A couple of days ago marked the anniversary of the publication of the 1st Harry Potter novel in 1997. And I began "serializing" a speech I made at Western Reserve Academy about my experiences reading HP. In that first installment I wrote about how I'm an obsessive reader of an author's complete works, and in today's excerpt I give the example of Anthony Trollope ... soon I'll get to HP more explicitly! Reminder; I delivered this speech at Western Reserve Academy on May 4, 2012.
And now a little story … just to illustrate the dimensions of this problem …
At the end of the 1995–1996 school year, an Aurora student gave me a gift certificate to a local bookshop. And on a lovely early summer’s eve, unaware I was about to make a purchase that would alter our next decade, Joyce and I drove to that bookshop.
On a display table, I noticed some paperbacks of the novels of Anthony Trollope (1815–1882), a writer I’d never read. I picked up The Warden. Around two hundred pages. (Not too long, I thought.) Tried the first sentence: The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of —, let us call it Barchester. (Not bad.)
So I bought all six Trollopes there, took them home, put them in a thick stack on the coffee table in front of the couch where I love to read (and sometimes sag into a nap). And there they sat for over a year, unopened, disappearing from my notice.
Then, unaccountably, early in July 1997—about the time Harry Potter was invading America—I picked up The Warden once again. Started reading. Loved it. Was surprised at how funny Trollope is. Was surprised to discover that Trollope’s characters—like Dickens’—are profoundly unique and human. Archetypal. The original Platonic forms of people whose shadowy copies now walk the earth.
I splashed through those six Barsetshire novels, then leapt into the inviting pool of his six Palliser novels. Oh God they were good, those first twelve Trollopes. And they were also easy to find—most of the big bookstores in the area had them. But then I had to locate the other thirty-five titles. And I soon developed a dead-on, infallible way to assess a bookstore’s quality. The Trollope Test. It’s simple: (1) find the Fiction section; (2) find the T’s; (3) count the number of different Trollope titles on the shelf. The larger the number, the better the store. No exceptions.
But did I have to buy all forty-seven novels? Own them? Haven’t I heard of a library? Well, yes, but I am as much a collector as reader; I wanted all forty-seven on my shelf, lined up like railcars. And here they are … [AT THIS POINT 47 MEMBERS OF THE WRA SENIOR CLASS STOOD AND SHOWED THE 47 BOOKS]
When I decided early in 2001 that I was going to read the remaining thirty or so in the order that Trollope wrote them, well, then things got interesting. His first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847) I found on Amazon.uk. But some I simply could not find new, so I haunted the used-book sites on the Web, one time paying—for a paperback of Marion Fay—$38.07.
Throughout the late 1990s, across the millennium, I always had a Trollope novel in progress. I kept the latest title by my bed, read a chapter or so a night; when I traveled anywhere, I made certain I had at least one with me. And because I never—never!— went anywhere without Trollope, he was my companion on trips and errands more frequently than anyone else, Joyce included. I read on airplanes, in physicians’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, in coffee shops, the auto repair place, the barbershop. In late November 1999, I was reading Can You Forgive Her? at the bedside of my poor dying father. In October 2003 I was reading Miss MacKenzie when I was struck with Bell’s palsy. In February 2005 I read from Ralph the Heir in a maternity waiting room while our first grandson, Logan, was arriving. A few months later, Trollope’s Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, an Australian adventure novel, helped me through my rehab after cancer surgery. In January 2006 while visiting my mother, who was recovering from a near-fatal car accident, I read Is He Popenjoy?—a novel about a false heir.
In Trollope I read about Members of Parliament—and wealthy folks—and landed folks who’ve fallen on hard times—and grumpy old men who don’t want to leave their estates to their no-good sons—and vicious women (mothers even!) who insist on their own way, who, though bounded in nutshells, count themselves queens of infinite space—and fox-hunters and shooters of game birds—and clueless but arrogant Americans—and young men who must learn about the importance of your word, your honor, about how to love—and profoundly moral young women whose values eventually (though not always) educate and snare the right young man, young women whose goodness can remind some flint-headed grouch what the human heart looks like, what, in fact, it is for.
As I was moving slowly back through the railcars of Trollope’s work, I knew I would eventually step into the caboose—the last—his posthumous The Landleaguers. A dreadful prospect. So when the end that had once seemed endless came into view, I began a sort of delaying action.
Yes, I sometimes slowed the Trollope train, stepped off at a local diner, and ate some famous literary food, reading some celebrated books that I’d long implied (okay: claimed) I’d already read. First on the menu was what, in the end, I believed to be the most nutritious of all—Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Then came some other novels I’d sort of lied about reading: War and Peace, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, The Red and the Black, Fathers and Sons. But all too soon, crumbs and scraps of Cervantes and Tolstoy sprinkled across my plate, I was back on the Trollope train with no more scheduled stops.
Now just four remained, including the last he lived to see published, The Fixed Period, a futuristic tale about a time when the government has established the maximum legal length of human life—sixty-seven years. If you’re still alive at 67(my age now!), you get institutionalized and eventually dispatched, though nicely, sometime before your sixty-eighth birthday. Next were the last two novels he completed—An Old Man’s Love, in which an older man (he’s fifty!) loses in love to a younger rival, and Mr. Scarborough’s Family, about a resentful dying man who tries to manipulate the inheritance laws. Last of all … the novel Trollope was working on when he died, the unfinished The Landleaguers, which is perhaps his most political and bitter story. (Among its outrages: the murder of a child.)
To be continued ...