Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Every Book Tells a Story

I cannot tell a lie. It’s actually July as I write this. After composing a mini-essay more than once a week for about six years, I took a long break from blogging. But I wanted to start out 2017’s entries with a word about some reading I did in January, so I’m retrodating this post to that month.

Every book tells a story. Of course, each one has a story inside, whether it’s a fictional arc, an historical narrative, or a descriptive and analytical thread. But I’m talking about the story of my relationship with each book. My Plan for the Third Decade (in my interior life, these entities cast imaginational shadows large enough to deserve capital letters) includes a lot less mental exercise than my previous book lists and a lot more fun, less philosophy and more adventure. I’m reverting from a self-created graduate school to junior high. Many of the books on my schedule, in fact, I first read in junior high. Others I’ve been meaning to read ever since that formative age but have just never gotten around to it.

The Count of Monte Cristo sits in that first group: I first read it when I was about sixteen. I had seen a couple of made-for-TV movie adaptations (one did such things in the ’70s) and liked them enough to read the original. And I loved it! Very few books start with a setup as exciting as Edmond Dantès being falsely accused and imprisoned, meeting a man with a treasure when he mistakenly tunnels into Dantès’s cell, escaping by sewing himself into a shroud and being tossed over a cliff into the sea, and then becoming the richest man in the world. One bit at the end bothered me: Dantès seemed to me to arrogate divine powers when he tells a young woman to trust him even if she wakes up in a coffin buried alive. But my adolescence clung to every thrilling episode Dumas created.

Or apparently not every episode, as I found out soon afterwards. Cut to 1976, when I enter the University of Illinois as a matriculating freshman. Before classes even start, I head to the library, assuming it will be my favorite hang-out spot on campus. I walk up and down the aisles of the undergraduate library. (Awe, ambition, and frustration commingle in my soul as I ponder the existence of a graduate library unavailable to me. Rumor is it’s actually underground where the riffraff can’t even see it.) I consider which books I’ll check out first. My eye lands on a title very interesting to a guy who makes lists of books to read: My 100 Favorite Books. I pull the volume silently and carefully from its shelf and turn to the table of contents. No. 46: The Count of Monte Cristo! What has this obviously wise compiler of titles said about one of my favorite novels? Little, as it turns out. After a sentence or two of praise, he moves straight to an excerpt, chosen to demonstrate the virtues of Dumas’s great adventure. And I proceed to read . . . an incident I am sure I have never seen before.

Of course I turned to the back cover of My 100 Favorite Books to see if there had been some mistake. Maybe the author had rewritten his hundred favorites. Or maybe there was a switch to flip that would make the thing work right. But no. There it was. Somehow, this fellow’s Count of Monte Cristo was not my Count of Monte Cristo.

So I returned to my paperback copy of The Count and found a note on the title page I had not seen before: Abridged. I recovered from a long illness bought on by the appearance of this outrageous word. Determined to set right a wrong that had been perpetrated on my universe, I then went to the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall (another quaint thing we did in the ‘70s) and looked on the shelf. No luck. I asked the clerk. No luck. At last I perused Books in Print. (I’ll stop pointing out every weird ritual of the previous millennium now.) And in the end I had to admit the horrifying truth: in 1976 America, there existed no unabridged English-language translation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Well, friends, now there is. The sun has risen. Justice has prevailed. And in January of this year, unable to wait a day longer than forty years and four months, I started off my third ten-year reading plan taking in every word on each one of the 1243 pages of the unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. And, yes, I definitely read the excerpt I found out about that day in Champaign: 14,730 days though it may have been, I had not forgotten that in the actual classic previously denied to me by a vicious publishing industry, Edmond Dantès bribes a signalman at a telegraph office to change a message, and I won’t forget it until my mind goes senile.

So what did I finally think? To tell the truth, I thought the book was too long: the first version I read, about 700 pages shorter, kept the plot moving in a straight line without allowing for any tedium. As for Dantès, he’s even more sacrilegious than I remember, although now I think his bit about resurrecting the girl was just meant as a way of passing on his own experience of rising from a grave. Did Dumas know how crazy Dantès sounds claiming to be God’s only instrument of justice and revenge? Did he approve? I couldn’t tell.

So I have some disappointments and some nagging questions. But now a story has come to a close. And although this year, Year One in Decade Three, is obviously a year of beginnings, it is also a year of endings. As I’ve scripted the plot, resolution will come to many more stories this year.

In fact, it already has: after all, I’m writing this in July.

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