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Dear Reader,

Do you remember me? We were in love. Or rather I was in love with you. I remember everything: the way the sheets smelled, your sour breath in the morning, your tangled hair. You went into the bathroom. “I look horrible,” you said. I didn’t think so. I’ve always had a weakness for runny eyeliner. I made you scrambled eggs and coffee. But that was before. This is now. Now I hate you.

You’ve betrayed me. You aren’t a reader anymore.You’re a customer. The customer is always right. I hope you like it. I don’t.

I spent half a lifetime mooning around about how I’d write a novel, and you’d get it. Publication is like archery. That’s what I imagined. You let go of the string. Your hear the arrow whizzing through the air. Thunk!

That’s what I thought before I published anything. Since then I’ve shot an arrow into the air. Several arrows, actually. They didn’t lodge in the breast of a friend. Or anybody else for that matter. Maybe they’re still up there, defying gravity.

I was so afraid of writing. Shouldn’t have been. People don’t read books very much. Although they sure do talk about them.The morning Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gave my first novel a great review, I must have gotten fifteen congratulatory phone calls. Fully half of my well-wishers had no intention of reading the book. They’d read the review. They were calling up to congratulate me on the review. But then I hadn’t written the review.Shouldn’t they have been calling Christopher Lehmann-Haupt instead? O.K. O.K. I know what you’re thinking. “He’s not much of a stylist. He wrote a couple of coming-of-age novels. I already came of age. Besides which, if I’m going to read something by Cheever, I’d rather it be by John Cheever.”

But listen, Dear Reader. This isn’t the issue. I didn’t expect a zillion lovers. I expected one or two. And afterwards, I expected them not to be so embarrassed.

“I’ve read your book,” they say. Which means thatt hey’ve spent roughly five hours on a project which may have taken me as many years. I’m supposed to smile bravely and thank them back, knowing that it’s not enough. It’s as if I did something to them, instead of having done it for them. It’s as if I spent the night, and afterwards, while they were making breakfast,I snuck back into the bedroom and stole their grandmother’s Georg Jensenbroach.

I made a boo-boo. I wrote a book that will never be on Oprah.

Sex hasn’t always been like this. I’m not a virgin.When I worked at The Reader’s Digest, and before that, when I worked at The Rockland Journal-News, I’d write anonymously for the bulletin board. Sometimes I’d be in the hallway. A man would stop, read my work, and chuckle.

Was I a regular E.B. White? Probably not. And yet somebody had invested the one minute and seven seconds required to read what I’d written. And afterwards, he didn’t think he’d been gypped.

I wasn’t the only writer who composed for the bulletin board. When I was at The Rockland Journal-News, we had a star writer who used often to get his content-free articles on the front page. He wasn’t a bad guy, just another victim of success. His name was John Costa. He wrote an article about rabies: “Although there has not been a case of rabies reported in the tri-state area in forty years, Rockland County Health Officials continue to fear an outbreak of the disease that....”

So somebody else -- I believe it was Bill Tucker (he went on to ghost Newt Gingrich’s CONTRACT WITH AMERICA)-- wrote a parody. The by-line was John Costerica: “Although there has not been a single case of bubonic plague in the tri-state area in forty years, Rockland County Health Officials continue to fear an outbreak of the disease that swept through Europe during the Middle Ages, carrying off....”

It was a funny story. Bill had given us something precious, something for which we were utterly thankful, a shot of unalloyed joy. Which is what I’d expected writing to be about.

There are still bulletin boards, of course. Perhaps Web magazines like this one can replicate that sort of candor and immediacy. But I remember when books were intimate as well.

When I was eleven, and it was raining, and there was a family expedition, I decided to stay put and to read THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO instead. I read until I fell asleep. I woke up and read again. I was eleven, remember, and had long suspected that there were women out there, and that some of them were wicked, or at least weak. I had had no idea. Suddenly I wanted to grow up.However many cars they sell, Mercedes will always be a woman to me.

Other people’s writing has actually saved my life.When I was in college, I broke up with a girlfriend once, just after our courtship had reached the point where neither of us had any friends.Perfect isolation. That’s what we used to mean when we said true love.

She went to one school, I went to another, so I was all alone. With a roommate. This was a roommate I didn’t much like. He had a girl friend I liked a lot. I had to get out of the room every afternoon so that he could screw her. I went to the library and read from the collected poems of William Butler Yeats.

