Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Gift

Whenever anyone asks me why I'm so willing to resort to fisticuffs in defense of books as the greatest art form in the history of humanity, I say it's because a good book may look like an innocent heap of nouns and verbs at first glance, but then it sneaks up on you like a ninja and stabs you in the face with something like Vladimir Nabokov's description of a simple street:

It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.

In one sentence he's managed to give you the street you asked for and roundhouse you in the skull with his clever clogs. It's just one sentence plucked from three hundred pages of hotshot dexterity, almost a throwaway there on page two, like the quick flick that bloodies a nose at the beginning of a long kung fu fight. And like the martial arts masters of yore, in that one slight sentence the author reveals his lifetime of training, discipline, education, understanding and anticipation of human nature, and pure, mind-boggling talent. This is a man who spent his youth behind the bleachers making out with every foxy bit of language and literature he could get his hands on. With tongue. Ok, I'm mixing my martial arts and sex metaphors here, but it's an accurate reflection of my personal experiences with the very best books in the world: I'm seduced, assassinated, and reborn all at once.

(P.G. Wodehouse knocks me out with clockwork regularity, too, although within this kung fu analogy he's more like Sammo Hung, the harmless-looking doofy dork who couldn't address a serious topic if you put a gun to his head and started counting backwards from five, but who nevertheless lays you out with his relentless superhuman moves.)

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