After lunch, I'm going to walk over to Open Door Coffee Co. and finish Paul Auster's new novel, 4 3 2 1, a long, long novel (nearly 900 pages--big pages) that has taken me more than a week to read. I am not eager to see it end because I recognize that it is among the best novels I've ever read. I will write more about it tomorrow--"Sunday Sundries"--but as I've neared the novel's end, I've been thinking a bit about other experiences I've had like this--reaching the end of something.
I think the first time I was affected by this was back in the 1950s when, via the TV series Disneyland, I watched the three Davy Crockett installments in 1954 and 1955. The final one, which showed Davy swinging "Old Betsy" at the Alamo (but did not show him killed), was the true end of the series, even though Disney, with a hit on his hands, brought out two other episodes later--about events, obviously, earlier in Davy's life.
But I remember that Alamo episode so clearly. I was only ten years old, and Crockett had become my idol (an idolatry subsequently cooled when, years later, I read some authoritative biographies about him--the same with Jim Bowie). And in 1950s TV shows, heroes just did not die. I knew it was going to happen, of course--so this was probably my first intense experience with dramatic irony (when the reader/viewer knows what's going to happen but the characters don't). And I found it impossibly wrenching and emotional. I still do when, you know, I see Hamlet or something.
Anyway, back to what I'm getting at--arriving at the end ...
I have read all of Paul Auster's works (got to review a couple for the Cleveland Plain Dealer), and he is one of my favorites working today. He's about my age; we both have loved baseball; we lean lefty politically; etc. So I'm not just reaching the end of a book; I'm reaching the end of his works--and, as we see painfully in his new novel--more works are not necessarily forthcoming.
I've been through this experience numerous other times. I've become a compulsive complete-works reader as I've gotten older. I read some "series" books when I was a boy (the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew)--but not all of them: That was a mountain that kept getting higher, and I wasn't all that much "into" reading--or endless mountain-climbing--back then.
But in my adulthood? I have had the experience of reading the final work by Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray. And then those writers nearer my own age who have passed on--or quit writing: Mailer, P. Roth, Vonnegut, Styron, Barth, and many others.
I've done the same with pop-culture writers, too: Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker (I will not read those novels written under his name, novels that are still appearing, even though he died on January 18, 2010).
And there are lots of contemporary writers whose complete works I've read--and whose new works I gobble up as soon as they appear. Joyce Carol Oates (and keeping up with her, my friends, ain't easy!), Tom Perrotta, Jim Harrison (RIP), Tobias Wolff, and on and on. I've read all of thriller-mystery writers John Grisham, Jo Nesbø, and numerous others.
And I'm currently working my way through all of Wilkie Collins and Faulkner (reading now the ones I haven't) and some others.
And today I was wondering why I do this to myself--why do I force myself to the end, the very end, of something that's given me such pleasure?
I remember, just before I retired from Western Reserve Academy (June 2011), I talked with one of my classes about the "end" of Harry Potter. They had all grown up with the books--in most cases had eagerly, obsessively snapped up the newest installment. And they talked about the mixed feeling of accomplishment and loss they experienced when they finished The Deathly Hallows and knew there would be no more.
Of course, some of it is just the old human end-of-the-road stuff--we being the only animals aware of our own mortality. And we see everywhere the metaphors of our evanescence--from the changing weather and seasons to, well, the end of reading an author's complete works.
So, in a way, I guess this kind of reading is also a kind of preparation, of some frail human hope that we will be more "ready" when the losses begin to accumulate, to deepen, to become unimaginable--to become something you do not even want to imagine, to become unendurable.
So ... this afternoon ... the end of 4 3 2 1. And then ...? Well, I will begin chanting to the gods in the hopes that Paul Auster will do some more. And I will pick up Let Me Be Frank with You, the final novel (so far) by Richard Ford, whose complete works I have been reading. I'm getting sad already.