Revelations of a responsible literary citizen

Car BootWhile rummaging in my car the other day I discovered Eudora Welty and James Herriot pressed together intimately in the trunk, which I bet is a sentence never written before. My first thought after finding them face to face was who would win a fist fight between Eudora Welty and James Herriot’s wife Joan. My next was to wonder if anyone other than me carries books in their cars in case of reading emergencies and unforeseen opportunities. So I took it upon myself to ask, being a responsible literary citizen. Interestingly, the answer turns out to be pretty much universally yes.

Also interesting is the vast range of books themselves. They included dictionaries, novels, atlases, cookbooks, phone directories, comic books, histories, biographies, audio books, manuals of all sorts, bibles, wine-tasting notes, books of knitting patterns, books of sheet music, books about breastfeeding, and a handbook on vipassana meditative practice.

A naturalist in Hawaii had two notebooks of her own research into how one in five albatrosses is gay and only female frigate birds are thieves. A novelist had Evelyn Waugh and The Rules of Golf.

A dentist had books about railroads and circuses. A doctor had only books by doctors. A chancellor had comic books.

A publisher had 20 copies of one of the books he had published. A great novelist had 20 kg of string quartet music. A woman in Alaska had every single book she owned because she was moving from one apartment to another. A winery owner had wine-tasting notes which he noticed were all garbled at the end. A baseball maniac had David Shield’s oddly hilarious Baseball is Just Baseball, the gnomic sayings of Mariners’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

A friend in Australia had The Story of the tMelbourne Cricket Ground. Another Australian had the wild American jazz poet Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. The greatest travel writer in the world, Jan Morris, had dictionaries in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. One woman in London had books about Margaret Thatcher and rats and another had Baby’s First Catholic Bible and Salmon Fishing on the Yemen. One priest carried a manual on how to preside over last rites and another books about how to preside over weddings and how to grow camellias.

A Canadian friend had books about tractors and sake. Another friend in Canada had Nietzche’s Ecce Homo. A friend in Belize had a novel in Belizean English, as he said, which began with a man being tied to a pole on the beach.

A great poet had Junior the Spoiled Cat and Teddy Bear of Bumpkin Hollow, maybe for her grandchildren but maybe not. A young father of triplets had three copies of Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt, which has sold six million copies since it was first published in 1940. A historian in Texas had a book on the history of zero and another book about the square root of negative-one, which makes you wonder about historians and Texas.

One friend has Backpacking with Mule or Burro, which he said he liked especially because it had a chapter on how to persuade your wife to backpack with a mule or burro. Another had Doctor Seuss and a book about dismembering deer. One woman had Batman comics and Hiking with Jesus, and one had a copy of The Encyclopedia of U.S. Army Patches, Flashes, and Ovals — 'Don’t even ask,' she said, so I didn’t.

Pretty much every other person I talked to had overdue library books (one man had more than 60), and pretty much everyone with overdue library books thanked me for making them remember their overdue library books, which they were absolutely going to return post-haste (I bet they didn’t).

Eleven people had Bibles of various translations, one man had a Gideon Bible he claimed to have borrowed from a motel, one woman had a Tao Te Ching, and one man, not a priest, carried an Italian-language Catholic missal.

Iinterestingly not one person had a Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain, bless his testy heart, memorably called pretentious, sleepy, insipid, tedious, a mess, a mongrel, and chloroform in print, among other compliments. But then no one had a Qur’an either, or a psalm book.

Among the authors represented in cars are the greats (Borges, Chekhov, Agatha Christie, Beverly Cleary, Don DeLillo, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Maugham, Thurber, Yeats), the very goods (Richard Flanagan, Joseph Mitchell, Philip Roth, J. K. Rowling, George Saunders, Colm Toibin, and the late Kurt Vonnegut), the goods (Eggers, Kerouac, Kingsolver, Lamott, Quindlen), and many whom I am not qualified to qualify, like Margaret Mitchell and Brian Jacques and Julia Child and Georges Simenon. You could get into endless roaring pub arguments about these categories.

In the end the single best-represented author in cars was Theodor Seuss Geisel, whose books far outnumbered those of any other author in my survey. To be honest most of the people I spoke to were parents who either had kids young enough to relish the good Doctor, or parents who had never actually cleaned the Doctor Seuss books out of the car after their kids went off to college or to join the circus in Samoa.

It cheers me up to think of all those Doctor Seuss books in all those cars; somehow the world doesn’t seem quite so bruised and brooding once you know that in a reading emergency you can reach under your seat and pull out David Donald Doo or the Katzes from Blooie to Prooie, not to mention Sally Spingel Spungel Sporn.

And right there, with the wild music of one of the greatest of writers in our ears, let us drive on into the rest of the day.


First Tuesday Book Club on the ABC

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of The Wet Engine, about hearts, and The Grail, about a year in the life of an Oregon vineyard. His latest book of poems and essays focuses on people and events in Australia and the US. Titled Thirsty For the Joy, it is published in Australia by One Day Hill.




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