by Michael Liss
What are you reading?
A friend asked me that question recently, and I almost found myself stumped.
Reading isn't skimming. It's not staring at a screen, spasmodically flipping back and forth between the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Barron's, electoral-vote.com, Foreign Policy, NRO and anything else to which Twitter would lead. It's certainly not dipping myself into the digital inkwell of the Comments section, finding something to be outraged about, and letting it fly. That's not even writing, much less reading for content.
So, what was I reading? Books. I need books, something to stimulate my brain instead of my adrenals. I could, as I have done countless times, head to Strand and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that might pique my interest. There's always something at Strand. Fiction, non-fiction, history, science, art, architecture and music, tomes on various topics. I am a serious tome fan, and Strand is the place where you can amuse yourself just by scanning the blurbs. “Professor Throckmanshire has produced the definitive work on mid-18th Century Cornish snuffboxes.” If that doesn't appeal….
Yet, I have enough books. I know, you can never have enough, but I live in a Manhattan apartment, and, short of tethering rucksacks of them to the outside of the windows (a practice frowned upon by both the City and the co-op board) there isn't a lot of space. The bedrooms are filled with them, the living room stuffed. They are piled up on surfaces and double-deep in built-ins. Of course, a few more wouldn't hurt, but a few more are always arriving—gifts from family and friends, odds and ends on which I couldn't resist spending the kids' tuition money. And the dirty secret was I hadn't read them all yet. I'd been too busy feeding my political obsessions. I didn't need to go to Strand—there was plenty to harvest here at home. Clearly, it wasn't the quantity of books; I was falling down on the reading of them.
There was my problem, and my solution. So, I made my way through the vast expanse of my palatial residence looking for ideas—different ones than those that had distracted me for the last year. I started in my daughter's room. Plenty of options, not all entirely interesting to a man of my years. Some were clearly a no. Books on classical music…possible, but perhaps a little esoteric. The contents of my son's room just didn't inspire. Our bedroom…eh, and there was the omnipresent risk of raising dust if I probed too deeply. The living room held the treasures, if I could just get through the piles and obstructions, the vintage speakers, and, occasionally, the plants.
There's a strange feeling when you do this, going from volume to volume, topic to topic. It's almost like reliving past relationships. This love-interest lasted about three months. This one, somewhat longer, but didn't she dump you because you never understood her, or was it that she didn't understand you? Here's a passion that never quite left, and these few…what exactly was I thinking when I made the time and the space?
Books are tactile as well—they have a heft to them, a certain solidity in the hand that promises inspiration, knowledge, or just entertainment. A book is a book, not just a collection of electrons. You don't click your way around a library; you have to be purposeful. I stretched and peered and craned, as if in an archeological dig, getting down on hands and knees, pulling out the double-stacked ones to expose those behind, looking for something to grab me. I was tempted by two recent gifts, the first on World War II's Operation Mincemeat, and a second, Founding Rivals. Almost there, but was I ready to dive back into non-fiction quite this early? Finally, I rounded a bend and removed some science fiction and a book on chess to unearth the treasures behind. I found myself at #221B Baker Street.
Old love, but definitely loved. Two volumes, the dust covers long gone, the bindings cracked and worn, pages yellowed, even uncharacteristic markings on some of the paragraphs in my uniquely indecipherable handwriting. I don't think I had touched them in 15 years or so, when I was reading them out loud (in my best Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce voices) to my son. These would do. A few adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his amanuensis, Dr. John H. Watson, late of Afghanistan.
I began in the beginning. “A Study in Scarlet.” It's amazing how quickly Conan Doyle works his magic on you. The thing you notice after just a very few pages is that he's not a terribly graceful writer. His language is straightforward, descriptive but not lyrical. In his later works, he settles into a more predictable rhythm, but there's a little herky-jerkiness about this one (exacerbated by the story-in-a-story structure), as if he's found something rare and volatile that needs to be handled with care, but isn't exactly sure what to do with it. He has, of course, just created arguably the single most durable character in English literature.
