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Jack Smith

Asked if I'm reading a great book, I reply: 'Great? : Define your tomes'--and I slip into my 'Celestial Bed'

June 15, 1987

In failing to have read all the great books that one is supposed to have read, I am not alone.

At least one reader was grateful for my confession:

"It's difficult enough being a Jewish mother," writes Josephine Schwartz of Manhattan Beach. "Thank you for absolving me from yet another area of guilt."

Jeffrey Lantos commiserates with me for my recent purchase of Dumas Malone's six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson--a sea into which I have barely poked a foot.

"I too ordered the Malone bio," he says, "and found it less than compelling. I made it through Volume I during four months of insomnia. Since I started sleeping, I've not gone back to it."

That's encouraging. I've been troubled by insomnia myself of late. I lie awake until 2:30 or 3 o'clock every morning, while my sins of commission and omission parade before me like jumping sheep.

If I can really get into Malone's biography, I might find myself falling asleep much earlier; my insomnia will be cured, and I can put Jefferson back on the shelf with "The Brothers Karamazov," its mission accomplished.

Lantos thinks that the reason serious readers like him and me can't get the classics read is that the publishing world keeps dumping too many new books on us. He suggests that a one-year moratorium on publishing would give us a chance to catch up.

He says: "Now I can just hear the pooh-bahs at Doubleday and Scribner responding, 'Why the dickens should we stop the presses just so a select minority can go back and read Ovid and Pascal? If they want to spend their time reading Ovid and Pascal, fine, we're not stopping them.' "

They're not stopping him in a literal sense, Lantos concedes, but they keep pouring out those heavy breathers by Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz and Robert Ludlum and he just can't keep his hands off them.

Meanwhile, Ovid and Pascal languish on his shelf.

"So I end up reading 'If Tomorrow Comes' instead of reading Ovid and Pascal, even though, on some level, I know that reading Ovid and Pascal would make me a better person."

I know the feeling. My nightstand has a little shelf on which I keep all the recent educational tomes I have ordered from the Book-of-the-Month Club--"The Story of English," "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews" and "Nova: Adventures in Science" are only a few of them.

They are there to prod my conscience. My eye rakes them every night before I go to bed. I sometimes pick one up and weigh it in my hand. But I am simply not up to the struggle. My lower instincts win out and I find myself propped against the pillow reading the latest Elmore Leonard or Robert B. Parker, or even, if necessary, rereading them.

It is logical to suppose that if I were to read something less stimulating and suspenseful, I might be more susceptible to sleep. But my logic doesn't work like that. I figure that, as long as I'm not going to go to sleep anyway, I might as well enjoy myself.

Among the books that have recently fed my insomnia were Sidney Sheldon's "Windmills of the Gods," about a widowed young Kansas State professor who becomes ambassador to Romania, and Irving Wallace's "The Celestial Bed," an extremely erotic novel about sex surrogates, and I am about to begin Monica Highland's "110 Shanghai Road," which is described on the jacket as "a fascinating tale of lust, intrigue, greed, and corruption. . . . "

I must appear to be a person of mean taste; a Philistine.

But I happen to believe that a little bit of classical learning goes a long way. Katherine Anne Porter once said, "A writer is a person who can climb one mountain, half-way, and write about it the rest of his life."

A similar aphorism can be formulated to describe the literary person: A literary person is one who has read "Hamlet," the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier, "A Tale of Two Cities," one short story by Guy de Maupassant, and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," and can keep the conversation limited to those few works the rest of his life.

Actually, I have read exactly half of Shakespeare's plays, which puts me ahead of most people and qualifies me, in my book, as an intellectual.

I mentioned earlier that a friend and colleague of mine, Lincoln Haynes, after years of application, had finally finished "The Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant.

Haynes reviewed this heroic undertaking last October in The Times. "It's a milestone," he wrote, "a rite of passage, a lifetime achievement. I've grown gray on the job, but I've done it. Eleven volumes and untold hours of companionship. . . . Now it's over. I know how it turns out."

As I said, I have been trying to read "The Story of Civilization" ever since the Durants started writing it back in the 1930s. It took them more than 50 years, and in that same 50 years I have not been able to keep abreast of their outpourings. They carried the story through "The Age of Napoleon," but I am bogged down in the Renaissance.

I am hoping that Lincoln Haynes' example will inspire me to push on to the end, so that I, like him, will know how it turns out.

Haynes has also revived my determination to get on with the English language, the Jews and the cosmos.

I'm going to get right at it--just as soon as I finish "110 Shanghai Road."

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