“It all depends.” — George Ade

August 19, 2009



I don’t know when it began. It seems to me that I have always been an obsessive reader. I had to have been fairly young when my mother started complaining that she couldn’t leave a milk container or a box of cereal on the table without my reading every bit of text.

I have considered that the tendency is inborn. My grandfather’s father and both of my parents were pretty much always reading something — mostly periodicals. So maybe I was always a reader, although I believe my romance with books in particular began with a mysterious incident that occurred on one summer Sunday. We came home from our lake house and found that someone had left on our front step a cardboard box loaded with old books. We never learned where it came from. I was the only person interested, so I rooted through the box and found several things of interest, including  “Breaking Into Society” by George Ade. I had never heard of Ade, but I read some of the short stories — which Ade called “fables in slang” — and I became a fan. I became a fan not only of George Ade, but of books in general, and I became a regular client at the Paterson Public Library, which was no mean trick since it was nowhere near our house.

I also started buying cheap paperbacks at a local store, because that was easier than going to the library. I had odd taste for a kid, which helps to account for my stunted social life in those days. I bought and read a book about the Borgia popes, “The Nazarene” by Sholem Asch, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo, and a collection of papal encyclicals edited by Anne Freemantle. I got stuck on “Mitt Brennender Sorge (With great anxiety)” by Pope Pius XI — in English, of course — and I read it over and over again.



I favored non-fiction until my senior year of college when I took a course in the American novel simply because I couldn’t fit anything else into my schedule. On the first day of class, the professor provided us with a syllabus that indicated that we would be reading 21 novels in 15 weeks. I thought about dropping the course, but that would have meant walking all the way over to the registrar’s office, so I read the novels instead — works including “McTeague” by Frank Norris, “The Crisis” by Winston Churchill (the American one), “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson, and “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty” by John William DeForest. That course inspired me to read many more American novels that I might have otherwise neglected.

While I was still in college, I worked for a company that provided billing and shipping services to a number of book publishers, including Charles Scribners Sons. One of the managers was always slipping me books from the warehouse, and I spent about two years in the company of F. Scott Fitzerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Once I was out in the working world, a colleague mentioned Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” to me. At the time, I had read only “A Tale of Two Cities,” which had been assigned to us in high school.



I didn’t have to much confidence in this particular colleague, because she claimed to be a descendant of John Wilkes Booth, who had no descendants. But when I admitted to her that I had never read “Bleak House,” she brought me a paperback copy of it. I read it and then read it again. Then I read every one of Dickens’ novels — all of which I have read at least twice — and all the stories and articles of his that I could find.

My mind is wandering; why am I writing about this?

Oh, I remember.

David L. Ulin has a column in the Los Angeles Times in which he laments that he finds it increasingly difficult to read. Our culture has evolved, he says, into an environment that miltates against the state of silence that is necessary to read — to really read — a book.

“These days,” he writes, “… after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow.”

So far, I haven’t had that problem. Time can be an impediment to reading, but not the lure of other media. I fact, I have read far more books since I was laid off in December than in any equivalent period since I left graduate school. Still, Ulin’s observations probably will resonate with many folks. You can read his column at this link:


What’s that? You’ve never read George Ade? And you call yourself an American? Check him out here:



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