We had houseguests last July and, knowing them to be big readers, took them to Southold Free Library’s Book Cottage. While they were harvesting Connellys and Shreves I came across a Riverside William Shakespeare, Second Edition, 9th printing. It contained 2,080 pages, all the plays, all the poems, 100 illustrations — many in full color (Judy Dench, John Geilgud, Mel Gibson) (Mel Gibson ?) — essays by really smart people, footnotes by the yard, maps, bibliography — the works. For five bucks.
Inside I found a forgotten slip of paper that contained this terrifying typed instruction: “By critical analysis show how Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s manipulations relates to Othello’s own habits with language. Due March 2nd, 4-5 pages, double spaced.”
There was also a hopeful bit of handwriting next to a bracketed speech: “This is where he gets jealous?” I was clearly being challenged. “This above all, to thine own self be true … ” came to mind and I thought, “What insights might herein lie to rouse my weary, weakened spires of portent and knowledge?” Or something like that.Well, I snapped it up — maybe hoisted it up; it weighs five pounds — and carted it home. Now, here’s today’s question to you all. It’s now been 10 months — how many of Wm.’s plays do you think I’ve read? How many poems? OK, all you cynics who said “none,” raise your hands. Correct, none. Zippo. Zilch. You win the two-pound ham, aka the hamlet.
Why did I buy it? I truly hope I wasn’t showing off to my friends, some vain, unspoken message indicating that Wm. is a superior writer to Nelson DeMille. (He probably is). I’d rather believe that I was really going to tackle a couple of plays, I was going to double clutch and shift into movement. But we all know where good intentions lead. Maybe I could be the Highway Commissioner there.
And it’s not just Wm.; there’s always Leo. I got a mailing from “The Great Courses” and in it was a two-page spread advising how to read “War and Peace.” There were five tips altogether, one being “Pre-read the Novel,” which suggested that I “not simply dive in,” but rather skim several of the opening chapters, then go back and read the first 60 pages in one sitting.
Another tip encouraged me to make a list of the main characters and another of the supplementary ones. This seemed a good idea until it was revealed that there were 580 characters in all, 40 of which are considered key. The article was crazy enough to admit that Leo had written 560,000 words, placed them in 365 chapters, and put those in 15 parts. (The 365 chapters clearly spoke — a chapter a day — but I remained aloof.) Someone in the book club once said, when talking about “W&P,” “Another time I read it I realized … “. I was dumbstruck. This was not “the second time I read it,” but clearly somewhere beyond that. Listen, if I read one play, one poem and “War and Peace” this year (what’s the over/under on that?), I will become insufferable and you’ll need an appointment to see me.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]