Friday, July 10, 2009

My Delusional Reading List

I assassinate celebrities regularly, misremembering headlines and names, conversationally killing off one perfectly healthy person in the place of some other, actually dropped down dead, who's name I've muddled. This wouldn't be such a serious fault, easily enough corrected, if I weren't so convinced I was right when I slip yet another corpse prematurely into the ground. Usually, I have to be argued out of my mistakes. When someone I've said was dead finally does die, -- Gale Storm, god bless 'er, -- at whatever age and fullness of years, I feel weirdly responsible, as if I'd wished her so. Really I hadn't, honest.

My friends have come to be quite skeptical of any claim I might make to sure knowledge of the passing of this or that famous person. Dear A., always one to keep abreast of the news, tends to follow any such announcement of mine with the simple question, "And where did you hear that?" before suggesting the the name I meant to say. This happens with mortifying regularity.

I have, just as notoriously, described some "famous" scene in a book or movie, but from the wrong book, the wrong movie, or from no known book or movie at all, having substituted or entirely invented what I meant to recommend. Yet I am quite sure, as I tell the story, that my facts are right. Having had my mistake pointed out to me, having been shown that I'd either had the scene, or the title wrong, or both, I am as shocked as anyone present.

When a dear friend was visiting years ago, I described for him the famous passage in Pepys' Diary detailing the horrors and aftermath of London's Great Fire. So moved by this was my friend, that he retired that night to his room, determined to read the original. Taking my Shorter Pepys from the shelf, he settled in for a nice long read. Having read all four brief paragraphs on the subject actually entered by Samuel Pepys in his diary, and then having read backwards and forwards from these, my friend was understandably disappointed. Nothing like the elaborate drama I had ascribed to the diarist. Come the next morning, confronted with the reality of the Diary, I was gobsmacked. Really? As little as that? Where did I get all that stuff from?

No idea. Evidently I had interpolated details from who knows how many other histories, novels, and whatnot. I suspect, as my friend no doubt did at the time, that some of the more vivid particulars were as likely drawn up from the bottom of my glass as from the top of my head. It was, evidently, a shameful performance.

I once told the whole of a party scene, complete with funny voices and drunken song, from Nicholas Nickleby, where no such scene exists, having invited the cast of The Pickwick Papers in to join the fun. With Dickens, it seems, I am peculiarly prone to mixing and matching; snatching Mrs. Jellyby out of Bleak House, and dropping her on Hard Times, putting Captain Cuttle out to sea again, or sending not Martin Chuzzlewit but Arthur Clennam to America. Muddle upon muddle.

So actual familiarity with the books I'm retelling is obviously no guarantee of accuracy, but neither then does having never read a word of a particular author prevent me always from volunteering plots, opinions and re-enactments. I once explained Jose Donoso, who I hadn't read at the time, thinking I was talking about Jorge Amado, an author I also subsequently read, but who, at the time I was blabbing, I think I knew only because I'd seen a movie adapted from one of his novels. I'm sure I spoke with great authority, until corrected.

It wasn't all that long ago I told what I thought was the whole plot of A Gun for Sale, which I hadn't read, but had just bought thinking I had. But then what I was actually telling was the story of James M. Cain's The Embezzler. Absolutely nothing alike, you understand, those two books.

I always tell anyone coming to work with me at the Used Books buying desk, "Remember, as of right now, you are the authority." Clearly, this is something I've taken too much to heart.

I did just buy a little three volume set of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Mynors Bright, from J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD, first published in this edition in 1906, my copy being a reprint from 1958. I'm determined to read Pepys more closely hereafter.

Have I ever told you the fascinating description Pepys gives of the Great Fire? Wait. Let me try to look that up for you. I've got the book right here.

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