This Sunday Cotuit Library’s Vintage Mystery Book Club meets again. As always, this makes me think of rereading old favorites of all sorts. I am indulging myself today with more oldies but goodies. If you have already read everything good, you can skip this week’s column.
The Phantom Tollbooth
It is all right to read children’s books. Many children’s books, even the ones you read as a child, are even better when you are grown up (at least, if you didn’t grow up too very much). Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” turned 50 last year, and it is not showing its age at all.
This is the tale of Milo, a typical boy who is always thinking about where he isn’t and thinks he can never find anything fun to do.
“When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.”
One day he opens a mysterious present, which turns out to be a tollbooth. Setting off in his long-disused electric car, Milo finds magic and adventure as he travels past Expectations into The Lands Beyond, and struggles to restore the princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason to Dictionopolis.
Why should you read this, if you haven’t already? Because it’s much more fun that whatever you just finished reading. Because the word play is delightful. Because it will remind you of everything you’ve ever forgotten. Because Tock the WatchDog would want you to.
“But it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
The Lives of a Cell
It is also ok to read science, even if it is not brand new. Sometimes science writing is really about how people think. For many years Lewis Thomas wrote a monthly short, informal essay called “Notes of a Biology Watcher” for the New England Journal of Medicine. In 1974, the first collection of these essays was published in book form.
“The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” won the National Book Award in 1975. Twice. This magnificent book won in two categories: Arts and Letters as well as Sciences. Thomas’s acceptance speech is as graceful as his essays:
“What I have in mind is the growing body of totally new information about the way life works, and particularly the possible meanings that may be contained in this information. It is looking more and more like a strange, unexpected sort of world, the closer we get to it…I’m not sure you should leave it entirely to the scientists to figure out all the meanings.”
All along the mystery shelves they line up: authors who want to borrow an odd, old Victorian character and dust him off for another adventure: Caleb Carr with “The Italian Secretary,” Laurie King with her Mary Russell novels, Michael Chabon’s “The Final Solution,” and more. All these novels have circulated well. People are flocking to a movie that claims to be about this character, and viewers tune in to see an updated BBC version.
So when was the last time you read the real thing? The genuine article, the world’s first (and greatest) consulting detective, the true Sherlock Holmes, as chronicled by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Back in 2003, when you heard the buzz about Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” did you immediately think “Silver Blaze!”?
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
If you’d like to join the Cotuit Vintage Mystery Book Club, we meet at the Cotuit Library Sunday, January 15 at 1:00 pm to discuss “The Nine Tailors” by Dorothy Sayers. Next month, catch us on February 19 at 1:00 pm for Ngaio March’s “A Clutch of Constables.”