Of Course I Read That

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Literary Confessions (A Partial List)

By Steve Watkins

Literary Confession #1: A lot of the books I wrote so knowledgeably about on my preliminary exams for my Ph.D. I only knew from Masterplots, those massive tomes they had in the reference section of Strozier Library at Florida State University. I promised myself I would go back and read them for real when I had time, but hardly ever did, even the short ones. It’s OK if they want to revoke my degree. I’m done with it anyway. 

Literary Confession #2: I cried and cried at the end of Erich Segal’s Love Story. And I still remember the opening line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?” Also, I just did an internet search to make sure I remembered that sentence correctly, and I was surprisingly, disturbingly close.

Literary Confession #3: When I first sat down to try my hand at novel-writing, I horribly over-wrote everything, prose so purple it suffered an aneurysm and died on the page. Not the least of my literary sins was calling a crocodile a “volatile leviathan.” Thirty years later I’m still getting grief about it from Certain Individuals.

Literary Confession #4: It’s been years, decades, since I read a Joyce Carol Oates novel all the way through, and at this point I doubt I ever will again. All that victimhood and violence! Can’t anybody catch a break with her every once in a while? Can’t any of her monsters finally get what’s coming to them?

Literary Confession #5: I was clueless when I read Tristram Shandy, and still don’t know what Laurence Sterne meant with the hobbyhorse thing, though I was told it had something to do with masturbation. Or maybe not. Anyway, metafiction, which he basically invented, gives me a headache (except for The Things They Carried, but including Going After Cacciato). Plus, he plagiarized the shit out of Tristram Shandy, but hardly anybody noticed at the time.

Literary Confession #6: Page 27 of The Godfather back when I was in high school. Finally convinced my non-reading brother, Wayne, that reading could be worthwhile. At least that passage. I, of course, had no trouble going there multiple times for deep–you might even say passionate–study, devoted young literary scholar that I was.

Literary Confession #7: I thought Madame Bovary was a dark comedy. That botched club foot operation? That crazy wild sex-carriage ride through the streets of Paris? When I suggested this in a graduate school seminar everybody seemed to think I was an idiot, though I recently re-watched an old episode from the fifth season of The Sopranos, “Sentimental Education,” in which David Straitharn, playing the headmaster at AJ’s school, recommends Madame Bovary to Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano: “It’s almost a perfect novel. Flaubert writes about bourgeois loneliness, emptiness. Emma Bovary destroys herself for some fantasy in her head. It’s great. It’s truly great. Somehow horrifically funny, though tragic. I think you might enjoy it.”

Literary Confession #8: When I was a kid, Chris and Bonnie Woodyard’s dad told us the story of Moby Dick and we were so entranced and also frightened that we started playing the game of Moby Dick, which involved us climbing a giant oak tree and huddling together on a massive branch, pretending that if so much as a pinkie finger dangled over the edge, Moby would breach from the grassy depths of the Woodyards’ yard and get us. It was many years later–quite a while after I’d gotten my Ph.D. in American literature–that I read Moby Dick, as opposed to pretending I’d read it. I would crack open that tome when I crawled into bed each night and struggle to stay awake through yet another chapter. I did finally manage to finish and so escape my secret shame. At the same time, my daughter Maggie, who was then six, got hold of an abridged version of Moby Dick for kids and we read it together and enjoyed it immensely–so much so that whenever we went swimming, Maggie and her sister Eva insisted that we play their version of the Moby Dick game. I was of course Moby, sounding and breaching, while the girls swam madly out of the way–either that or be crushed by the whale. That winter Maggie insisted we buy her a white winter jacket so she could pretend she was Moby Dick until it was summer again and we could get back in the pool.

Literary Confession #9: Though I gave it a mighty try, I didn’t care for Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Ferns Grow. In fact, I was appalled by it. Oh, sure, they had me in the opening with Billy working to raise enough money to buy Old Dan and Little Ann. And how brave were those little pups–and Billy–when they were in the cave and the mountain lion showed up! But then the book took a dark and troubling turn. The brainless celebration of unbridled raccoonicide was bad enough, but when they chopped down the most magnificent tree in the forest–just to kill yet another poor raccoon–I threw the book across the room. Then I went over and kicked it. Then I picked it up and forced myself to finish. Shouldn’t have bothered. Next time I want to read a good dog book it’ll be Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller.

Literary Confession #10: It took me the longest time to get it that the man and woman in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” were talking about her having an abortion. And that was only because some teacher insisted. So I did my part and once I became a teacher also insisted to students that the couple was talking about an abortion. I very politely suggested that they–the students, not the couple–would have to be idiots not to see that, when the truth was that the couple could just as well have been talking about doing psilocybin to let a little light in. Or opening a window (literally, not metaphorically). And why did Hemingway title it “Hills Like White Elephants”? I had to read hundreds of stupid student papers analyzing that one, and it was my own fault because I assigned them! There’s a Herman Melville theory that he was inspired to write Moby Dick because he was living in the Berkshires at the time and the rolling, white, snow-covered mountains reminded him of a great white whale. God help me, but I may have repeated that nonsense, too.

