Before the Hookers

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It’s long been argued that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. Long before there were online reputation agencies, mobile wireless stores, and froyo shops, there were hookers. And hookers have been making a lot of money back then and now. It’s a lucrative job, prostitution, depending on what you get in return. But while prostitution may pad the pocketbook and fight for its position as the world’s oldest position, I believe there’s a far older job than peddling your skin. That job is writing. It must be the oldest profession, and probably even the world’s oldest hobby. How would we know today that prostitution is the second oldest profession had there not been a writer close by documenting that fact? He or she might have been within earshot, or some other kind of shot, observing—constantly observing as writers do—making the connection that this bedded-down person is offering their body—selling it—for something in return, maybe a rupee, or a loaf of bread.

That writer may have thought, “This is so good, you can’t even write this stuff.” Perhaps he had been hard at work morphing the words from the mouth of the wise temple elder into interpretable symbols meant to capture the ideology of the people, and took a break. The writer heard these scandalous noises, and with his stylus he went to a different clay tablet, maybe a personal one part of the small collection of private writings he called Soul Food, to imprint the happenings of that very moment so that a record—a timestamp—would remain lest our memories, as they so often do, fail us.

And so that writer wrote on to record all the other professions that had come along. That writer had always been there, you see, long before the hookers. The writer had been, like all people, trying to get stuff out of their head and put it on something. The first writers were actually painters and they used cave walls as their canvas. The stories, histories, philosophies, ideas and dreams—had to go somewhere. They couldn’t stay locked up in the head forever. The writer had to figure out a way to get them from the head to the tablet. That’s a hard job. Much harder than screwing.

With writing being the oldest profession, and now established as being also the most difficult, two paths emerged. Writing for profit and writing to write. That’s where we see writing as being both the oldest profession and the oldest hobby. That scribe recording that civilization’s religion? He got paid. Just like the prostitute. But did payment fulfill the writer? Did that writer go home at the end of the day and say, “I just want to write something else, and I would love to get paid for writing that other stuff.” And just how much did that writer get paid, anyway? If the pay scale was commensurate with today’s standards, it probably wasn’t very much. This is why writers constantly debate whether to put their skills to work for payment, yet become quickly vexed by two realizations: 1) I won’t get paid squat, and 2) If I use my God-given talent for something like ad copy, isn’t that just prostitution?

As the world’s oldest hobby, writing is pretty cheap, so if you’re going to keep at it and not get paid, you don’t have to invest that much. All you have to do is sit there and put symbols down (doesn’t matter if they make sense at first—you can come back and edit) and you just need a stylus and clay tab. That’s it! But as hobbies go, they usually end at your Mom patting you on the back for your hard work, or your wife telling you she’s going to get around to reading that novel of yours one of these days.

And herein lies the fundamental problem with hobbies in general. In the words of his impish character Zooey Glass, J.D. Salinger explained it this way: “Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.” Writers know that their writing isn’t a hobby. It’s a passion. Writers who are using their ego to write have difficulty walking away from writing. It’s an addiction of sorts that’s tough to break.

When writers tell other writers they’d be better off quitting the art, or that they should find something else to do that will make them money, it’s true. Why waste the time on it? Why pour in all that energy and heart and soul and ego for no return? It all goes back to the notion that what’s inside the head needs release. It’s part therapy, too. Any writer will tell you this. Writing lets writers put away what they cannot rid themselves of by any other means. That’s what one writer, Steve Almond, wrote once, and I can’t think any other more sublime way to put it. I haven’t thought of my own way to write it.

The other day I was at a reading by another writer, Jess Walter. Jess read from his new novel, Beautiful Ruins, and afterward took questions. From the packed sales floor at Warkick’s in La Jolla, the inevitable, “What made you become a writer?” question popped up. Jess answered this as any writer would: in a drawn out winding fashion referencing his blue collar family that didn’t pay much attention to the arts, his overactive imagination from a young age, and his undying vision that he would once have a book on a shelf somewhere, ideally next to Kurt Vonnegut’s. Jess has told that story a million times, and to him only it makes sense. Only writers know why they become writers and they also know the difficulty in explaining why to other people. That explanation writers give is similar to their own process of writing: there’s a story there and only I know how to tell it. I decided to do this, to keep at this because I can’t stop. I’m destined to put my thoughts down on something. I’m driven to this.

