Last night Robin and I began the three-part Ken Burns series on PBS about Ernest Hemingway. As we watched the first nearly two-hour segment, it triggered an avalanche of memories involving those books and stories.
The year that I turned nine was the year that my parents bought an encyclopedia. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I suspect that a traveling salesman came to the house and caught them at a weak moment. That was a periodic occurrence in our household, where vacuum cleaners, Watkins products, and other ingredients of life were brought to their doorstep by men with good smiles and better sales pitches.
At any rate, one day boxes and boxes of books showed up at La Casa Flom, and it was like Christmas. We gathered round as a family and first unloaded the National Encyclopedia, which I’m pretty sure you never heard of. It was a less expensive alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and published by Colliers. Next to be unpacked was the Book of Knowledge, a series of books much like the “National,” but printed on better paper, and organized to be more interesting to younger readers.
As an inducement to buy these two excellent collections, my parents also received a ten volume set of novels by an author named Kathleen ?????? (can’t recall her last name), a large set of westerns by Zane Grey, and a similar extensive collection of the writings of Ernest Hemingway. It was a literary bonanza, and since I was at an age where I devoured anything in print that I could get my hands on, I started in that very evening.
I quickly tired of Kathleen ??????, and never finished the first novel, which seemed to me to have been written for girls. At nine I was a horrible sexist, and so I set these aside. But Zane Grey was amazing. The characters were brave men and women, the settings all in the Wild West, and the tales involved things like wagon trains, indomitable settlers, and landscapes described in ways to make a boy want to go there immediately – to walk those canyons, climb those mountains, and yes, take the land from those who were already there.
So not only was I a sexist at nine years old, but I had no problems with the Europeans invading and settling lands belonging to the Native Americans. That made me a racist colonialist as well. Quite the little beast, I was.
But it was when I reached the Hemingway books that I became a man. As reader, that is. Now I was in a literary world containing some of the most adult themes I had ever been exposed to, and I swallowed those books entire. Of course I didn’t really understand everything I read, but there was still a story in each that could hold my interest. The real kicker was the short stories, though.
There was a guy named Nick Adams, who lived in a country up north where there was nothing but forests and lakes. Where doctors paddled across lakes to attend deliveries of babies and where trout fishing could begin to heal a lad with PTSD. And there was one story called Up In Michigan. A story which I later learned that no less a personage than Gertrude Stein had pronounced unpublishable.
I read it one day, and at first I didn’t get it, but I knew that there was something about it that was illicit and therefore awfully attractive there. Then I read it again, and this time I got it. It was about s.e.x. What we would today call date-rape, actually. I remember being chilled and frightened by what I had learned about human beings through reading that story. Of course I couldn’t talk about it with anyone, especially my parents. They would have been appalled at where my reading had taken me. My peer group had little interest in discussing Hemingway, so I could expect no help there, either.
No, it was my first exposure to knowledge that I wasn’t ready to process, and had stumbled upon way too soon. The only thing that I could see to do was to get older, and that was what I did.
From The New Yorker
This is something called a radio-photograph, and is of a black hole which is out there 55 million light years away. I was interested in black holes until one day when I was listening to PBS that I learned some facts which turned me off completely.
It was when I became aware that if I were ever to approach one of these things, that my body would begin to accelerate to enormous speeds. The problem was that the acceleration would be uneven.
For example, if I were entering the black hole feet first, at some point my feet would be going so much faster than my head that my molecules would come totally apart.
The astronomer who was discussing these awful things right there in broad daylight said not to worry, our vaporization would all be over so quickly we wouldn’t even feel what was going on. I didn’t buy it. I’m pretty sure that if my feet started going faster than the rest of me that I’d notice. And I’d be extremely unhappy about the whole process, to boot.