It took a while — 15 years, if you must know — but I finally got down to No. 10 S. Boulevard St. and applied for a library card. Much to my delight, I was approved; apparently that Hardy Boys title I was two weeks late returning in 1969 didn’t go on my permanent record after all.
I read a lot, but my library renaissance was driven by the discovery of the Metropolitan Library System’s app and the availability of — hang on, you won’t believe this — free books that download just like the ones I buy. Even audio books!
Thus, I was led to a 20-hour recorded tome called “Pretty Girls,” by Karin Slaughter. It’s a psychological thriller (50 years later, I’m still reading crime stories) but I was struck by a phrase mid-book that had nothing to do with the plot. One of the characters called “The Bridges of Madison County” sentimental slop, or words to that effect.
I was immediately offended. I cried my way through most of that book and you’re calling it trite sentimental slop?
That reminded me of Don Emblen, the best of some really good English professors I had, who was a no-nonsense poet. He had used the same phrase when he saw me reading a book by Richard Bach, who you might remember for “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” I saved face by pointing out I had just finished reading a collection of J.D. Salinger short stories, which drew a marginally satisfied harrumph from Emblen.
The works that stir the most emotion in me are the ones literary arrogance is quick to condemn, but if a story doesn’t elicit a reaction, why bother? Make me laugh, make me angry, make me cry — but for Heaven’s sake, make me feel something.
Hard-boiled detective fiction, still my favorite genre, doesn’t always carry profound revelations wrapped in poetic language, yet it’s held in higher regard than a Kleenex-worthy story about a middle-aged affair such as the one in “The Bridges of Madison County,” or the heartbreaking longing of a girl raising herself in a North Carolina marsh in the more recent bestseller, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Those two stories are very different, but they’re both tales of longing hearts, of wanting to be with someone when social decrees forbid it. In both we’re reminded that the heart adheres to no such rationally conceived rules and there are few things as sad as infinite yearning.
“And, man he cried when he talked,” wrote Robert James Waller in ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’ “He cried big tears, the kind it takes an old man to cry, the kind it takes a saxophone to play.”
That is very human, even if it’s not one of the seven habits of highly effective people. Yet literary elitists (unlike the people selling the books) see no value in the pinings of a companionless heart.
In the second half of the 18th century the sentimental novel was revered, but 50 years later the pendulum swung and the genre was parodied by Jane Austen and James Joyce, signaling a literary shift back to stories that favored the head over the heart.
I may delight for now in a new idea, but long after the words have faded I remember how they made me feel. We celebrate reason and intellect to the point that we try to imitate it with robots, yet there’s no one in Silicon Valley working on artificial emotion.
That’s too bad. We’d be better off if the heart won out more often, if we valued feeling as much as thinking. After all, even Joe Hardy lost his girlfriend.