In Praise of Occasional Trash

Kindle tablets allow you to “sample” books from Amazon and peek at the first fifteen or so pages before committing the twelve or fifteen bucks it might cost to download the entire thing. It’s a system that invites intellectual pretense.

I might run across a book reviewed by the New York Times that sounds like it could be a good challenge for my aging brain, like mental vitamins, even though in truth, the write-up itself is so bombastic and convoluted I can barely figure out the subject matter. But it sounds like a serious read and I download a sample anyway.

Or I might catch Charlie Rose thoroughly engrossed in a discussion with the author of a book about, say, breakthroughs in cosmology. It sounds urgent, or at least important—what’s the origin of the universe anyway?—something I should know about so I can be as well informed and serious as Charlie himself.

Not until I’m finished with it. 

Even if I don’t buy the book, or even sample it, I always  wonder how guys like Rose or Bill Moyers can read so much. Do they have a team of brilliant, unpaid interns working backstage ten hours a day, frantically reading and highlighting the salient points, then transcribing them to five-by-seven index cards for these hyper-erudite television hosts to peruse before the authors show up? I’m convinced nobody can be as smart or read as much as Charlie Rose.

Then there are the classics I should have read in high school and college but for some reason didn’t, even though I attended fairly decent schools. Commentators cite them as if anyone with a middling education had read and digested them and is able to quote passages from memory thirty years later.

Most annoying is when recognize the titles and authors. “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is one I remember from college but never read. Something about Africa, I believe. Was I asleep? So a sample is waiting in my Kindle.

I’m not a complete dilettante. I can read classics I missed in my earlier years and be wowed by them. I’m embarrassed to admit that until a year ago I had never read anything by John Steinbeck. But once I got into “The Grapes of Wrath” I found his writing so amazing both Stew and I went on a Steinbeck binge that lasted a couple of months and also included “Travels with Charley” and “Of Mice and Men.” It’s never too late to revisit your college reading list.

Then there are those books that I plow through because someone said they were great and for which I paid good money. Take “Paris,” a new historical novel by Edward Rutherfurd that I just finished reading. It’s a monumental 800-page story of the city, from sometime around the thirteenth century right up to the student riots of 1968, told through the eyes and experiences of an intricate helix of characters and their descendants, who keep bumping into each other through the centuries.

It’s not a bad book, particularly if you are roughly familiar with Paris and its landmarks, like Notre Dame and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Rutherfurd is no Steinbeck but he is a good writer who must have spent years on research. Yet “Paris” does go on and on: Around the halfway mark I felt as if I was wading across a river of molasses with the other side nowhere in sight.

But I finished it, damn it, and for my reward I’m having a well deserved, trashy interlude with “Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys,” by Peter Evans. I found it in a bookshelf of freebies at the church Stew and I attend occasionally.

It’s a super-quick, intellectually unencumbering read: I started it two days ago and I’m a quarter of the way through it. How great? In a breathless quote on the back cover Liz Smith, former gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, New York Post and Newsday, opines that it “[A]dds an entire new dimension to the Kennedy years. What a book! What a read!”

You bet! There’s enough manure in there to gag a compost pile. Jack and Bobby Kennedy’s sexual appetites make Bill Clinton look like a rookie. Jackie and her sister Lee were no vestal virgins either. And the sex life of the short, gnomish Ari Onassis sounds like a sleazefest worthy of Caligula. Yow! I can’t imagine what Evans is going to dig up in the remaining two-hundred pages!

We’re not talking about presidential history or fine policy analysis but trashy anecdotes ladled with sex, sex and more sex! One of Onassis’s mistresses recalls how he used to lick her between the toes and move up from there, while other women revealed how… Nah, I ‘m too embarrassed to go there. If you want to find any additional details you’ll just have to check your church’s lending library.

But for the sake of research I must continue even if the book cost me nothing and I could just return it to the church. I can’t stop now.

And as soon as I finish, I promise to go back to “The Heart of Darkness” or maybe “The Unwinding,” a new book by George Packer about, I think, how America is going to hell. Another one of those. I’m sure Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose are thoroughly familiar with both of them.


10 thoughts on “In Praise of Occasional Trash

  1. I love the sample aspect of my Kindle. But I find that once I start on a book I will almost always finish it. That is why I am rather picky about what gets in the sample queue.I am reading Amity Shlaes's (great name, isn't it?) Coolidge bow — after finishing Anne Lamott's latest.


  2. Steve: You are so damn serious and disciplined. I know Amity Shlaes the columnist but I'm not familiar with any of her books. Coolidge? How about Jackie Collins for a change of pace? Off to try to get our own Ford


  3. I'm younger than both you guys, but I realize my time on the planet's limited. If a book doesn't grab me by the first 75 pages, I might skip ahead to the end to see if it could possibly get better, but I'm more likely to toss it aside. Wait. I did that in school, too, remembering that the best grades I garnered were the result of snow jobs where I didn't even bother reading Cliff's Notes. I have always wondered about that teacher in 11th grade who swooned over a paper I wrote about the Bridge of San Luis Rey, when the only part relevant to the book I'd read was the back cover copy. Yep, even back then I was undisciplined and dishonest. I love reading trash! As for catch-up reading, I'm immersed in Borges and Cortazar.


  4. Jen: Stew has the same cut-off as you, though I think he quits after only fifty pages. Isabel Allende in a TV interview said the same thing, i.e. life is too short to spend it on so-so books. al


  5. Anonymous

    Thanks for reminding me about all the sample reads I have on my iPad. I downloaded them right before one of my last trips, in case I had some spare time. I never read one yet. I must say it's better then buying the actual books and lugging them around and “thinking” of getting to them.The church book hmm… interesting… I wonder if there is a sample… LOL


  6. I'm with Jennifer – 75 pages better pique my interest. Many non-fiction books I have read lately seem to have a lot of bloat-speak (my words). The writer could have made his point in half the number of pages and often repeats issues three or four times – I hate having my time wasted that way.I can only assume it is all about page count. For me, I would prefer a short and to the point book and be willing to pay just as much as the 500 page epic.Just saying….


  7. Anonymous

    I'm in a pretty annoyed mood now, waiting for a carpenter who is now 2 hrs late, at one hour late I had to call him, and he said he'd be here in 1/2 an hr. Oh yay! I just vented to complete strangers.Why I'm commenting is even in this bad mood I laughed out loud at “you'll just have to check your church's lending library”……..thanks for that.I'm catching up reading blogs because due to anticipated work I have no place to sit except in front of my computer. As I was scrolling my blog bookmarks, I hoped you would have a new one. I knew if you did it would be interesting and hopefully funny. Lena James


  8. I first thought I'd say your idea of trash and mine are two different things – but when I read further to discover what you're finding the book to be about I thought no, you might even have one up on me with this one.And from your church no less! Gotta love that.Life's too short to spend time with anything that doesn't grab you. I'm easily bored – haven't watched TV in years, and a book has to grab me in the first chapter or I'm outta there.Your blog, however, is priceless. Love it, always.


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