Driving back to Washington from Orlando a few days before Christmas, I listen to a CD of mournful saxophone jazz, a gift from journalist Matt Schudel, who late in November guided me around Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Not a good idea. Pretty soon I am growing wistful, then sorrowful, finally downright weepy. Tears on my steering wheel, pain in my heart. Who would have thought that I'd miss Florida? Shouldn't I be eager to get back to Book World and my family?
With iron resolve, I turn off Ben Webster and slide in an audiotape of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. It's well read, by Christopher Hurt, but before long I find myself remembering the novel's setting, New Orleans. The French Quarter in late September and beignets and Napoleon House and drinks at the Columns Hotel. Heavy sighs. More wistfulness. This, as Francis Jeffrey said of Wordsworth's later poetry, will never do. I pull off the highway at something called Citrus World, to buy fresh oranges and tangerines for Christmas gifts and, with effort, to compose myself.
There isn't much room in the car for the fruit. Trunk, back seat, passenger's seat -- all are packed tight with cartons of books. I had come down to Orlando last August to teach at the University of Central Florida, and naturally enough assumed that I would spend most of my time lounging by swimming pools, slowly making my way through all of Faulkner, Welty and other classics of Southern literature. Never happened. Instead I read student papers, worked on organizing my columns into a collection, graded tests, wrote essays and reviews, tried to come up with some good ideas for a lucrative book project, hobnobbed with fellow English faculty, went to the $3 movies on Saturday, rented videos, ate lots of Mexican food, and -- for almost the first time since childhood -- watched television. "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Frazier" proved far more ingratiating than expected. "Law and Order," I discovered, was on four times a day.
Years ago, I realized that into the life of every man and woman must come one great moment of decision: to watch television or to read books. Nobody really does both well. Either you spend the evening in bed with, say, Dawn Powell, Dante or Donald Westlake -- or you tune in to "Touched by an Angel," "That Seventies Show" and documentaries about the Battle of the Bulge. We all know -- and perhaps live in -- households in which the television never quite shuts down. Two of the students in my "Book Trade" course conducted a campus survey and discovered that nearly 20 percent of their classmates spent fewer than four hours a week reading. These, I remind you, are college undergraduates. Another 20 percent or so watched at least six hours of TV a day.
Once I might have murmured, while pursing my lips and shaking my head gravely from side to side, that this was indeed a sad commentary on our time. No longer. I received more pleasure than I can say lying in bed, the television tuned to "The West Wing" or "Sunday Morning." I came to look forward to the evening reruns, even found myself growing genuinely excited while following "Law and Order" 's Lennie Briscoe and Jack McCoy as they pursued various malefactors. Another couple of months and -- who knows? -- I might have found myself incapable of turning the pages of anything more demanding than a Victoria's Secret catalogue.
Television, I learned, really is amusing, relaxing, occasionally provocative or stylish and sometimes even halfway intelligent. But with a few exceptions -- such as "The Simpsons," the only show I followed faithfully before my Orlando sojourn -- it just doesn't leave you with much. Participants on "The Price Is Right" and "Jeopardy" aside, who has ever found his life changed by a TV show? Yet how many people have felt themselves born again by reading Walden or The Good Soldier or Invisible Man, or the poems of Emily Dickinson? Much as I enjoyed my dalliance with network programming, I wonder how much I've missed by not getting to Welty's The Optimist's Daughter, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the complete stories of Flannery O'Connor.
Of course, we always say -- "Well, I'll read them next week." Or next month. Or next year. But will we? Won't there be a public TV heartbreaker about whales or an all-day "Gilligan's Island" extravaganza or a special two-hour "Walker, Texas Ranger"? Reading, after all, is nearly always described as a habit, something hard to develop and easy to break; television, on the contrary, is never held to be anything but an addiction. People are rightly proud to have started and finished, say, Paradise Lost or Proust. Nobody is proud of having watched all the episodes of "The Partridge Family" or "Party of Five."
At least I hope not. But who knows? I'm not exactly surfing the Zeitgeist these days, though down in Florida I did watch the surf -- on a cloudy afternoon at the Breakers in New Smyrna. Afterwards I retreated to my room to catch a fairly good episode of "Millennium."
Oh well. Who can wonder that I felt troubled when driving north toward home, back to the literary life -- and the admonitory, even minatory frowns of at least 15,000 books. . .
Sixteen hours of cruise control later, I unloaded my boxes in Silver Spring. There matters had clearly gotten entirely out of hand. Should I stack everything in the booked-up basement? Not if I ever hoped to wend my way to the washer or retrieve a can of peas from a storage shelf. There were already a dozen cartons in the garage itself, though yours truly -- erstwhile author of Caring for Your Books -- knew perfectly well that humidity and insects and exposure are bad for paper, glue and ink. But what was I to do? Throw out my galleys of David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood? So in the face of necessity and calling on my Beloved Spouse's Christian spirit, I offloaded everything into the center hallway. Where the boxes remain, even now. Surely, I'll figure out someplace to move them fairly soon. Sigh. A decade and a half in this much too small brick colonial and it still looks as if the Dirdas were just moving in. . . .
Christmas has long been the one time of the year when people actually read stories aloud by the fireside. I determined that this season I would treat my youngest to my favorite children's holiday picture book -- Russell Hoban's The Mole Family's Christmas -- and then regale the rest of the family with that great Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, once remarked that this -- the tale of a missing gem discovered inside a plump, well-roasted goose -- was the only Christmas tale he knew "without slush." It is, moreover, stuffed with great lines.
In the beginning, for instance, Holmes is found studying a man's worn hat. He asks, as he does so often, what Watson can infer from this article of clothing.
"I can see nothing," answers the good doctor, to which Holmes replies, "On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see." He goes on: "That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him."
Later, toward the climax of the adventure, the Baker Street detective utters another of his zingers: "My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know."
What an idyllic hour I envisaged! The crackling fire. Cups of hot cocoa. Offspring hanging on every golden word, and each aureate syllable pronounced with Rathbonian plumminess. They'd remember this cozy evening all their lives. A family tradition might even be established. At the least, they'd recognize that written stories really were superior to television programs.
But was my late Victorian diversion welcomed with filial and conjugal squeals of anticipatory pleasure? Hardly. "Do we have to?" "I think we should go to the mall tonight, dear." "I want to play Pokemon." Even, mirabile dictu, "I've got a big project I have to work on. It's due in, uh, just two months." Only after five days of cajoling, coupled with the threat that Santa just might skip Silver Spring next year, did my namebearers finally settle down to the pleasure of my thrilling recitation. Happily, I was able to declaim on December 27, and so the story's opening sounded particularly apt: "I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season." One and all listened with suitable attentiveness, announced that it was indeed a genuine pleasure to hear good ol' Dad, back from the wilds of Central Florida, read aloud. A real treat.
And then everybody went off to watch "The Matrix" on video. Me included.
Oh well. Back to reading books next week. I hope.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com.