For those of us who live an awfully lot in our heads, in books, in pending world crises, it is a useful remedial in Real Life 101 to drive across country, listening to local radio. “The corn-husking contest …” “The little league playoffs …” “A retirement party for the librarian …” Our visits to Maine take us back to real life, and almost back in time, to the still breathing remains of what was once a ship-building and whaling center. For the first time ever, I had not taken a book and thought to rely on Kindle, which, for the first time ever, would not charge up. Desperate, I asked the waitress at the diner, “Is there a place that sells books?” “Nope,” she responded with Down East economy of expression. A couple overhead us, and volunteered that the rather large gift shop on the main drag sold books, and there were cheap pocket books at the supermarket.
At the first I found a volume of E. B. White essays, a writer in whom I have very little interest but they say you can learn to be a better writer by reading him, and I thought it was high time I learned to write better. But, while on vacation, I prefer the book version of watching television. I tooled off to the store that featured junk food and cheap paperbacks. The problem with potboilers is that they are often written by people who have not read E. B. White. One political who-dunnit began with the female vice president complaining, “I am tired to being treated like a door-mat.” A cliché, and not one likely to come to the mind of a Nancy Pelosi or Susan Collins.
The “legal thriller” I chose did better: “For most human beings, what to do with our hands is an issue.” Hmmm. Then a tribute to the opposable thumb, but what to do with them when they aren’t quite needed? “Once upon a time we busied them by smoking.” Yes, that is a true observation. A colleague at Boulder stopped smoking, told me he no longer knew how to start a class. He had lost his ritual: fumble for the pack, tap it so a cigarette slides forward, pull it out and into his mouth, reach into his pocket for a lighter, ignite it and take a long, slow drag, all while contemplating the topic of that day’s class. Now he would just stand there, twitching. The novelist adds, accurately: “Bogart and Bacall taught us how to do this with style.” Yes, they made it sexy. But that – smoking, not sexiness – is now frowned on. So, he concludes, “we employ our idle fingers fondling our cell phones.” Segway to his assistant, a young woman who is always busy with her cell phone and yet, at the end of a meeting, can recall exactly what was said – welcome to the generation of “multi-tasking.” I was all set for single-tasking a legal thriller that, before the end of the first paragraph, has me interested in the young assistant who, shockingly, is the killer’s next victim. Hold on to your seat!
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