I haven’t yet picked up a book to read specifically because it seemed to have a bearing on this strange time in which we find ourselves, but however various the books stacked next to me may be, many of them lead by some unforeseen path to our present moment. What follows is a list of a few of them, one or two of which (I hope) might offer welcome distraction to you as well, along with instruction and delight.
Before there was any thought that MLB’s Opening Day for the season would have to be postponed (if the season doesn’t end up being lost altogether), I had decided to reread yet again G. H. Fleming’s The Unforgettable Season: 1908—The Most Exciting and Calamitous Pennant Race of All Time. I learned about Fleming’s book (first published in 1981) from my late friend and fellow baseball fan Bill Tunilla, whose splendid bookstore in Pasadena, The House of Fiction, I have mentioned here before. The book consists for the most part of extracts from newspaper stories covering the 1908 season, day by day (and indeed with the earliest entries going back to November 1907). Resist the temptation to gobble it up, and treat each daily entry as a substitute for the cancelled games of 2020.
Near the end of Talking About Detective Fiction (2009), P. D. James muses about the continuing popularity of the genre. She observes that if the “solving” of the mystery were the primary source of that powerful appeal, “no one would wish to reread the old favourites.” But people do love such rereading, of course; as James says, “many of us find that, reading in bed, the comfort and reassurance of a beloved mystery is the pleasantest prelude to falling asleep.” At any given time, I am likely to be reading through the books of at least one crime novelist, preferably in the order in which they appeared. Several months ago I started on the novels of Patricia Moyes (1923–2000), featuring Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his wife, Emmy. There are nineteen of these in all, the first published in 1959, the last in 1993; I’d read about half of them once before, the others not. Now I have just one to go.
Moyes had a very interesting mind, and you might try the first of the series, Dead Men Don’t Ski, to see if she’s your cup of tea. (Bonus: Almost all of the novels have been reissued in trade paperback by Felony & Mayhem, and I think the remaining ones will be out by the end of this year.)
From the back cover of John Brunner’s novel Polymath, published in 1974:
When a ship filled with refugees from a cosmic catastrophe crash-landed on an unmapped world, their outlook was precarious. Their ship was lost, salvage had been minor, and everything came to depend on one bright man [yes, I hear groaning from many women reading this description] accidentally among them. He was a trainee planet-builder, a polymath. . . . But the problem was that he was a mere student—and that he had been studying the wrong planet.
Readers of Books & Culture, by the way, might remember an excellent piece on Brunner by the polymathic Philip Jenkins, entitled “That Long Burning.”
Finally, for the fourth or fifth time, I am rereading one of my favorite memoirs, One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Published by Harvard University Press in 1984, this little book (based on a series of three lectures given in the previous year) became a bestseller and turned up beneath many Christmas trees. One repeated shock of growing older is the way in which writers and books, excellent and very well known in their time, simply drop out of sight. This seems to have happened with Welty. I’d be delighted if this column sent even a single reader to One Writer’s Beginnings and then to the rest of Welty’s work. Here’s one bit from a passage in which she recalls watching movies at the theater with her brother Edward: “The silent movies were a source also of words that you might never have learned anywhere else. You read them in the captions. ‘Jeopardy,’ for example, I got to know from Drums of Jeopardy with Alice Brady, who was wearing a leopard skin, a connection I shall never forget.”
Yes, a useful word. Our condition just now reminds us of a truth we often forget or only half-remember, that we are always “in jeopardy.” And yet, no matter what the circumstances, our rescuer is always at hand.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.