No Proust for you | Chuck's World
I said something nice the other day, which was my intention, I suppose.
I’d like to believe that everything that comes out of my mouth is nice, nothing but butterflies and sunshine, but this is not the case.
I had to wait an extra 15 seconds in my car the other day for a couple of people who apparently had never used a crosswalk before. No butterflies appeared, I promise.
But apparently I said something special to a friend, because I received a response that began, “That’s one of the nicest things…” You’ve heard this. I’ve heard it. I’ve said it myself.
We’ll call this the superlative response, and I’ve noticed it a lot lately. I think it’s possible that we’re living in a superlative society, even, driven by constant media, viral and tabloid.
This creeps into our cultural vocabulary until we don’t even notice it. How often am I truly amazed? Almost never, I would think. How often do I describe something as “amazing”? Too often, obviously. I am a big fat liar.
And we all know about “awesome.” I use it all the time myself now. It used to mean something that inspired awe, of course, and was rarely spoken, just written. Now it just means “great,” which itself used to mean a bit more than it currently does.
I understand if this annoys you, this evolution of language. We’re allowed to be annoyed. I could tell you things about crosswalks.
But it’s also the nature of language, particularly English. A couple of centuries ago, people would literally come to blows over new words and usage.
Should we talk about “literally”? Nope.
Anyway. Saying, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me” is a shiny way to return a compliment, and I doubt it’s causing trouble, warming up the planet or spreading disease, but it struck me several weeks ago as just odd.
I’m 56 years old. I can’t possibly remember everything that’s ever been said to me, much less separate this into categories of niceness and then rank them, constantly updating the list.
It’s worthless rhetoric, absolutely unreliable, although, as I said, sort of shiny. It means something, just not what it sounds like.
This is what really makes calamity of such long life. Not death, but forgetting. I firmly believe that after the age of 40, maybe 45, our brains get busy hiding things, mostly titles of movies and books.
Probably five a day get shoved under some mental mattress, just so we can feel embarrassed during conversations.
This must baffle young people, were they to pay attention to us, which they probably don’t. Our contemporaries understand, and fill in the gaps. “You know that movie – why can’t I think of the name? – with that guy and the shoe and the monkey?”
And our aged friend nods and says, “I know exactly what you’re talking about” and we just manage. It’s like telepathy.
This is why I stay away from our 21st-century distraction of list making.
I like movies, for example, but if you asked me to list my top 10, or top 100, I’d decline, just knowing that two days later my prankster brain would remind me of “Double Indemnity” and I’d slap my forehead, as if that helps. I don’t trust my brain at all.
But a friend did one of those annoying Internet things the other day, posting a list of 10 books that influenced or stayed with her still, somehow, and invited me to join.
I never play these things, for the above reasons, but I was intrigued by her list. My friend (who is not annoying at all, by the way) had an esoteric column of titles that, somehow, seemed just right for her, and it got me interested.
So I played, but by my rules. Nothing phony. No Kierkegaard or Proust. Nothing Greek or otherwise ancient. I’m not trying to impress a date.
I just wrote down 10 titles my brain allowed me to retrieve, and they were books I’d read more than once. In fact, they were mostly books I read for the first time when I was young, and returned to over the years, and they surprised me with my affection.
Tom and Huck were there, of course, started when I was a boy, my introduction to Twain. But so was “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler, written in 1982, and “The World According to Garp” by John Irving (1978).
The whole thing surprised me, in fact, considering that I’ve primarily read nonfiction for the past couple of decades, but eight out of 10 titles were novels.
And the mysteries of memory: Why did “Player Piano,” Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, jump out ahead of “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five”?
No historical biographies. No Asimov or Bradbury. No Stephen King, no Tom Clancy, no John Grisham; no perennial bestsellers to speak of, and nothing outside of the 20th century.
But it was an interesting experiment in spontaneous recall, and maybe it means something.
Or maybe it means I didn’t take it seriously. But if lists do anything other than remind us to pick up eggs and milk, it might be to serve the same function: Help us remember what gave us joy, once, and might again.
Except now I realize I forgot “To Kill A Mockingbird.” How is that possible? It was awesome, which at this moment might be the nicest thing I’ve ever said. You tell me.