I suppose you think I got the better deal. I doubt it. Maybe Lori Baker chewed with her mouth opened. Maybe Lori Baker was a castrating bitch, but I didn’t know that. She looked pretty good to me. And I can say with absolute certainty that if my roommate had ever come to me and said, “Look, Ben, I want to read Yeats this afternoon, and Lori wants to screw you,” I would have been supremely happy.

Never happened. Although there were a couple of days when I was too sick to go to the library, and so my roommate and Lori went ahead and pretended I was in the library. Dormitory doubles are quite small. I was careful not to look, but I couldn’t help but hear my roommate and his girlfriend. I knew what it sounded like to turn the pages of William Butler Yeats. What they were doing sounded like a lot more fun.

But then Lori Baker wasn’t available to me, and William Butler Yeats was. Which is one of the great things about books, they’re easy. Books are sluts. Books are whores. Anybody can get intimate with a book.

I used to sit alone in the stacks at Antioch and read those poems, and reread them. I was just some kid, some lost and lonely kid at one of the two billion colleges in the state of Ohio, the Buckeye State, and yet I had William Butler Yeats all to myself. I had that man’s heart in my hands. I got much closer to him than I got to anybody else I knew. I read his biography, his autobiography, even his turgid work of philosophy. Mostly I read the poems. And I won’t say I understood those poems, but I did know one thing, and that was that I was no longer alone.

Ever read “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing”? Listen to that title. There was once a man, a great man, who didn’t insist on success in those he loved. Here’s how that poem ends:

Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

In the preface to SURPRISED BY JOY,C.S. Lewis tells us, “I have been emboldened to write it because I notice that a man seldom mentions what he had supposed to be his most idiosyncratic sensations without receiving from at least one (often more) of those present the reply, ‘What! Have you felt that too? I always thought I was the only one.’ ”

Like Yeats, Lewis meant to break my isolation. Like Yeats, he succeeded.

So that’s what I’d hoped to be: a lineal descendant of Alexandre Dumas, John Costerica and William Butler Yeats.

Which hasn’t happened.

Books have become products. Which makes readers customers. Which often makes readers fools. Meet a publisher at a cocktail party and he or she (often it’s a she) will say they published this or that horrid book. I smile and nod. Judge not.

And then my new friend, the publisher, will smile slyly and say the same horrid book -- it’s always the publisher who described the book as horrid in the first place-- sold X-hundred thousand copies. As if the volume of sales made the bad book good.

Now this is the sort of reasoning I can’t wrap my mind around. If you’ve published a bad book, that’s unfortunate. And if you sold a hundred thousand copies of this bad book, well then, that’s got to be worse.

Think of books as products and it follows that readers are customers. Which may help explain why readers have gotten so tetchy, so unthankful, so suspicious. You don’t need to work to be a customer. You need to work to be a reader. It’s almost as hard to read well as it is to write well. And it’s almost as rare. Reading, like love, is a long row to hoe.

Customers have been told that they are always right. And they believe it. Which makes them somewhat more than human, or else a good deal less. Customers are like sheep, all they need to do is stand still while somebody else works the electric clipper.

More and more the books out there don’t really require a reader. Often they’re written by doctors, politicians, or men and women who have retired from a long and shameful career in advertising. Often these books have pictures and charts. They tell you how great you are. They make no demands on your character or intellect. Unless you consider credulity a demand.

Did you ever notice, though, how when you read those diet books, you don’t get thin? And when you read those romances, you don’t get along with your spouse? And when you read that easy philosophy, the world itself is not made comprehensible, but instead becomes even more strange and threatening than it did before you let yourself in on all that good news?

It’s escapism, and people are always telling me, “I read to escape.”

OK. But there is real love out there. There are people who have been over the top. And they’ll tell you about it. They’ll share knowledge that was dearly won. If it’s winter, they’ll tell you it’s winter. They may even insist on a coat and mittens. They’ll be bossy,argumentative, and real. Like real lovers in a real life, with runny eye make-up, sour breath and appetites. Avoid these books and you’re going to miss a lot.

You’ll be reading what’s hot. You’ll be able to buy the T-shirt, see the movie, join the debate. But when the days get short and the wind blows chill, you’re going to be just as stupid as you were before you read all those splendid escapist best sellers. And you’re going to turn to the other fat, naked sheep in the corral and trade diet tips: “It’s simple, you just believe in yourself and eat protein. It’s simple, you just believe in yourself and eat fat. Gosh it’s cold out here. Didn’t we have wool once?”


1997 Benjamin Cheever

ARCHIPELAGO Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997




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