Sunday, December 8, 2013

Five Books To Save From the Fire

A friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook about what five books she would save if her house was on fire.  She then named two books and asked others for recommendations.  When I razzed her for abdicating her choices, she asked me what I would pick.  Here is my response.

Five Books To Save From the Fire
(By Richard Goodman, 08 December 2013)

The thought kept running through my head over and over again, “Why didn’t I change the batteries in the smoke detector like I was supposed to?  I should have changed the dang batteries!”  Well, it was too late now.  While I was sleeping, the fire had already spread too much for my fire extinguisher to do any good even if I had gotten it serviced too, like I was supposed to.  The flames had already consumed the kitchen and I needed to get out of there before I became a “News At 11:00- Fire Claims A Victim” casualty story.  I headed right to the bedroom closet, threw on a jacket and shoved my checkbook, phone, wallet, car keys and passport in one of the pockets.  I grabbed the external backup hard drive for my computer, a box of film negatives and then turned towards the window, intending to make my way out there instead of going back through the living room where the fire was raging the worst. 

As I was about to open the window, I noticed a book on one of my bookshelves.  It was the copy of “The Count Of Monte Cristo” that I’d had since childhood.  I’d read it several times as a kid, always getting immersed in the intrigue and picturing myself as the wronged count out for revenge.  I still re-read it every ten years or so.  There are so many plots going on that I never remember everything about the book when I dive into it again so it stays fresh.  I have to take that book with me.  That edition is so ingrained in my mind- from the size of the book to the classic pose of the character on the cover painting- that wouldn’t feel the same if I bought a new copy with some modernized cover picture.  Oh, and there is my copy of “A Wrinkle In Time”, by Madeleine L’Engle.  The same thing goes for that book.  That particular edition and cover is forever intertwined in my memory with the weird, touching, hallucinogenic story of Meg and her genius brother Charles.  I can’t let the fire burn that book to ash.
What else should I take with me?  There are so many things sitting on the shelves that deserve to survive.  I should grab four or five things to take with me.  “The Princess Bride”, by William Goldman, is a great book.  Almost all his stuff is good, even the depressing ones, like “Boys And Girls Together” and “Temple Of Gold”.  I’ve read “Bride” a couple of times.  Oddly though, I’ve grown to like the movie better than the book but they are both still great.  Should I take it?  No, I can leave that one.  What about all my Calvin & Hobbes books?  I’ve gone through those a dozen times each.  Every time I need to smile, I can just pull out any one of the books and find something wonderful within five or six pages.  If I leave them though, it will give me an excuse to buy the Complete Calvin & Hobbes book that has been sitting in my Amazon wish list for the last seven years.  That would be a nice way to spend some insurance money.  Okay, I’m leaving behind all the Calvin & Hobbes book, reluctantly. 

Speaking of collections though, I have to take along “The Adventures Of The Stainless Steel Rat”, by Harry Harrison.  It’s the first three stories in the science fiction author’s series about a master criminal who pulls elaborate capers on a planetary level and it is hilarious in a deadpan, “Parks & Rec” way.  That series and especially that compilation was a touchstone when I was a kid.  Up until the last three books in the series, every book was a genius combination of humor, crime caper and sci-fi action.  I’m also taking along my Complete Sherlock Holmes book.  Those stories of Sherlock and Watson are classics.  I decide to leave behind all the James Bond books.  Plus, I have three or four different versions of some of the books so how would I decide which ones to take?  The middle of a scorching fire is not the time to decide which cover I like better. Yeah, this one has the cool 007 gun logo, but that one has a drawing of Roger Moore in a freaking space suit!  I love them both for different reasons.  So I make a Solomon-like decision and leave them both behind.  Besides, I’m sure I can find the exact same ones on e-Bay later on. 
Same thing with Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity”.  I love his books, especially that one, “About A Boy”, and “Long Way Down” but I can always find them again later and I’m not attached to a particular copy.  I always pick up a copy of “High Fidelity” at library book sales in case I want to pass it along to someone who hasn’t read it yet.  I also pick up copies of any book in Lawrence Block’s “Burglar” series.  I can’t believe everyone isn’t in love with this series of light-hearted murder mysteries that burglar (and book store owner) Bernie Rhodenbarr accidentally, and frequently, gets involved in.  Anyone who liked Monk, the Television show and/or the book series, should like the Burglar series.  My favorite might have to be “The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams”.

