A few years back, while paging through a catalog of the now defunct A Common Reader, I found a title which has struck with me over the years: Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences. Now, being a Jew, I do skip the bacon, but I occasionally wonder why I did not get myself that book? Why? Because–and this will seem ironic to those to whom my near constant blogging about Judaism may appear overkill–I believe that a person can do seriousness and piety to death. This is why when I read books like the Sefer ha-Aggadah, I sometimes focus on those stories least obviously edifying. It is also why at thirteen I at one point owned and read something like 50 Star Trek novels. I do not pretend they are great literature–though sometimes I am sorry I sold them. I only say that to have a taste for the fantastic, the fun, the unedifying… everybody ought to have it sometimes.
One of my favorite newscasters interviewed a man who is played an East Asian superhero in a recent Marvel Comics movie. The newscaster admitted his guilty pleasure of loving action movies with Superheroes, and said, “It sometimes surprises people because they always say, ‘But you are such a serious person.'” Yet he thinks the degree of escapism involved in Hollywood films is necessary for him as a release from the seriousness of his day-to-day work.
Now, I had a friend Shaun many moons ago, who was deep into comic books. Actually, Shaun had any number of curious interests: he was the one who spoke to me and convinced me to get Nixon and Kissinger, by discussing the two’s nearly sadomasochistic relationship. He also gave me the film Nixon by Oliver Stone, but–alas–I could not watch it because it was a VHS tape and I no longer had a VHS VCR. As you may have guessed, Shaun was our resident Republican (most of my workplace, as a place dedicated to the care of the mentally ill, were more liberal). He also told me that in college he was a pothead, and that it was only after graduating that he sat down with his Bible and became a Baptist. However, Baptist or no he still loved comic books.
Shaun was the one who told me all about Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, both of which were created by the same author. Of course, the second was shorter and less successful. Now, convinced that they sounded interesting (because in Shaun’s telling they were), I got Conan the Barbarian: Book 1 and The Complete Solomon Kane. However, when I got them, I found them, well, uninteresting. I could not seem to find it in myself to read past the Introduction.
Now with this in mind, I spoke to my Uncle Jerry, a Law Professor. He commented that he had read a biography of Edgar Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. Intrigued by the life of the man, he managed to get a comic book. And yet he shared my experience: he really could not even find it interesting. He tried. He made the honest effort. Yet he found it truly dull.
I guess we were like Fraser and his brother Niles were to their father on Fraser: “You’re not like your mother. She could enjoy the ballet, but she could enjoy a ball game…” Yes, we were two elitist snobs who simply did not get the point.
Of course, I do have one hobby that I suppose is juvenile fun. I like watching old kid’s cartoons like Sleeping Beauty; Snow White; Lady and the Tramp; Dumbo; and Pinocchio. I also re-watched a few episodes of Lassie in recent years. Of recent films I have enjoyed The Little Mermaid; Shrek; Tangled; and Brave. Of course, the great non-cartoon children’s film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a special favorite with me. (I have become defensive of the fact in recent years when books like Wicked satirize it.)
My intellectual rationalization of this interest is that I usually focus on reading “the first version” of the films along with them: Perreault; the Grimm Brothers; Hans Christian Anderson; Joseph Jacobs (“The Three Little Pigs”; “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”; and “Jack and the Beanstalk”); and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (Beauty and the Beast). I have other collections on my shelf: Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Tales; Giambatta Basile’s The Tale of Tales; Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s The Facetious Nights; The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitré; Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s Russian Fairy Tales; The 1001 Nights; Inea Bushnaq’s Arab Folktales; A. K. Ramanujan’s Indian Folktales; Brenda F. Beck’s Folktales of India; The Storyteller (African stories); and books of Chinese and Japanese folktales–but I forget their names… I have the Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as modern feminist translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. I even have Maria Tartar’s The Heroine with a Thousand Faces.
I also read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books; Collodi’s Pinocchio; J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden; Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful World of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils; Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and its sequel; and also more “modern” stories like Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and The Marvelous Journey of Edward Tulane; and Grace Linn’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. And of course, everyone knows Max Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
I remember being disappointed reading The Storytelling Animal, that more time was not spent on folktales and children’s stories… though the parts about how children make up their own stories was interesting and perhaps profound. However, children’s lore takes up a good chunk of my time… My next book is Oz Revisited, and it will be about the characters I learned to love by reading all fifteen Oz books.