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So What If A Bestseller Isnít A Masterpiece
It is a hot, sunny day, but inside the Encino library, a few blocks from my
house, I am cool and comfortable. The large open room is not busy: there is only
one librarian this afternoon behind the check-out counter, and she is reading a
magazine. Three adults read at different tables. I am the only other person
here, and I take my time moving along the fiction shelves.
When I come to the Hís, I pause at a familiar title and reach for it. I take the
prize and lay it on a large empty table while I seat myself. Then I open the
book slowly, as if it were a newly discovered treasure chest and let the beauty
of the words, like gemstones exposed to the light, strike my eyes:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone
eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had
been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told
him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst
form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which
caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man
come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry
either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled
around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked
like the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The
brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection
on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of
his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on
the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the
sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
" Santiago ," the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff
was hauled up. "I could go with you again. We've made some money."
The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
"No," the old man said. "You're with a lucky boat. Stay with them."
"But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big
ones every day for three weeks."
"I remember," the old man said. "I know you did not leave me because you
I pause, look up from the page, and stare out into the nearly empty room. I
cannot take a deep breath. I tighten my jaws to hold back sobs. But I cannot
control myself. My eyes moisten and I stifle a sob. How unmanly. The words have
gotten to me. I must control myself, for I know many more such words will flow
from the pages, even more powerful than those I have just read. This is not the
first time Iíve chosen this book.
Some writing gives me the chills, not all writing, only this kind of writing,
the writing of authors like Hemingway, writers who have a special way of putting
words on a page. I am taken to another place when I read a story like
Hemingwayís The Old Man and the Sea. I experience what one feels when standing
before a masterpiece, an oil painting like Starry Night by Van Gogh. I get that
same throat tightening, that same empty feeling in the pit of the belly, that
shortness of breath. I cannot help myself when I behold such great works. Iím in
But I also become depressed. Why? For two reasons: one, because such creations
usually strike chords of sorrow within me. Perhaps it is the theme of the work
that is sorrowful, perhaps the creator plants his own sorrowful soul into the
piece. Second, I become depressed because those works show how inadequate are my
attempts at creating great art.
But I donít dwell on the depression. The enjoyment of reading masterpieces far
outweighs any ill effects.
The day after tomorrow we leave for a short vacation away from civilization and
the internet. Iíll bring along some light reading, the Da Vinci Code, not heavy
reading, not great writing, but a damn good read. Dan Brown, its author, must
get the same feelings you and I get when he reads the greats, except he doesnít
get depressed by his inadequacies. He laughs all the way to the bank.
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