Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What I am reading now #1

How do we see, in a jumbled scene of thousands of books stretching from one edge to the other of our peripheral vision, the name of a college professor on the binding? Do we store a cache of known names in our minds, just in case we might see them again? Are we each a bit like Sherlock Holmes, in our ability to grab tiny clues? Why, then, do we lose our keys when we put them on the kitchen table? How come I can’t find the new jar of mustard in the fridge? Was I actually looking for this professor’s name because I am always looking for his name on the bindings of books?
The human mind is better at searching for things that it recognizes than software is. I was prowling around the Strand Bookstore the other day, and a book was there in front of me on a shelf and the author was one of my college professors.  I have run into his books in bookstores before, and I do not kid you to say it has been the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble on two occasions, and I always sneer at them.  My specific memories of him were of drinking tea at his house because he had invited a famous (and terrifying) author to come talk to us lowly undergrads and of getting a B+ on every paper I ever wrote in his classes.  I guess I could tell you about his head and his hair and his nose and his glasses (oblong; thick, brown tonsure; prominent; round tortoiseshell), and I can hear his quiet tenor voice intoning about Yeats in a way that made me never want to hear about Yeats again.  I stopped working and started playing in his classes, taking scary risks on papers (writing an essay at my typewriter in the hour or so before it was due). I never “got” him, if you know what I mean by that. I don’t think he “got” me, either.
Turning around I was facing a table of influential non-fiction books and found a stack of paperback copies of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was colorful and inexpensive, and I picked it up and turned it over. I only buy a fraction of the books I pick up in bookstores; I couldn’t say what fraction. What needs to be on the back to get me to take it home? In this case, a Picador edition, rave reviews from Studs Terkel and the New York Times were enough. There’s a day-glo school bus on the cover, with “Further” as its destination.
I was a little kid in the 1960s, and my only memory of the world outside of my little life before about 1976 is of my brother recording with his cassette tape recorder President Nixon resigning on TV. I do remember some of the big 6th grade kids being very scary when I was in kindergarten, but I was afraid of everything then.  The hippies had long, long hair and crazy, crazy clothes and they were almost as menacing as crows or old people.  I love addressing things that scared me as a child.
I have plowed through reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test like I’ve got a quiz on it tomorrow. I have re-read passages, read passages aloud, sought people out to share it with.  Tom Wolfe tried to capture not just the people and the actions, but the sound of it, the rap of it, and the aesthetic (if you could call it that) of the Merry Pranksters. I think Wolfe delivered more than a sketch, but the full experience of what it was to be “on the bus.”
And you must know, dear Reader, that the bus was called “Furthur.” Beyond societal norms, beyond good spelling, beyond normal perception, that's where they were going. The cover illustration is wrong. The spelling was corrected by an artist or editor who didn’t get it.

1 comment:

  1. I love this book. Reading it felt like one big trip: thrilling come up, magical peak, and a lengthy, sobering tail.