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A Test for Readers
July 17, 2008 - 10:28pm

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If you’re like me, you never go anywhere without a book, since there’s too great a chance you might be stuck waiting for someone or something without even a magazine at hand. But choosing the right book for a given situation is important, and sometimes more difficult than choosing the clothes you'll wear out of the house.

Let’s say you’re going to have a medical test, not a huge deal in and of itself, it’s just that, well, three prescreening nurses and a technician call over two days to interrogate you repeatedly on things that could lead to trouble during the test. (Previous welding experience? That's not good. Not good at all.) When you get there, they'll reiterate that there’s really very little chance anything whatsoever could go wrong, but they are required to inform you of certain statistical dangers…okay, actually so many dangers that “it would be misleading to print them all,” but they list real beauts such as nephrogenic system failure and—ahem—sudden death. Hardly ever happens, though. Sign here, please.

What book would you take to your appointment?

Definitely not the manual on the new version of Quicken. Nothing that practical, disposable. Nothing false or a pretender, like The Elements of Cooking, which is informative but not even in the spirit of E.B. White’s Elements of Style, though it trades on the name. (Don’t say spirit.)

Not something too beloved—Chekhov, which feels disappointingly off, nearly boring, and reminds you of Anton's horrible, gurgling, tubercular death. You want to live! Wild-and-crazy Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman then, on the Honolulu Marathon, in Curse of Lono? No: A smart writer turned goofy, and Thompson a reminder not to have your ashes shot out of a cannon while Johnny Depp watches.

Oddly, Montaigne feels all wrong too, like a self-satisfied uncle who’s just bought a used car. This is getting to be a test of the books more than of you.

Poet Les Murray? Tiny bit too contemporary and apocalyptic, but we’re getting there. Definitely a poet, though, for compression. Ah: The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. II, 1939-1962. Williams a physician, of course, and man of the world, even a sensualist, but with the discipline of a Chinese poet and a love of all nature’s processes, creative or destructive. Equanimity, sensitivity, a feel for the body as life.

In the waiting room (blasting with air freshener commercials and news of Glenn Close), you open the book at random and read:

“A Salad for the Soul”

My peasant soul
we may not be destined to
survive our guts
let’s celebrate

what we eject
sometimes
with greatest fervor
I hear it

also from the ladies’ room
what ho!
the source
of all delicious salads

All is vanity, sayeth the teacher, and Williams was the right choice. What book would you bring to the test?

 

 

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