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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006by Dave Eggers
Late at night, when all sober people are asleep, Im probably slouching in bed, all Tivod out, reading something like The Insanity of Normality, by Arno Gruen. Or a P. G. Wodehouse novel. Or another Isaac Bashevis Singer short story in the three-volume Library of America edition. Or maybe Im squinting at the latest Acme Novelty Library comic book by Chris Ware. Whatever it is, the next morning Im another bleary guy with dark circles under his eyes muttering about being late for work in the back of the line at Starbucks.
Im also the guy not dancing at the happening party on Saturday night. Instead, Ive scuttled over to the corner of the den with my head tilted, running my eyes down each shelf of books, looking for titles Ive never heard of. Back at home, my dining room table is so stacked with books and magazines and newspapers and scripts and storyboards and comics and mail-order catalogs that Im forced to tap out this little introduction on my kitchen table, which right now has on it — lemme count — four books, two daily papers, and the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review. My bathroom has a couple dozen books next to the toilet, and my bedroom is piled so high with books that I fear its erotic only to me.
Sometimes I think I have a slight problem. Then I remember most of my friends are also readingly obsessed. Its a struggle for our kind to send flowers on Valentines Day instead of a book. We think all librarians are hot. When we read one of those newspaper articles about some mad old coot found dead in his apartment, crushed by thousands of books, we think to ourselves, How romantic. We not only slow down at every used-book store, we slam on the brakes and make illegal U-turns. We haunt those musty old stores so often that sometimes we run into actual copies of books we once owned, and greet them like long-lost pets.
A few years back, in a sleazy used-book store in Hollywood, I found one of my favorite books, G. Legmans demented Rationale of the Dirty Joke, and discovered that the very copy I had grabbed was one I had given as a gift a few years before. I bought the book, crossed out Merry Xmas 1997” in my dedication, wrote in the current year, and gave it to the same ex- girlfriend that Valentines Day.
My obsessive love of reading began before I could read at all. As a wee tyke I remember being entranced by my older brother Marks 1950s-era Little Lulu, Donald Duck, and Mad comic books.
You know how much you like looking at those pictures?” Mark asked me. Well, when you can read the words in the balloons, its a zillion times funnier.” In the first grade, my eager smile faded when I was handed my preliminary reading book. That first primer had no words in it, just pictures, and kindly Mrs. Hoover sat with us and cruelly went through the whole thing, illustration by illustration, acquainting us with the utterly lame Dick and Jane and baby Sally and dog Spot and kitten Puff. Finally we got our hands on the first real book, and to this day I still get a thrill out of the word Look!” But the real sensation that year was the very first word I learned that actually had some meat to it, a word I had to figure out and puzzle over before unlocking its linguistic secret. The word stumped me at first, because when Mrs. Hoover said to sound it out, I couldnt figure out exactly what that letter combo was supposed to be.
Tuh,” I said.
Try again, Matty.” Tuh-huh.” Try again.” Tuh-hee. Tuh-hee.” Youre getting there. Sound it out.” Thuh-huh. Thuh. Thuh?” Thats right! You got it!” Thuh? Thuh? Thuh!” And thats how I learned to read the word the.” My budding bibliomania was helped along by a family obsessed by books and words. My grandmother called my dad Homer, after the Greek poet, and likewise my uncle Victor Hugo Groening was named after some French dude. My mom emphasized precision in English, and to this day I have it drilled into my brain that its not groom,” its bridegroom,” and that cheerleaders shake their pompons,” not their pom-poms” (which are 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns).
A few years later, through a tragic preadolescent miscalculation, I joined the Boy Scouts, and before I knew what hit me I was on a twelve-day, sixty-five- mile summer trek with sweaty burros in New Mexico. Five days out, I was so crazy with book deprivation that I pounced on a piece of wrinkled, yellowing newspaper in the brush after a nine-mile hike and read every single classified ad on that page.
By that time I was reading stories of bad boys, such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the fictional diaries of Henry A. Shute, including The Real Diary of a Real Boy. Thenn, of course, I discovered the great, funny, sad, messed-up Catcher in the Rye, which, next to Catch- 22, was just about my favorite book in the world. IIIIIve often thought that if I ever write a novel, Ill sneak the word catch” into the title, just so Ill be in good company.
In high school I was a lonely, self-conscious smartass just like everyone else, but I was determined to change my luck. So I used to casually carry around a copy of Germaine Greers The Female Eunuch, praying that a cute feminist girl would see how cool I was, overlook my teenage mustache, and ask me out on a date.
Typical response: Whats that?” (Hopes up.) The Female Eunuch.” Ewwwwww.” (Crushed.) In my junior year I had an English teacher who hated me more than usual for a teacher. I admit that technically I was a bit of a goofball, but I did do the required reading, and I was one of the few kids in this class of dunderheads who had bothered to pay attention to the crucial branch-shaking scene in A Separate Peace. But no matter how much I raised my hand and blurted out the answers before being called on and generally ran circles around the rest of the dorks, Mrs. T would cut me no slack, and she kept finding good reasons to give me lousy grades.
So were reading Death of a Salesman, and I point out that Willie Loman is a pun (low man, get it?), and Mrs. T tells me to quit being a smart aleck. I realize my grades are going downhill fast, so I get the bright idea to write to Arthur Miller himself and maybe, just maybe, get a reply from the great man and let Mrs. T deal with them apples.
So I write a plaintive letter in cursive, on paper ripped from my notebook, telling Arthur Miller of the teacher who hated my guts and how life was unfair, and was Willie Loman based on anyone you met in real life and please write back soon because I need to get a good grade in this horrible class. Three weeks later I get a typed postcard back from Arthur Miller! He writes that Willie Loman was based not on any one individual but on the sum total of everything he had experienced in life up to that moment, and concludes: Im sorry to hear about your horrible class.
