Therapeutic Reading, Raymond Chandler, and the Library of America

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August 28, 2014 by libroshombre

Some anonymous ancient wise guy once called his library “a hospital of the mind.” That applies to my personal library, too, especially when surgery’s involved. Then it’s important to set aside a variety of entertaining books to distract my mind from the painful present, but presupposing what reading I’ll be in the mood for is always challenging. Prior to my recent knee replacement the selection ran from detailed historical nonfictionFeatured imageand biographies to humorous diversion and comics.

Since the surgery was set for mid-August, the centennial of World War I, Solzhenitsyn’s “August 1914” and Tuchman’s “Guns of August” seemed appropriate, but in practice they were far too dry to compete with the pain medication. Results were better with two other historical works. Reading Frank Linderman’s excellent biography, “Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows” was like having the wise old warrior sitting by my bedside regaling me with his adventures and insights, and “Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization” by Paul Kriwaczek was far more engrossing than the title suggests.

The graphic literature, AKA “comics,” worked well, especially “Prince Valiant” and “American Born Chinese” by Gene Yang. However, my old favorite, Krazy Kat by George Herriman, was too surreal for those dark nights when sleep wouldn’t come, and P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies werFeatured imagee too flip for that time-slot, too. What worked were fast moving mysteries, such as the Robert Parker Spencer novels, though after one I need an authorial change of pace. That wasn’t the case, night after night, with the nonprofit Library of America edition of Raymond Chandler’s noir mysteries.

Chandler was the British-American writer who came to his craft at age 44 following stints as a bookkeeper, creamery worker, veteran of World War I’s trench fighting, and oil company executive, until the Depression, and, according to Wikipedia, “his alcoholism, absenteeism, promiscuity with female employees, and threatened suicides all contributed to his dismissal in 1931.” Beginning in 1933 Chandler began writing short stories for puFeatured imagelp magazines, and the first, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” featured his hard-boiled literary legacy, private eye Philip Marlowe.

Appealing to this convalescent was Chandler’s writing style, which includes lots of vivid descriptions and fast-paced action, and colorful turns of phrase, as well as verbal gems by a kind-hearted villain like “I have a hangover like twelve Swedes,” and “Them guys give me an ache in the back of my lap.”

Despite my infirmity, I’ve enjoyed 500 pages of Chandler’s short stories comfortably, thanks to them being included in the 1400-page Library of American (LoA) edition of Chandler’s works. In the 1970’s scholars and critics of American literaturerealized that many classics were out of print and hard to find. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation provided initial funding, and the first LoA books came out in 1982. Soon free sets were offered to public libraries. Their specialness was immediately apparent. As the website says, the “books are designed to last generations. Each volume in the series contains acid-free, thin, but durable paper, allowing books with a large number of pages to remain fairly compact. Moreover, the books rFeatured imageange from 700 to 1600 pages and are of uniform size, “based on the ‘golden section,’ which the ancient Greeks considered to be the ideal proportion,” so they’re easy to hold in one hand. And my children’s great-great-great-grandchildren will enjoy them, since the “paper will not turn yellow or become brittle. The books are bound with the grain of the paper to ensure they will open easily and lie flat without crinkling or buckling.”

Some variety’s needed, and the “Crime and Punishment” volume of the estimable Lapham’s Quarterly dovetailed nicely. Besides diversions like James Bond’s villain chart and descriptions of books written in prison, Lapham’s included a nice overviewFeatured image of Dante’s Seven Levels of Hell, where booklovers will find homes on levels two through four, along with other lusters, gluttons, hoarders, and spendthrifts.

This theme was balanced by day-time viewing of musical comedies, Looney Tune cartoons, and Fatty Arbuckle silent films. For as Allen Klein wrote, “The hardest thing you can do is smile when you are ill, in pain, or depressed. But this no-cost remedy is a necessary first half step if you are to start on the road to recovery.”

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