Monday, April 10, 2006

Richard Ford, Underlining, and Me

The Humorless Feminist recently posted a paragraph from one of my favorite novels, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. Here is her selection.

I point you to it for two reasons. First, because it's a great choice from a great book. If you haven't read the whole thing, do.

But secondly, it inspired me to pull my copy from the shelf and look at what I had highlighted. Until I was about 25 or so, I pretty consistently marked up books, underlining sentences and bracketing paragraphs that I was sure I would want to revisit. When I wonder why I stopped this as a regular habit (I still do it on occasion), all I have to do is go back and look at the marked books. Good lord. The Sportswriter is a perfect example. The passage cited by the aforementioned feminist is beautifully written and certainly sad enough for the somewhat dreary college student I was when I originally read it. But no, the majority of my signposts were planted to guide me back to surpassingly lovelorn moments, moments that could lead a shrewd reader to guess probably 80% of my record collection at the time (OK, fine, 80% of my record collection now). Here are three such moments chosen not-quite-randomly:
She kisses my ear until my legs tingle, and I want to squeeze my eyes shut and give up control. This is enough to bring us back up to ground level, and send us to the airport with all my old hopes ascendant.
I am easily rescued, it's true.

Genuinely good conversations with your ex-wife are limited by the widening territories of intimacy from which you're restricted.
And lastly (good lord, good lord):
In some of the heart's business there is really no net gain.
Who the hell did I think I was, Werther?

Luckily, by the time I read the sequel a few years later (Independence Day, another great book, maybe even better; and not about Will Smith battling space aliens), I had started to shake off my wistfulness (at least the outer layer of it; in fact, yes, it was more like I was molting to make way for a new wistfulness), and perhaps Ford had started lightening up more as well. Even the dialogue between exes that I checked off was a bit snappier:
"Everything's in quotes with you, Frank. Nothing's really solid. Every time I talk to you I feel like everything's being written by you. Even my lines. That's awful. Isn't it? Or sad?"

"Not if you liked them."
And then there are many solid, witty paragraphs like this one, which I'll mercifully end on:
...I had been uneasily aware that I had never done very much in my life that was honestly good except for myself and my loved ones (and not all of them would agree even with that). Writing sports, as anyone can tell you who's ever done it or read it, is at best offering a harmless way to burn up a few unpromising brain cells while someone eats breakfast cereal, waits nervously in the doctor's office for CAT-scan results or mulls away dreamy, solitary minutes in the can. And as far as my own hometown was concerned, apart from transporting the occasional half-flattened squirrel to the vet, or calling the fire department once when my elderly neighbors the Deffeyes let their gas barbecue set their back porch on fire and threatened the neighborhood, or some other act of tepid suburban heroism, I'd probably contributed as little to the commonweal as it was possible for a busy man to contribute without being plain evil.



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