I’m tempted to take along Stephen King’s “It” or Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop CafĂ©”, but those are both on the shelves out in the living and I can tell they are already toasted, literally.  I’m really enjoyed the way they both examined human relationships around a horror and dramatic story, respectively. The stories were really driven by the compelling, complex characters rather than the plots and you were totally invested emotionally in the outcome.  Still, the books aren’t worth dying for.  I learned from reading those same books what was worth killing or dying for and a futile dash into a fire to look for a book that was already ash wasn’t on that list.  In fact, I better start thinking about leaving too before I joined them.  I wouldn’t want the local news to report on a guy who burned to death while trying to retrieve some lowbrow entertainment. 
Maybe I should take a few classics, just to balance things out.  I really like “Wuthering Heights”, “Pride And Prejudice”, the “Lord Of the Rings” trilogy, anything by George Bernard Shaw or William Shakespeare.  I have that collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets that is meaningful to me.  I also loved Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”.  Should I try to carry those out with me?  Nah, those have been around for decades or centuries even.  I don’t need to save the umpteenth reprinting of them.  I hesitate in front of “On A Pale Horse”, by Piers Anthony.  It’s a fantasy book about Death, personified.  It’s not depressing actually and is in fact anti-death, something I’m in favor of while in the middle of a house fire.  I’ve passed along a couple copies to other people so maybe I need to keep a copy for myself.

I come to a standstill when I see my Modesty Blaise books.  Yeah, they are espionage thrillers and Modesty has been called a female ‘James Bond’.  Yes, they are slightly pulpy in their storylines.  At their heart though, they are about how people relate to one another and what is most important to a person’s happiness.  The two main characters, Modesty and Willie Garvin, don’t fight to survive just because they want to live.  They fight because other, innocent, people are depending on them to come to the rescue.  The put themselves in the way of danger because it is the right thing to do and bad people need to be stopped from doing bad things.  Also, the author, Peter O’Donnell, has way of crafting a fight scene that is amazing and he is just as good with dialogue and writing what normal people would say.  I wanted to become Willie Garvin when I grew up.  I still do but now I know that I will never accomplish that.  I have his unwavering loyalty to friends, his sense of right and wrong, his undercurrent of despair that is leavened by his friendship with someone who believes in him, but I lack his outgoing personality, his physical capabilities and his intelligence.  He gives me a target to shoot for though.
I have to take a couple of these books with me.  I instinctively grab “A Taste For Death”, “Dead Man’s Handle” and “Sabretooth” since those are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most.  I also grab “Just Another Day In Paradise”, a series about a detective and his formerly estranged wife.  It’s like a gritty version of the ‘Castle’ television show.  I want one of the books in the series for posterity because there are no more coming.  The author still writes but has stopped doing this series and now focuses on romances. Go figure.  I almost grab “Pillow Stalk”, by Diane Vallere, but I realize that is just my vanity coming through since I’m a character in the book so I leave it.

By now I’m coughing profusely from the smoke.  I should be crawling along to floor to find fresh air instead of standing in a spare bedroom compiling a top ten list of favorite books.  I shove open the window and breathe in the crisp winter air.  I called the fire department as soon as I woke up, but it has been 10 minutes and they still aren’t here yet.  I don’t think there will be anything to save when they arrive.  All the artwork on my wall is gone- the prints and some original art is going up in flames right now.  All my photo albums, clothes, CDs, TV and furniture will be gone, along with my old birthday cards, high school mash notes, college notebooks, stuffed animals, family portraits, journals and diaries.  All, gone in a flash, never to be seen again nor remembered by anyone except me.  I’m reminded of that quote from the movie ‘Blade Runner’- “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.  Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.  I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.  All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.  Time to die.”
With that thought in my head, I figured I’d better keep things from getting prophetic and get my butt out the window.  I grabbed three other books off the shelf before squeezing my way past the window frame and jumping a few feet to the ground.  Finally I heard the sounds of sirens but I knew it was too late to be of any help. That’s why I knew that I should be taking the books that I most treasured, not the ones that had the best literary reputation or were bestsellers.  I would soon be rebuilding everything and life would be much harder in the near future.  That’s why I grabbed those last three books.  I picked them up from among the pine needles where they fell when I landed after my jump.  “A Prayer For Owen Meany” and “Love And Glory” by Robert B. Parker are two of the most inspirational, tear-inducing, human, and beloved books in my library.  I’m going to need some motivation in the next few weeks and they should help.  And the final book, Steve Martin’s “Pure Drivel”, will help me laugh, a lot, and laughter will be needed almost as much as motivation.  Standing there in a jacket I just pulled on overtop my pajamas, I was looking forward to the time when I could laugh.  Right now, I was looking at the flames consuming my place and thought it was a pretty crappy Yule log.  “What a Merry Christmas for me,” I thought as I trudged to my car, shivering, coughing, cursing, but happy to be alive.  Next time I’ll remember to change the batteries in the smoke detector.