September 27, 2011

THEY'RE FREE ON YOUR KINDLE:

A Doyle Man (Michael Dirda, 9/21/11, Paris Review)

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first grown-up book I ever read--and it changed my life. Back in the late 1950s, my fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month our teacher would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. I remember buying Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red and a thriller called Treasure at First Base, as well as Geoffrey Household's Mystery of the Spanish Cave. Lying on my bed at home, I lingered for hours over these newsprint catalogues, carefully making my final selections.

I had to. Each month my mother would allow me to purchase no more than four of the twenty-five- and thirty-five-cent paperbacks. Not even constant wheedling and abject supplication could shake her resolve. "What do you think we are, made of money? What's wrong with the library?"

After Mr. Jackson sent in the class's order, several weeks would pass and I would almost, but not quite, forget which books I had ordered. Then in the middle of some dull afternoon, probably given over to the arcane mysteries of addition and subtraction, a teacher's aide would open the classroom door and silently drop off a big, heavily taped parcel. Whispers would ripple up and down the rows, and everyone would grow restive.

Romantic poets regularly sigh over their childhood memories of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower. But what are daisies and rainbows compared to four sleek and shiny paperbacks? After more than thirty years as a literary journalist, I have seen and reviewed new books aplenty. Ah, but then, then, at my wooden school desk, etched with generations of student initials, I would methodically appraise each volume's artwork, read and reread its back cover, carefully investigate the delicate line of glue at the top edge of the perfect-bound spines.

To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter's capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles--as if that ominous title alone weren't enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback's cover--depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag--blazed the thrilling words "What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?" What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:

A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

The book's author, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930), wasn't knighted in 1902 for creating its protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, though many readers feel he should have been. The literary journalist Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, declared that he actually should have been sainted. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle only reluctantly added Sir to his name--for his services and writings during the Boer Wars--because his beloved mother talked him into it. On his books he austerely remained A. Conan Doyle "without," as he said, "any trimmings." Such modesty is characteristic of this altogether remarkable man, one who gave his own stolid John Bull appearance, down to the military mustache, not to his Great Detective, but to the loyal Dr. Watson.

Appropriately, Conan Doyle once named "unaffectedness" as his own favorite virtue, then listed "manliness" as his favorite virtue in another man; "work" as his favorite occupation; "time well filled" as his ideal of happiness; "men who do their duty" as his favorite heroes in real life; and "affectation and conceit" as his pet aversions. It should thus come as no surprise that Conan Doyle's books are all fairly transparent endorsements of chivalric ideals of honor, duty, courage, and greatness of heart.




Posted by at September 27, 2011 7:22 AM
  

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