FROM TIME TO TIME -- about once a year, actually -- someone asks me if I will publish a collection of my columns, but the truth is that I would prefer to publish something else. I call it "The Bedside Cohen." It would contain the one or two pages I have read in the books that everyone else has read all the way through. My favorite is "Moby Dick."
I have read the first couple of pages of "Moby Dick" about 102 times. I have it memorized: "Call me Ishmael" etc. Call him anything you want. I cannot get much past that point. I know it's a classic and I know it's terrific and I must say that I really liked the movie. But I cannot read the book. The first two pages go into "The Bedside Cohen."
Next, I will have selections from terrific books I have read just for the dirty parts. The first, just for nostalgia's sake, will be the cellar scene in "A Stone For Danny Fisher," my first "dirty" book. It is in this scene that Danny, on his bar mitzvah as I recall, got some girl in the basement and did certain things. I read this scene 55 times before my own bar mitzvah, where I had to settle for baked Alaska.
Next comes the very last page of "Ulysses," a book I have never read about four times. This is the famous scene in which the word "yes" is used over and over again and from which I have formed my unshakable opinion that James Joyce is a great writer. He is even better in "Finnegan's Wake," a book I have not read twice. That was more than enough.
My dirty section proceeds with about 14 scattered pages from "Lady Chatterely's Lover," and about 12 pages from the collected works of Henry Miller who, I reluctantly concluded after a lot of page turning, has a wholly undeserved reputation as a dirty writer. "The Bedside Cohen" would include, though, the scene in the Paris lavatory and one page from "The Good Earth" that seemed gamey back in high school, as did, for that matter, all references to the Non-Intercourse Act of 1806 and the lyrics to the Gilbert and Sullivan song about willows. Life was simpler then.
My book will also include one page from "The Prophet," a book read by all of my girlfriends but never by me, and "Man's fate," which I have not read about a dozen times. Along with "Moby Dick," this is the book I buy before most vacations. I have about 10 copies of it scattered around the house and may single-handedly turn it into a best seller.
I will include the wonderful first chapter of "Pride and Prejudice," which everyone has told me may be the best book ever written. I know the beginning quite well and I now have it in three versions. I like it fine and can't for the life of me figure out why I don't read on.
I will also include one page from every book written by John Le Carre, all of which I have not read at least once. Ditto "Catch 22," which I have not read three times, but from which I quote all the time. "The Bedside Cohen" also will include short selections from the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, all of whom I repeatedly did not read in high school. I will have a bit of Aristotle, the Marshall McLuhan of his time. I'm sure once he is understood, his reputation will suffer.
"The Bedside Cohen" also will include sections from the Bible, which I have never read in its entirety about 30 times. It will have pieces from all the books of Thomas Hardy. I never read them repeatedly. I will have something from "Paradise Lost" which was never read by me, but was by my wife. One in a family is enough.
I want some Edmund Burke who is quoted by all conservative columnists and a little bit from Thoreau who is the darling of my side of the aisle. I haven't been reading them both for some 20 years now. I will include scattered selections from someone I call Tolstoyevsky, a major Russian writer who writes dreary books of massive length, only some of which have been turned into what are called major motion pictures. I have not read "War and Peace" several times, which is about the number of times I have not read "The Brothers Karamazov." I have read some of the others, though, and recommend them wholeheartedly.
For the videotape version of my book, I will include one brief moment from a Jerry Ford press conference or a Jimmy Carter speech. I have never made it through either one awake, but did not hesitate to discuss either the next morning.
Back to books. My collection will include a page from the "Tom Sawyer" I have never read and the "Huckleberry Finn" I have never read and also the last page of "Gone With the Wind" ("Frankly, my dear . . ."). For journalists I will include a little Mencken I never read and some Lincoln Steffens I never want to read. I will include the first two or three pages of "Bleak House" by Dickens, which are absolutely brilliant and timeless and which, alas, are all that I have ever read of that wonderful book. I have, though, not read it several times.
"The Bedside Cohen" concludes with the first line of "Love Story" "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"), not because I'm ashamed I never read it, but because I'm ashamed I did.