Monday, March 07, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of 3/7/91

Here's how I do it: I post a list of books every Monday. If I got anything new in the past week; that's the list. If I didn't, I pick a week from my reading notebook (from the years 1991 to 2007, for those who care) and write about those books.

In the latter case, there's a lot of trying to remember what something was. But that's the way of the world, and it amuses me: everything falls apart, everything is forgotten, everything goes away and is irretrievably broken eventually.

This time, the year is 1991. I'm looking at the fourth page of my first reading notebook, almost the very beginning. Here's what I read then:

Jimmy Breslin, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

I didn't entirely articulate it at the time, and I would have been a horrible reporter, but I had a serious desire in my youth to be a newspaper columnist. I devoured and loved a lot of Royko and Baker and Buchwald, and had vague dreams of being that kind of guy: living in a big city somewhere, coming into a bustling office everyday to sit down and pound out semi-funny, semi-serious copy about Whatever Was Happening, and see it in print before the earth spun around the sun another time. It obviously never happened, and since journalism had an even bigger extinction event than book publishing, that was definitely a good thing for me.

But I'm pretty sure I was reading this book because of that. Breslin was another one of those guys who I thought I wanted to be like, and this was his famous novel, twentyish years old when I read it but still funny and dynamic and energetic. It's also a comic novel about crime, and I was reading a lot of mysteries then - I think I'd already started reading Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, which are in the same general area. This is probably really old-sounding at this point (the book is exactly as old as I am), and I bet many of the social attitudes will raise eyebrows: I think it's all white people, thank goodness, but I don't think Italians and Jews and Irish come out well, or non-stereotypically.

Poul Anderson, The Earth Book of Stormgate

I was reading a lot of random SF in those days: intensely and in multiple directions but not necessarily seriously or with a purpose. I might have had my first interview for the eventual SFBC job in early March, since I started there on Tax Day, but I think I was just reading fantastic stuff because that's what I liked and cared about. I was still used to reading a lot quickly from my youth and English-major days (I was mostly a Victorianist, I guess, which meant a lot of really long novels to read quickly), which was good practice for that job.

This particular book is a relatively minor collection by Anderson - it's part of the Polesotechnic League series, which looked like his major work for a while, but the pull of series of novels in the SF world was too intense, so these are read pretty much just by Anderson devotees lately. My memory is that he, like a lot of mid-century SF writers, was better at short-fiction lengths (especially novelette to novella, which I think most of these were) than at novels. I'd say this is worth reading, if you find it, but it's pretty deep in that particular series. On the other hand, old series made up of short fiction were much more modular than the series standard these days; you wouldn't lose much starting here.

Brian Aldiss, Starship

At some point, the US edition smartened up and used the title the UK had been using all along, Non-Stop. (You see, the fact that this is a generation starship is meant to be a surprise in the text.) But that was later; I read this pre-spoiled. Frankly, I probably read it because I saw it mentioned while poking through the original SF Encyclopedia, so it was pre-pre-spoiled.

This is a short and relatively straightforward 1950s novel; Aldiss got more literary and baroque later but here he was mostly just a good writer telling a good story. It is post-apocalyptic, and fairly generic, but, as I remember, Aldiss handles it all pretty well. Not a major classic of the field, but a solid book by a writer who did even better things.

Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes

Yes, my taste in SF always tended to the literary and odd. Also - another pattern that has recurred a lot since then - I don't think I ever seriously watched any of the movies, neither the '60s string or the recent ones, but I did, obviously, seek out the original novel.

I have not re-read this book since then, though I still have a clear sense of reading the astronauts' first view of the ape-world. As a million people have said since then, this is deeper and more philosophical than any of the movies, and clearly set on a different planet, without the twist ending of the movie.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

And I was still catching up on major classics that I somehow missed during my schooling. Well, I'm still doing that, but it's much slower these days. (I was reading late Dickens, about one book a year, in the '90s, expecting to round the corner back to early Dickens and finish up, but I'm still staring down Edwin Drood today.)

I have nothing coherent to say about a world classic that I read in translation - come to think of it, I don't know which translation, which could be important - more than thirty years ago. It is a world classic; if you haven't read it, you should. Put it on the list.

"Various Periodicals"

This was typically "various magazines" other weeks, so I may have caught up on something that wasn't a magazine - back this far I listed the number of pages, and there's a whopping 1260 pages here. (Though remember this was the pre-Internet era, when magazines were fat and happy with ad pages.)
I'm going to guess this was a combination of movie magazines, SPIN, maybe National Review (I think I was reading that by this point), almost certainly Comics Buyer's Guide, Entertainment Weekly, National Lampoon (if it hadn't already died) and probably a couple of other things I've completely forgotten about. Most of the throwaway journalism that these days is online was in magazines back then, on about the same level of seriousness and professionalism but (I think) generally substantially better-paid.

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