It's immediately addictive, and something more. What Conan Doyle manages is to stimulate in us an engaged mindfulness—to convert readers into something analogous to what musicologists term a mimetically participating listener. Tune in to a Mozart piano concerto, and, with the right performance, you may experience the effect. You are drawn in, past the point of passive observer, going both backwards and forwards almost simultaneously, hearing, learning, and anticipating. Little strands of memory from past exposure, phrases, cadence, all float out, like some long-ago heard measures, organizing themselves in your mind, leading you towards a deeper and more satisfying engagement. Eventually, you find yourself air conducting—knowing, without a score, some of what comes next. Through some alchemy, you have learned some additional vocabulary.
Holmes' very egocentricity is part of this—he is a performer, but not a hoarder, open to flattery, but generous. He challenges Watson with “you see, but you do not observe,” and, by implication, he opens the door for us to be secret sharers, and to have a much deeper involvement in the text. There's a great example of this in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” when Holmes hands Watson a hat and his magnifying glass.
I took the tattered object in my hands and turned it over rather ruefully. It was a very ordinary black hat of the usual round shape, hard and much the worse for wear. The lining had been of red silk, but was a good deal discolored. There was no maker's name; but, as Holmes had remarked, the initials ‘H. B.' were scrawled upon one side. It was pierced in the brim for a hat-securer, but the elastic was missing. For the rest, it was cracked, exceedingly dusty, and spotted in several places, although there seemed to have been some attempt to hide the discolored patches by smearing them with ink.
Watson sees pretty much everything, but he observes nothing. He is “rueful” to go through the experience. He is a lens, but not a filter. We, on the other hand, are eager. We know we can't be Sherlock—we don't have his acuity or his specialized knowledge, but we can draw some useful inferences. An expensive hat fallen into disrepair, but not disuse. The implication: an owner on a sharp downward slope personally, no longer caring much about himself or being cared for, but not without pride. Now, where does this lead?
Conan Doyle also finds another way to tether us to Holmes—a rather particularized sense of justice. Because of the manner in which Sherlock has been presented in many modern adaptations, there's a tendency to look at him as constantly combatting evil, sometimes existential evil. But the stories themselves are often more on human scale, and Holmes acts (and allows us to judge) fairly, and with context. He does it as it should be done, not with deference to wealth or class, and without moral relativism. He distinguishes between frailty and mendacity, and is far more forgiving of the former, even if the actor's conduct was technically illegal, than of the latter, even when no formal crime was committed.
I don't want to over-romanticize this.Conan Doyle was a product of his times, of the Empire and the Raj, and possessing a set of attitudes (and prejudices) that could be exaggerated and unappealing. In “A Study In Scarlet,” he turns a jaundiced eye towards Mormons; in “The Sign of Four,” he recounts part of the Sepoy Rebellion from an Englishman's perspective. But, in the main, he discards those considerations where justice is at stake, by referencing the character of the actors involved, not their standing in life. There are times when he literally opens the door and lets people go. When things are more grave, he weighs carefully motive and even redemption, sometimes serving as agent, sometimes letting fate take the final hand. For Jefferson Ford, in “A Study in Scarlet,” who revenged his sweetheart, it's a peaceful, natural end in his cell, with a smile upon his face. For John Turner, in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” to spare his daughter grief, it's a private signed confession that would exonerate an accused man. For the KKK members in “The Five Orange Pips,” who kill Holmes' client and then escape his reach, it's equinoctial gales that take their ship. And for Dr. Grimesby Roylott, in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” who sought to gain his step-daughters' inheritances by murdering them, it's death by snakebite. It all feels consistent and right.
Holmes is a challenge, to Watson and to us. Stamford, Watson's dresser in Afghanistan, who introduced the two men, told him (and the rest of us), “You don't know Sherlock Holmes yet…perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.”
Perhaps. But such was my new first day with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and my time as both receptive listener and mimetic performer. It was not hard to imagine him standing over me, urging me to hurry, to grab my coat, because the game was afoot and the life of a man might hang in the balance. The old music still worked. He hasn't worn out his welcome.
As he asked in “The Adventure of the Empty House”: “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.”
Not yet, Mr. Holmes. Not yet.