The Old Ways Are The Best

     “When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. Not a writer. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. But not books: however systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive and continue to enjoy a shelf life in some corner of an out-of-the-way library somewhere, in Reykjavik, Valladolid, or Vancouver.”
     Amos Oz was speaking for me in his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” My life was changed forever when I stumbled upon two books when I was 10: “Waiting for Godot” and “Catch-22.” I read them one after the other, and since then the world has been a different place.
     “Waiting for Godot” and “Catch-22” made sense. But all the rest of it – politics, religion, love, death, people and the universe? Where is the sense in any of it?
     Some books have mysterious power. When I started “Crime and Punishment” and Raskolnikov fell into a fever after killing the old woman, I caught a fever too. I got the flu and became too sick to read. When I had recovered, the book was due back at the library. A few years later I tried again and – this is true – I caught a fever and flu at the same place in the book.
     I decided to stay away from that book. I didn’t read it until I was in my 40s, which is just as well. Little kids can’t understand Dostoyevsky, even if they want to read him. I agree with my brother on this.
     My brother teaches Russian literature at a ritzy private high school. One year he’ll teach “Crime and Punishment,” the next year “The Brothers Karamazov.” He says it’s ridiculous – kids can’t understand those books – but the school wants him to do it. Looks good to the folks who pay the bills.
     High school kids cannot understand “The Brothers Karamazov,” and it’s good that they can’t understand it. An old man throwing away his entire family for a whore is a horror story. Parricide is a horror story. “Karamazov” is as dangerous as a gun. Kids shouldn’t play with it. They’ll understand some of it too soon anyway.
     Another book that changed my life was “Through the Looking Glass.” I think it’s just as great a book today as I did the first time I read it, when I was 7. It beats “Alice in Wonderland” all hollow. I know, because I read “Alice in Wonderland” again a few days ago. “Through the Looking Glass” was the first book that became my friend – a friend that would always be there when I needed it, and that I knew I could keep for life.
     Music is life’s great consolation, but sometimes I want to hang out with Beethoven too. We still can, thanks to Thayer’s “Life of Beethoven.” If you’re not in the mood for 1,100 pages, try Oscar Sonneck’s “Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries.” The cheap Dover edition, still in print, has 37 reminiscences from people who knew the man – eyewitnesses. You can hang out with Beethoven whenever you want.
     Bill Gates says that books will soon be obsolete, and he seems to look forward to that.
     Bill Gates is a moron.
     True, the world would be much worse off if someone even worse than Gates had lucked onto the lousy computer program that made him his billions. Think what would have happened if the Coors family had stumbled onto ms.dos instead of Bill Gates. Instead of trying to eliminate malaria, as Gates is doing, they’d be spending billions on right-wing death squads on Venus. Or Colorado.
     But Bill Gates doesn’t get it when it comes to books. No one wants to read a book online. Sure, it’s possible. So is artificial insemination. But sometimes the old ways really are the best.

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