Friday, May 5, 2017


My friend Mary, an omnivorous reader, is a wonderful woman who owned a cramped , but cool independent bookstore near my home. When Mary retired, the store was sold to another wonderful woman who moved it a mile away to a new location. Despite her retired status, Mary volunteers in the store two or three days a week, continuing to help others find great books for which they might not even know they are looking. 

Mary and I were chatting in the store recently when she confessed she’d celebrated her 86th birthday a week earlier. When I offered my condolences, Mary zinged me a quizzical look and told me in firm tones, “I’m shooting for ninety.”

“And I’m sure you’ll make it,” I said, then gestured at the high towers of books forming a literary skyline around us. “I offered my condolences because at eighty-six there can’t possibly be any good books left to read.”

Mary’s eyes sparked with a cliché twinkle before she whacked my arm with a left hook she stole from Muhammad Ali. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You can’t possibly read all the good books—no matter how long you live.”

According to bumper sticker psychiatry there is no such thing as a bad child, only bad parents. Perhaps this existential bit of nonsense can be skewed for the literary world to claim there are no bad books, only bad authors. However, if all books started out good, there are many in dire need of therapy after being screwed up by their literary parents.

Over the years, a lot of books have failed to make it past my personal fifty page cut. Basically, if I’m not engaged in a book by page fifty, it’s tossed in the pile destined for a Friends of the Library sale. There seem to be a lot more in this category as my age increases and my patience shrinks. My fifty page cut eventually became a forty page cut, and then a thirty page cut. Currently, it hovers somewhere around twenty-five. 

My friend Mary is right—You can’t possibly read all the good books no matter how long you live. Consequently, there is no upside to finishing any book you are not enjoying (unless there are mitigating factors requiring you to deal with the malefactor). Bad books may only be good books forced into bad behavior by their literary parents, but there are too many well behaved books waiting to fill you with wonder and enjoyment.

Many good books grow up to be class valedictorians. These are the books in which you become fully immersed—baptized in the water of their pages—and are often touched with despair whenever you turn their last page. You gently close the covers and are unwillingly transported back into this world—where you are gobsmacked to find everyone is carrying on normally as if your emotional crisis hadn’t occurred.

Like Mary, I am an omnivorous reader. Many a genre has fallen before me and yielded up its secrets. I understand too well the anguish of turning the last page of a stunning standalone novel or the last book in a beloved series. 

I also know the joy of unexpectedly perceiving a book, a series, or overlooked author through a different and intriguing prism—opening up a whole new realm of obsessive reading. The companion to this experience is discovering an author whose books serendipitously enter your orbit with all the subtly of a hurtling giant asteroid. You tentatively try one title and are immediately captivated by a new world and delight in knowing the author has a huge backlist of books waiting for you to explore.  

Recently, it has been my good fortune to experience both phenomena.

In my pre-teen adolescence of the mid-sixties everything was all about spies. James Bond, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Our Man Flint, Mission Impossible, I Spy, Secret Agent, The Wild Wild West, Get Smart, and other swinging spies dominate television and the big screen. I was as hooked as any junkie, and my reading habits were all about mainlining related source material, TV tie-in novels, and anything else espionage related the local bookmobile could  provide. I discovered Len Deighton’s redoubtable spy Harry Palmer, Donald Hamilton’s all-American agent Matt Helm (the book version as opposed to the nonsense of the Dean Martin movies), and I even came in out of the cold with John le Carré.

When Tarzan of the Apes crossed my path during the same time period, I gave it short-shrift.  I read a few pages, realized it was different from the Tarzan films, but somehow it didn’t resonate with me. At the time, my attention and reading tastes were transitioning from spies to hardboiled detective fiction, a genre which would dominate my to be read pile for years to come. 

Even when I later discovered the joys of detective pulp fiction magazines, I still steered away from Tarzan and others of his jungle brethren. But last year I had the opportunity to read my buddy Will Murray’s recently published and beautifully packaged Tarzan continuation novel, Return To Pal-ul-don. It was brilliant, and I enjoyed it immensely. Maybe there was something to this Tarzan guy...

Based on my experience with Tarzan: Return To Pal-ul-don, I decided I should try one of the original Tarzan novels. I knew I had a couple of the ‘70s Tarzan paperbacks on my shelf—collected not for reading purposes, but for the cool Frazetta covers—and a complete Tarzan omnibus hidden somewhere in the cloud connected to my Kindle, but somehow, I was sidetracked by my then burgeoning interest in Western paperback originals from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I was scouring the audio book shelves at my local library where I spotted an attractively packaged, newly released version of Tarzan of the Apes on CD. I snagged it up and was particularly excited as it was read by my favorite voice actor, Simon Prebble.

By the second track of the first CD, I couldn’t believe how quickly I was being drawn in to the story. Let’s face it, the concept of Tarzan is ridiculous—which may have been one of the reasons I hadn’t been moved to read the books much earlier. But now, with reading maturity and my own writing career and experience to pull from, I consciously began to listen not only to the story, but to analyze how Edgar Rice Burroughs had constructed his magnificent tale.

Yes, the concept stretches a reader’s suspension of disbelief, but ERB realizes this and responds with a brilliant counter intuitive choice to anchor his prose in logical progression. Each scene is built logically from the events of the one before—if you accept the first situation as possible, you accept the next logical progression as possible, and the next until you have been led into accepting a reality (an orphan raised by apes who becomes King of the Jungle) you would have rejected on its face.

As a reader, your brain accepts this process without question—Yes, that could happen...Yes, that could happen next—and then you are excitedly swinging through the trees with an ape man, engaging in deadly combat with lions and king apes armed only with a sharp knife, and lusting after some dame named Jane. Holy cow! This was splendid stuff brought even more to life by Simon Prebble’s excellent audio performance.

Mary was more than right—You can’t read all the good books. There are twenty-four books in the original Tarzan series written by ERB between 1912 and 1965. There are another thirteen authorized continuation novels, including more from my pal Will Murray—who I am holding personally responsible for this new collecting obsession. It appears, my reading dance card is going to be filled for a while as I dip into the promises of the other books in the Tarzan series. 

However, my to be read pile—actually, a perilous tower of Babylonian proportions—has grown exponentially with the second phenomena I mentioned (discovering an author—new to you—who grabs your imagination and has a huge backlist of books waiting for you to explore), but the reveal of the experience will have to wait until next week’s column…

To visit the official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan website CLICK HERE

1 comment:

  1. Paul, I too was blown away by ERB's Tarzan and subsequently his Martian novels in the early 1960s. A storyteller par excellence. I'll certainly add Will Murray's continuation books to my TBR pile!


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