the floor had painted themselves blue this seems like a fair representation of the American high school experience.
Small Changes is so good on every page that it zaps me right back to my teenage self set loose in Boston. But I must reluctantly mark Piercy down for missing or ignoring the Summer of Love, the flowering of soul, Woodstock, Let It Be, Sticky Fingers, and the birth of funk and metal. (The absence of country rock works for me.)
I find it difficult to objectively assess John Updike, as Uppy is the only writer who ever died and left a hole in my heart. However, I can safely conclude that Mr. Updike was not shy about sex. The first Rabbit book (1960) prominently featured a sex act that’s so common today they have rooms set aside for it at airports but back then could’ve gotten him lynched in your more conservative precincts. If you’re looking for angst-ridden WASPs tangling in somebody else’s bedroom, Updike’s the writer for you.
But while his style is musical, his characters are not. They rarely even turn on the radio, though I remember one story where the grownups at a suburban house party put The Beatles on the turntable and danced in their socks. This is charming but this is not a rave.
Rounding out the fabulous 5: Isaac Asimov
I started this list when I was a teenager so you can stop laughing right now. Hands up – how many of you couple the words “sex” and “Asimov”? Well that’s just disgusting. Yes I know who you are.
The fiction of Isaac Asimov is not even up to Heinlein’s primitive musical and sexual standards. Consider the original Foundation trilogy. I loved those books just as much as the next teenage boy, but where did those trillions of babies come from? Was sex involved, or just FedEx? And what did they listen to, besides the narrator?
I didn’t read Asimov for music and sex, I read him for rockets and robots.
The harmonious blending of music and sex within the pages of one novel is an elusive goal. I’m here to tell you it can be done, but to get it done on my list I have to move beyond the ranks of my most-read writers. Here then are Exhibits A and B: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity).
These contestants have it all. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, Roddy Doyle can dance up a whole skyline for you. And the sexual tension in The Commitments is thick enough to fill an extra-large condom (the only kind I buy). Plus I once took my wife to a dance where the band from The Commitments played: “Do ye drink then? If ye don’t yer no good!”
Nick Hornby effortlessly conjures the culture of the music nerd, centered on the dysfunctional wolverines who run Championship Vinyl (“I want him to show the rest of us that it is possible to maintain a relationship and a large record collection simultaneously”). There’s plenty of sex, transpiring or remembered, most of it with the wrong people.
Hornby dives deep into the psyche of Rob, his narrator, whereas Doyle stays on the surface of the entire band and doesn’t even tell us what they look like (except for Joey The Lips and the Commitmentettes). But Hornby’s strength is also his weakness. Because we see the action through the narrator’s eyes, Rob had to understand what he was doing while still behaving badly. Around page 200 I became concerned that High Fidelity didn’t end until page 323. That’s a long time to stay in one observant but emotionally stunted idiot’s head.
Thus, in a close race, the winner of my informal Best Book Ever Read Contest – and this surprised me too, as I was pulling for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I read in 1988, or Pride and Prejudice, which I read in 1974, or The Great Gatsby, which I reread last year, or maybe something by Andre Norton: Roddy Doyle and The Commitments!
This is probably not what Roland envisioned in the summer of ’71, when I drove myself to his English class with a fresh license in my wallet. He favored Shakespeare and Robert Frost. But Roland also favored reading, and he’s pleased to know that I’m still keeping track – and thanks to him, reading more books.
Keep turning those pages. Something might be gaining on you.