Writers Talk About Writing
The Birth of the Pagefolk
People who love gourmet food are called "foodies" (perhaps derived from "hippies," referring to people who love hipness.) What about people who love books?
Unfortunately, the word "bookies" has been taken. It refers to criminals who take bets from gamblers. "Bibliophiles" describes collectors of books, who don't necessarily read them. Conversely, "readers" includes anyone at all who is literate.
I like the word "page," because a reader gazes at a page, not an entire book. A bookmark designates a page (or actually two pages). But "pager" already means an electronic device worn on the belt. I submit the word "pagefolk."
"Folk" has democratic connotations, and reading is quite democratic. Born-again Christians, self-help followers, Romance fans: all are pagefolk. The only trait they share is a faint mistrust of television.
Pagefolk need each other, for the same reason foodies do -- to recommend new pleasures. Because, except for those who are two-thirds of the way through the complete works of Trollope, reading is a semi-improvised hobby. Most pagefolk don't know which book they'll choose next.
I especially suffer from this problem, because I admire the English Catholics: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge. The English Catholics write each book as if it were their last, which means you must take a break between them. I made the mistake of reading Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday too soon after The Club of Queer Trades. It lacked surprise (and Chesterton without surprise is nearly joyless). So I need reading matter between my English Catholics.
Personally, I use the First Sentence method for choosing a book. For instance, the most recent novel I finished was The Man Who Didn't Exist by Geoffrey Homes. The beautiful four-color cover of this Dell paperback depicts a green overcoat resting on a beach at sunset, beside two ominous footprints. In the bottom right-hand corner, an eyeball stares through a keyhole -- that's the logo identifying the book as "A MURDER MYSTERY" (which is written alongside). The copyright is MCMXXXVII. (That's 1937, in case you forgot what "V" means.) Across from the title page is the statement:
BOOKS ARE WEAPONS -- in a free democracy everyone may read what he likes. Books educate, inform, inspire; they also provide entertainment, bolster morale. This book has been manufactured in conformity with wartime restrictions -- read it and pass it on. Our armed forces especially need books -- you may give them to your nearest U.S.O. office, leave them at your public library, or them direct to Commanding Headquarters, 4th Service Command, Atlanta, Ga., marked "For Army Libraries."But despite all these attractions, it was the first sentence that convinced me:
"It didn't look like a murder case at first."
This is 1930s American spoken English, but full of sateen irony. Geoffrey Homes is toying with us readers, from the beginning. Also, Homes has a poetic touch; the words are roughly iambic. It could be the first line of a Sarah Vaughan song.
One is compelled to read the second sentence, which is:
"To begin with, there wasn't any body -- not a sign of a body."
At this point I was hooked. Homes was pulling himself into the mystery, and I was coming with him.
Now, three weeks later, I've finished The Man Who Didn't Exist, and I know I made the right decision. The setting is Los Angeles, the hero Robin Bishop, a "tall, debonair, curly-haired reporter for the Evening News, who has a nose for a mystery as well as a news story" (that's from the list of characters). Robin finds the empty coat we see on the cover of the book, behind a gambling casino in Point Utopia. Pinned to the lapel is the note:
Good-bye. You'll find me bumping against the pilings in a day or so if the barracuda let me be. Or maybe you'll never find me. Maybe the tide will take me with it on its way to China. That's what I want to happen, so if I do return, tie a couple of rocks to my feet and throw me back.
The note is signed "Zenophen Zwick." Zenophen Zwick is the most widely-read writer of mystery novels in the world.
227 pages of engaging fiction ensue. What most impressed me were Homes' discourses on the L.A. sky. Back in the '30s, a detective writer was also a weather-poet. Rain and sunshine set the mood of a story, exactly as music does in a movie. As the mystery deepens in The Man Who Didn't Exist, a fog settles on L.A.:
When they came out of the little French restaurant on Pine Street, the fog was thicker than ever. It seemed to hang like moss on the few dejected trees growing in the parkways. Long strands of it dripped from the dirty, scabrous leaves of the black acacias; like a parasitical growth it fastened on the squat and untidy palm trees. The neon signs on the corner drugstores and the cheap cafés were like bloodstains on a piece of gray wool cloth. As always, the city took something beautiful and made it ugly. The city was afraid of it. It sought to drive the fog away with street car gongs and auto horns and sirens and colored lights, and succeeded in making it something messy and disagreeable.
Did you notice that "street car" was two words? I became obsessed with these archaisms as I read the book. Here is a list of them:
*Here is the context:
Robin folded his notes and put them in his pocket, rose, put on his hat and went over to the city desk.And now, the hyphenated words:
"Need me any more?" he asked.
Gradually, since 1937, our language is filling with compound words. English is becoming German!
The Man Who Didn't Exist is literally priceless. No price is listed anywhere on the cover. Perhaps it was distributed for free to soldiers in the Second World War.
Who was Geoffrey Homes? I had assumed his name was a pseudonym, and I thought "Homes" referred to the book's domesticity. Robin Bishop is newly married, and adores his wife, Mary. (Also "Homes" could be a subtle pun on "Sherlock Holmes.") In fact, the writer's real name was Daniel Geoffrey Homes Mainwaring. Born in Oakland in 1902, Mainwaring was an American success story. He began as a detective, then became a reporter, then an author of books about a detective-reporter. Ultimately, he wrote thirteen books, with great titles like The Man Who Murdered Himself and Stiffs Don't Vote. (He also penned one under his real name: One Against the Earth.) Mainwaring went on to write for Hollywood, and two of his screenplays are considered classics: the film-noir masterpiece Out Of the Past and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Now that I've finished this mystery, I've returned to an English Catholic: Graham Greene. My copy of The End of the Affair is a sky-blue paperback published by Bantam in March of 1955, when I was one year old. (The original price was 35¢, but I paid a quarter.) Even with English Catholics, however, I use the First Sentence method. This book begins:
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.I'm a slow reader, so after a week I'm still on page 19. Nervously, I wait for the two main characters, Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, to kiss. Every day, their kiss gets closer, but still hasn't arrived.
Novels are the most romantic genre, more captivating even than cinema. When I read a book, I love and lust for the women in them. Right now, in the movies, all the starlets bore me -- even Scarlett Johansson. (The least romantic medium is radio. For some reason, no one ever kisses on the radio.) If you're one of the pagefolk, you'll understand.
Pundit, humorist and poet Sparrow has contributed to The New Yorker, The Quarterly, The New York Times, and was featured in the PBS series The United States of Poetry. His most recent book is America: A Prophecy: The Sparrow Reader.
(photo credit: Jennifer May)