On Bailing on Books

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Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  My last confession was about 40 years ago.  Since then I have bailed on several books.  I started reading them, then tossed them aside.  I have even tossed aside books by the handsome, young Saul Bellow, above, photo via Knopf.

I just read Bellow’s RAVELSTEIN.  I thought I would bail, but didn’t.  I wavered, though.

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RAVELSTEIN is a late work from Bellow, and is a thinly fictionalized account of his real-life relationship with Allan Bloom.  I just wrote about Bloom’s bestselling THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, so I had a sudden, spontaneous interest in RAVELSTEIN.

As a late work, RAVEL is kind of shaky.  Bellow had nearly died of food poisoning a few years prior, and was in his 80’s.  RAVEL is a vehicle for Bellow’s belief that the “pictures” in our mind – the pictures of lived experience, what we call consciousness – along with RAVELSTEIN/BLOOM’s late reversion to speaking as if an afterlife was an automatic expectation of a fully-formed human consciousness (even though Bloom was an atheist) – speak of eternal life for all of us.  Not a small topic!

Bellow at his shakiest still makes for a great novel.  Buoyed by finishing RAVELSTEIN, like an ass I tried reading Bellow’s award-winning 1970 MR. SAMMLER’S PLANET:

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btw, this was like my 4th attempt to read SAMMLER.  I think my first attempt was right after an SLU summer class that I took from Bob DeGraff (sp?) for English credit.

Something about SAMMLER repels me.  It’s not SAMMLER’S (or Bellow’s) fault.

I know that when I was younger, the “elderliness” of the protagonist was a turn-off.  Sammler is a partly blind Holocaust survivor with an odd fascination for minor criminals.

I’m not happy to say that, at 61, I am still repelled by the bitchy old man Sammler, even though he has many, many legitimate reasons to be grumpy.  I felt a familiar depression slip over me as the pages went on.  The Sammler Depression.

It’s not because of the Holocaust.  I read history and World War II history.  No problem.  I would suggest that, perhaps, Bellow’s novel is one or two steps greater than straight history, one or two steps more concentrated and potent.

And I’m not up to it yet.  I may never be.

It’s not that I have a problem with Bellow, who was probably the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century.  One of my favorite novels is Bellow’s 1956-ish HENDERSON THE RAIN KING:

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I read HENDERSON for the same summer school class at St. Lawrence.  It changed my life.

HENDERSON was the prototypical big, dorky, powerful-to-a-fault American abroad.  He nearly destroyed Africa in his clumsy attempt to love Africa to death.  American foreign policy came to life in a way it could not have in Hepburn Hall with my Government major.  Talk about liberal arts synergy.  This is why I assume SAMMLER is more potent medicine than I can stand; that’s what was true with HENDERSON, but it was assigned.  I HAD to read it.

In any case, the point of all this is:

Don’t be afraid to pick up a book and then, if necessary, toss it aside.

Maybe it’s a bad book.  Maybe it’s not for you.  Maybe you aren’t ready for it yet.  Put it back on the shelf.  It’ll be there 10 or 30 years from now.  Don’t be OCD and refuse the book out of the fear that you’re stuck with it.  Grab and read, or else grab and read and toss aside.

It’s not a sin!

Life is too short for bad or for even inappropriate books.  RAVELSTEIN says that.  And Bellow is always right.

 

 

 

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