Like most of you, I plan to address the world's problems in November. Recently I've become aware of the glaring inequality of book ownership in America and I came across this startling statistic: 90 percent of the hardcover books in this country are owned by 5 percent of adults.
Five percent whose shelves are jammed with expensive books that they will never read and that they keep on their shelves merely for decor, to appear to be literate while countless young people live with nothing to read but food labels and Facebook.
(I would write this in boldface but boldface uses more ink, which is made from soybean oil, which raises the price of tofu.)
Ninety percent of hardcover books owned by 5 percent of the adult population. It is a statistic that I invented just a moment ago, but who can say that it is far from the truth?
I stand before you as a guilty party.
As a published author, I receive free copies of books from publishers hoping I will provide a blurb such as "luminous" or "richly inventive" which I have provided often after reading only the first two pages and then kept the book on my shelf for years alongside the classics that I, a college graduate, want my friends to think I have read such as Proust's "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" all about when he was temping at Purdue, doing research, feeding the swans, and fell in love with Madeleine, that delectable little cupcake, which is great literature to be sure but seven volumes worth??
Who else ever needed seven volumes to recollect time spent in Indiana? But there it is on my shelf, and meanwhile, some 25-year-old in Terre Haute or Indianapolis is going Proustless who could profit from reading it.
Which brings me to the painful subject of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," which I was assigned to read in college and only got to page 37. Call me Ishmael, call me ignorant, but the guy talks about wanting to go to sea in the very first paragraph and it takes him 20 chapters to get on board the boat and another dozen for the boat to set sail.
Everything Ish does, he re-examines from six different angles. There's a whole chapter about undressing for bed, and another about dressing in the morning, and another about breakfast. It's a long journey down Non Sequitur Boulevard to Metaphysics Lane and finally I ran out of patience and bought the Cliff's Notes booklet on M-D. and from that I wrote a term paper, "The Prosthetics of Obsession: Ahab's Peg Leg As Instrument of Man's Fate," that earned me an A in American Lit, but 50 years later I live in dread that someone will look at me and say, "You're an English major -- what's 'Moby-Dick' about anyway?"
Melville sits on my bookshelf like an accusing finger, along with Robert Caro's four volumes on LBJ and "Little House on the Prairie: The Critical Edition."
Meanwhile, I go to bookstores and pick up even more books I will never read, and haul them home to join the stacks of books on my bedside table, stacks four feet high that, one of these nights, will likely fall on me, ultimate irony for a published author, to be brained in his sleep by large books that he has no time to read because -- wait for it -- he is busy writing a memoir.
Ansel Adams will come crashing down and concuss me so that I can no longer recollect the name of the long-legged girl in green shorts who leg-wrestled with me in her backyard in Anoka, Minnesota, in 1956, which was my sexual awakening.
My classmates were awakened by reading "Peyton Place," but for me it was Julie, except Julie wasn't her real name. She said, "Do you want to wrestle?" and suddenly she was all over me, her hot mint-scented breath in my face, our slender young bodies entangled, her legs scissored around me, her bare left shoulder pressed to my cheek. If I believed that she, or someone like her, would turn up on Captain Ahab's ship or in Lyndon Johnson's life, I'd read through them like a hot knife through butter.
For her, I'd even read Proust.