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So What If A Bestseller Isnít A Masterpiece


David Rothman

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 fishless desert.

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 doubted."

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 awe.

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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