I finally started reading The Lord of the Rings. I love the films so much that my friend told me, “Oh, you’ll love the books.” Lies. I’m only one hundred pages in and already I think, Really? Another five-page song about a tree or something? I’m looking at the remaining eight-hundred-odd pages and I want to cry. What do I do?
That’s how I felt about the movie—that first one, where Bobo and Bubo and Cowslip and Ian McKellen all team up and meet the elves. It was New Year’s Day. The night before, my friend Elaine had thrown a dinner party involving blini, salmon, and a great deal of vodka. That morning I crawled out of bed, pulled down Dubliners, and read “The Dead.” Then I called Elaine. She had just done the same thing. Call it coincidence, call it friendship. We decided that the best course of action—really, the only course of action—was to take the leftover salmon and blini and a bottle of Belgian ale to a late matinee of The Lord of the Rings. We sat in the balcony. The movie lasted approximately five and a half hours. Experiments have shown that even brown bears in the wild will stop eating smoked salmon after the first half pound, or after three hours of sitting there with a pile of salmon in their laps, whichever comes first. After the fourth hour, the salmon will grow offensive in the nostrils of the bear. That’s what happened to us. I have eaten gravlax since then, generally on New Year’s with Russian friends, if there is vodka. The sight of a hobbit still makes me want to hurl. As for the books, you have read eighty-five pages farther than I ever could. Life is short.
I saw someone today reading John Hawkes’s The Beetle Leg on the subway. It left me mystified—the book, too, of course, but the fact that someone was reading it on the subway. Though I see it’s common practice, I can’t seem to bring myself to read books that aspire to the status of art on the subway. Airport paperbacks, elevator music, toilet reading—all these are widely acknowledged as degraded forms, and for good reason: The circumstances in which such works are taken in simply aren’t conducive to the appreciation of genuine works of art. But can the subway be much better?
Elevator music isn’t bad because it happens in elevators. An airplane late at night—if you are sitting next to the window and nobody next to you is watching a movie or playing a video game, and there are no babies—can be the best reading room there is. So can a toilet. “Airplane books” are not the fault of airplanes. The trippy thing about Walkmen, when they first came out, was hearing Hugo Largo or the Emperor Concerto, or whatever, while you were standing waiting for the bus that took you to school. By now don’t we take that disjunction for granted? I can’t read on the subway, either, except the Post: I get distracted by the panhandlers and the doo-wop guys or mariachis and the general acting-out of my fellow passengers. But maybe this guy—let’s call him Mister Spoonbill—was headed out to the edge of Bushwick. I can think of worse places to read John Hawkes.
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