Best wishes, Arthur Miller.” Dilemma!
Im sorry to hear about your horrible class.
How was I going to finesse this?
So in class that very day, were assigned an essay on Death of a Salesman and I hatch my brilliant scheme. I make up a fake letter to Arthur Miller! In which I talk about what a wonderful teacher Mrs. T is. The only problem, I write in my bogus letter, is that when we perform scenes from the play, it suffers because we are all such horrible actors.
As I smirk to myself at my audacity, the bell rings that ends the class, and Mrs. T cries Pencils down!” while Im finishing the last sentence of the essay.
One more sentence!” I say, scribbling away.
I said pencils down now!” Mrs. T replies. If you dont stop writing immediately, Ill give you an F.” In retrospect, I really should have put my pencil down.
Instead, I keep writing, and say, perhaps too cockily, I think youll change your mind when you read my essay.” A few seconds later I hand her my paper, and without looking up from her desk, she mutters, F.” The next day she drops my paper into my hands and indeed she is correct: I have received an F.
I thereupon went berserk, ran to the counselors office, tried to transfer out of that crazy old bats class, got turned down, threatened to drop out of school, and was finally almost cajoled into writing a final paper so I wouldnt flunk, because flunking meant I would be forced to repeat the same class the following year with Mrs. T.
That night I began making plans to run away and live in a seedy apartment in a big city near a major university, and I started compiling a list of one thousand books I would read in lieu of going to college. The list was cobbled together from every recommended-reading list I could find, but in the end I only read the novels about disobedient kids: Thomas Bailey Aldrichs Story of a Bad Boy, Booth Tarkingtons Penrod and Penrod and Sam, and Don Robertsons The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread.
I ended up buckling under to Mrs. T and over the weekend cranked out a thirty-eight-page paper on the poetry of James Dickey, the author of Deliverance. Mrs. T gave me a D−, and as I walked out of her classroom for the last time, she called out that Deliverance was a novel of perversion.” I immediately went to the downtown library and checked out Deliverance.
Thats when I started burrowing into books about education, such as How Children Learn and How Children Fail and Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and got inspired to go to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, then a brand-new progressive college with no grades. No grades! Every creative weirdo in the Pacific Northwest was jammed into the dorms, and I was in heaven.
I moved to L.A. after graduation and worked a series of lousy, degrading jobs that provided fuel for my subtly titled comic strip Life in Hell, which I have been drawing weekly for the past twenty-six years. I made photocopies at a copy shop and ended up copying stuff for everyone from Frank Zappa to Twiggy, along with manuscripts by the great rock critic Richard Meltzer and Hubert Selby, Jr., author of the chilling, classic novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. Inspired by Tom Wolfe, beatnik critic Seymour Krim, and every funny writer I could lay my hands on from James Thurber to Roy Blount, Jr., I started cranking out my own little articles and cartoons for local publications, and then I got a book deal and then I got a TV show and then I got very busy.
Even though theres not time enough in the day to fulfill all my pressing obligations, I am still finding new ways to obsess over books and reading. I decided in 1999 to plow through the great books of the twentieth century, chronologically, and here in mid-2006 I have finished H. G. Wellss Love and Mr. Lewisham; Jack Londons first collection of short stories, The Son of the Wolf; Theodore Dreisers Sister Carrie; L. Frank Baums Wizard of Oz; and Sigmund Freuds Interpretation of Dreams, all published in the year 1900. At this rate I should be finished with the great works of the previous century sometime in the next three hundred years.
Then theres The New Yorker, now available in complete form on several annoying CDs. These too Im plowing through chronologically, and after a year I am almost done with 1925, the first year of The New Yorkers existence. Ive been reading jazzy quips about Charlie Chaplin, Prohibition, and the Scopes Monkey Trial. The most intriguing thing from 1925 so far is an ad for a Ring Lardner book, What of It?
And of course we mustnt forget the book obsessives treasure trove of books about books: the reading guides, the long lists, the shortlists, the book blogs, and the reading journals. I have collected a few dozen book guides, ranging from the squaresville How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, to the breezy Read Em andWeep: My Favorite Novels, by Barry Gifford. My favorite is Martin Seymour-Smiths Guide to Modern World Literature. He seems to have read every novel in every language, and has a pretty cranky opinion about almost all of them.
I try to surprise myself by reading outside the genres I usually gravitate to. Fed up with the repugnant current political scene, I decided to bury my sorrow through biographies of all the American presidents. Currently Im reading 1776, Washingtons Crossing, and His Excellency, George Washington, so I have a ways to go. And at a beach house a couple summers ago I found a tattered copy of The Best Sports Writing of 1947, which contained Lethal Lightning,” a great article about Joe Louis by Jimmy Cannon, and now Im thinking I gotta read more sports books. And recently I discovered the weird, outsidery pulp fiction of Harry Stephen Keeler, the author of such intriguing titles as The Man with the Magic Eardrums, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, The Case of the Transposed Legs, and Y. Cheung, Business Detective.
And I still want to read all of Dickens, Wodehouse, Twain, Pynchon, Patrick OBrian, and John le Carré — one of these days.
Youve gotten this far, so youre probably as messed up as I am about reading. Let me conclude with a list that will keep you up late at night when youre supposed to be sleeping or making love: Wolf Whistle, by Lewis Nordan; You Play the Red and the Black Comes Up, by Eric Knight; Dog of the South, by Charles Portis; The Fan Man, by William Kotzwinkle; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon; and short stories by Steve Almond, Bernard Malamud, Flannery OConnor, Matthew Klam, and Shalom Auslander. And dont forget the pieces in this very anthology. Theyre not too shabby either.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Matt Groening. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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