In November of 1924 a drunken newspaper man gave me a book. I know, not because I have an excellent memory, but because the date is inscribed on the fly – leaf. He gave me a book, not in order that I might have another collection of printed pages in binding, but in order that I might read it. That book meant a great deal to that particular drunken newspaperman. It contained for him the fine philosophy of pessimism and skepticism and pre-determination. When he tried to tell me why this book meant so much to himâ€”as he sometimes did between drinksâ€”he became more or less incoherent, and simply pledged me to read the book. I gave my pledge.
Years passed. “Have you read it?” he asked. We knew, both of us, to what “it” referred, and we had to be no more specific than that. My usual answer was, “No, but I shall.” Pressed for an explanation, as I sometimes was, I would refer to the heaps of current works into which I had to dip and write about for a living. Of course there were other reasons and one of them was the natural disinclination to perform a duty, a task pledged. Perhaps, had I taken my word more lightly I would have read through the book on some easygoing afternoon, or on a train ride, or on an insomniac night, but I took that pledge with such dead earnestness that I postponed the task.
THE CONSTANT ITEM
With the passage of the years came the depression and things happened to our jobs and we drifted apart, and saw each other rarely. Then I read that he had died, but the obligation weighed no less heavily upon my conscience. My collection of books was subjected to weeding after weeding, but the red-bound, gold-lettered gift of my friend remained untouched. My collection mained untouched. My collection of books has so steady a turnover that I have refrained for that reason from acquiring a bookplate. We moved from one part of the Bronx to another. My friend’s book moved with us. We moved from the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. The book moved with us. Again we moved, a little to the northeast, and again packed and unpacked that volume. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, it was that I had bound myself to read it and it was also, to be frank about it, that I might find that it wasn’t worth the emphasis which my friend had placed on it.
Saturday evening, July 15, 1934, I finished the book I had promised to read in November, 1924. During that ten-year period I have read an average of fifty books a year, not to mention that other fifty into which I have dipped, and which I do not therefore consider as having “read.” Sometimes I can go four days without looking into a book, and then I go into a rash of reading, and am not content merely with reading a book at a time, but must read three, and sometimes, four at a time. I’m temperamental that way.
The satisfaction of that November, 1924, pledge comes appropriately at this time. Last Tuesday, if you read last Tuesday’s issue of The Bulletin, I wrote about Mark Twain’s piece, “Concerning the Jews.” The work which I read Saturday evening is Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger,” which meant so much to my dead newspaper friend and which I think might have meant a little less to him had he read a more subtle exponent of the same ideas, to wit Anatole France.
THE SURPRISING THING
The most surprising thing about “The Mysterious Stranger” is that Mark Twain wrote it, for it shows him in the opposite of his normal character, that of a comic, of a story-teller, of the exponent of the American frontier type of humor. “The Mysterious Stranger” was written by a man who, when he wrote it, was persuaded that things were not kosher, that people were hateful and revengeful, units in an ugly mass that would burn and persecute in order not to be mistaken for one of the minority and be persecuted in turn. The setting is Austria of the 16th century and the mysterious stranger is one who, not having to obey the laws of time and matter that binds us, is enabled to give a wide and universal perspective to a group of boys whose minds have not yet been poisoned by cowardice and superstitition. When we have put the book down we are persuaded that when Twain wrote it, he was thinking of life as a choice between evils and that a man was happiest who could lose himself in such insane notions as those in which one of the minor characters of the book passes his last year.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter now any more, but I can only hope that in his last year the man who gave me his copy of “The Mysterious Stranger” found some comfort out of memories other than his memory of this book.
ON ASKING FOR MONEY
This has absolutely nothing to do with what has gone before, but I believe that if you care the least bit about music, you ought to dig into your jeans and send a contribution to the Stadium Concerts, Inc., in order to make possible the continuance of the open air concerts during the rest of the Summer at the Lewisohn Stadium. I have already put my money where my mouth is, according to the good old American expression which Mark Twain, I’m sure, would understand.
Perhaps I may presume on the liberty thus purchased to say that I believe there’s a science, or maybe an art, in asking for money. During the intermission at the Monday evening concert, at which Jose Iturbi was making his farewell appearance for the season, a Miss Nilssen said something to the effect that persons, such as those present, who enjoyed music should pay for their pleasure, giving many of those in the audience the uncomfortable feeling that they had been accused of not paying anything for such pleasures as Mr. Iturbi’s playing and conducting. Even a deaf person could have sensed the buzz of disapproval that arose from that audience when Miss Nilsson had finished her piece.
Nevertheless, at the end of the concert, dollar bills were thrown into the yawning buckets which attendants offered to the droves of music lovers swarming toward the exits, into one of which buckets I also threw my humble offering, which the hope that the required sum of $7,500 would be raised in full and Miss Nilssen excused in the future from making money-raising speeches.