Literary Confession #11. When I was a kid I saved up some money to order a copy of Weird Tales or a similar publication I saw advertised in the back of a comic book and eagerly tore into it when it came in the mail. The first thing I read–the only thing I read–was a story about a guy who’s driving down an icy mountain road and has an accident and plunges off the side and gets knocked unconscious. A creepy hermit finds the wreck, drags the guy out, takes him to his creepy lair with creepy underground lab. When the guy comes to, it takes him a while to figure out what’s going on, and what’s going on is that the creepy hermit has cut the guy’s head off but is somehow keeping him–or keeping his head, anyway–alive with a complicated system of tubes and wires. The guy totally freaks out when he realizes what’s happened to him, as of course anybody would, including me, the reader, who got so freaked out by the story that I shoved the Weird Tales behind the couch and didn’t tell anybody about what I’d read, and never mentioned the book’s existence to my parents, and was too afraid to go behind the couch to retrieve it and just throw it away, so I left it there and for all I know it’s still there. I never even sat on that couch again, that’s how scared I was. I’ve never told anybody about this before.

Literary Confession #12: When we were in junior high, Wayne used to go over to a bookstore near our downtown church during the half hour between Sunday School and the church service. I went with him sometimes to check out the comic books. He pretended that was what he was interested in, too, but while I was engrossed in Batman he wandered over to the dirty books section. It took me a while, but I finally realized what he was up to. I must have been afraid of what would happen to his sinful soul, because I ratted him out to Mom and Dad. He got in so much trouble that for all I know he might still be on restrictions. 

Literary confession #13: I was thrilled when one of my early books, which didn’t sell particularly well, cracked the top ten thousand in sales on Amazon. Who knows how or why, as secretive and proprietary and weird as Amazon is with its crazy logarithms, but it might have been me ordering half a dozen copies of my own book that put me over the edge.

Literary confession #14: I once wrote a short story from a cat’s point of view. Mercifully, nobody ever read it unless they culled through our curbside trash and fished out the shredded manuscript and pieced it back together. I can’t make the claim/justification that it was a story for children–not that I would have inflicted it on them, either. And I don’t even like cats. But maybe I was too hard on myself. The Washington Post ran a positive review a few years ago of a book in which the narrator was a cat.

Literary Confession #15: In my first published work, “The Glistening Sword”–which I wrote and illustrated when I was ten, and which my dad color-photocopied and had laminated and gave out copies to all our relatives for Christmas presents, prompting them to wonder if we were really that poor, or just cheap–I misspelled “glistening” throughout, the “t” so silent that it disappeared altogether. I also managed to work a typo into the setting, so Death Drop-Off became Death Drop-Of. 

Literary confession #16: I loved the library when I was a kid. Still do. Back then, in our small Florida mining town, I was often the only one there besides the librarian, who I remember as being very old and very gray, though it could have just been the dust and bad lighting. It was a round building with concrete stairs on the outside leading up to a flat roof with a crenellated parapet. My own, private castle. And it was green—likely from mold, but still. I spent hours sitting in the stacks, reading all the Hardy Boys, Chip Hiltons, and Andre Nortons they had. (I thought Andre Norton was the name of a series, too.) Mom let me check out as many as I wanted, as long as I could carry them home myself in the basket on my bicycle. One day I discovered a book called The Virginian and asked the librarian if I could check it out. It looked like a grown-up book, so I wasn’t sure how that worked, but it had the same title as a new TV series, a Western, that had just come out that year. She smiled and said yes, and then threw in the mind-blowing information that the TV show was based on the very book I was standing there holding. I tore through it as fast as I could, though it was slow-going in places with a lot of big words and complex sentences. I was confused, too, because in the TV series, The Virginian—who didn’t seem to have an actual name—was pals with the ranch hand Trampas, but in the novel, Trampas was the bad guy and he and The Virginian were mortal enemies. Not only that, but at one point in the book, when they’re playing poker, Trampas calls The Virginian, or almost calls him, something I wasn’t allowed to say at home. 

It was now the Virginian’s turn to bet, or leave the game, and he did not speak at once.

Therefore Trampas spoke. “Your bet, you son-of-a–.”

The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE.” And he looked at Trampas across the table.

Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room.

I couldn’t wait to talk about it with the librarian, who was the only other person alive I knew who had read The Virginian. I felt as if I’d entered a whole new world. Actual cussing in a book! (Even if it was mostly implied.) “I sure wish I could read another one just like it,” I told her, after we’d discussed the myriad differences between the novel and the TV show. 

“Well,” she said, “you know you could always see if we have more books by the same author.”

“The same author?” I said, or asked, or just sort of repeated. Because, as ridiculous as it may have been—as ridiculous as it was–I didn’t know what she was talking about. 

“Yes,” she said, pointing to the cover, where, under the title, were the words—nonsense words as far as I was concerned—“Owen Wister.”

“That’s the name of the author,” she explained. “The man who wrote the book.”

This may not sound possible, or even plausible, but the embarrassing truth was it had never occurred to me that someone might have written the books I’d spent all that time reading. I was eight years old, but I’d always thought that books just were. Now, suddenly, in that moment of revelation, of epiphany, everything changed. But, of course! Somebody wrote these stories. 

And they might have written other stories, too. Those weren’t just random extra words on book covers. Those were the names of the writers! And if other people got to do that, even people with strange names like “Wister”—write books, make up stories–then maybe I could do it, too! 


Steve Watkins, editor and co-founder of Pie & Chai, is the author of 12 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is stevewatkinsbooks.com.