So, whether that writer choses to share that work, or attempts to put it out there for the world—for profit or not—is another story. It’s a story that again, only a writer can tell. It’s also a decision a writer has to make early on, a quandary we face every day when we set out to compose: will this continue to fulfill me without any type of return, and if I were to get a return, will I be able to maintain my true purpose and not become a whore? After everything, will any of these clay tablets matter to anyone? Anyone at all?

Treasure

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How I avoided not reading Treasure Island as a kid goes back to a loner childhood void of popular classic literature yet abundant in a few other sources of… entertainment: Little Golden Books, illustrated abecedarian student encyclopedias from which I wrote most every fourth-grade book report, abridged story book versions of various fairy tales and classics, and steady bolus doses of cartoons.

I wouldn’t say consuming all those forms of art caused my early aversion to reading but they certainly helped, as did the Santa Fe Public School system. Growing up in that system, the paltry required reading lists provided little stimulation. Yes, I did read Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Anaya, Salinger, and García Márquez. I even skimmed some Lee and Cervantes. Looked at Poe. Considered Tolkien. But I was never a reader. I never hunted books down. I never got to Twain or Dickinson or Golding or Lewis or Stevenson when I was young and should have. My head, unfortunately, was already filled up with halfway versions of those timeless stories, etched either by Disney feature films, Hanna-Barbera serials, or eight-minute Looney Tune vignettes. I admit: I was a pop-culture crack baby.

I blame myself though, really, for my dearth of classic reading—boys’ classic reading—that is. Can’t blame the family or the schools. The books were always there if I had only found them. I guess it would have helped too, however, if I had stepped away from the screen from time to time and put my imagination to better use.

On the subject of screens, the one I look at most often now, aside from the computer, is the mobile phone, and the mobile phone that currently owns me—a Samsung Galaxy­—came pre-loaded with three classics: Wuthering Heights, The Three Musketeers, and, none other than, Treasure Island.

Finding this free little e-library in my phone was indeed like unearthing a treasure. Among the treasure was this particular volume that had been on my endless list of catch up books that would allow me to, as Vonnegut once said in an interview in response to his own lack of well-readedness, enter classic literature through the back door. In other words, get to the party late and still be able to get intoxicated but with a much better grasp of one’s self and the alcohol, in this case, the literature.

Finding Stevenson right there on my phone meant I wouldn’t need to go buy a copy of Treasure Island nor check it out from the library which is how I get my reading fix now.  And I do read. I’ve arrived at the party, through the back door, and I’m one of the guests that won’t leave. With Treasure Island on my phone, I would go ahead and read my first e-book. And since Musketeers and Wuthering Heights were on there, too, I might as well just go ahead and read those.

I discovered Treasure around May and finished reading it in September. Yes, it’s pathetic. You may now please chide me the way you chided me for not reading more of the classics in the first place, but I have a defense, and this is it: I just couldn’t get into the book. Not the story. The story was great. It was the book, held in my hand, the page stark white with about 60 words per tiny page that felt wrong.

I rushed through chapters. Scrolled ahead to see how many of the small pages I had left. At the end of a chapter, I toggled over to the contents page to see where exactly in the file I was. I toggled. That word right there shouldn’t be something you do with a book. Toggling.

A slow reader I am. I nibble books. And I admit: I skim through things I’m not interested in. Like the way you might be skimming over this right now. But if I like a book, I take my time. If I love a book, I stop and savor. I count words and letters and study the punctuation. I read and reread.  So maybe I didn’t love Treasure Island as much as a twelve year old might have, but I wonder if I would have liked it more had I read the printed book.

I’m also a promiscuous reader. I’ve got a non-fiction book going here, a story collection there, a novel over there, and magazines everywhere else. In the four month stretch it took me to read Treasure Island, I read a literary magazine, a couple issues of Harper’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (for the third or fourth time), got through most of Andy Borowitz’s 50 Funniest American Writers* collection, Pam Houston’s knockout Contents May Have Shifted and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets. I got to Treasure Island when I wasn’t doing something else. When I was waiting for something, or in a line, or killing time and looking at my phone, waiting for something to happen, like most people do.

The point is, I didn’t make reading Treasure Island a priority because I didn’t like that I had to go into the phone—a device I’m really not too crazy about to begin with—to enjoy it. It became an, “Oh yeah, that’s there and I need to take care of that,” type-thing. It became like checking e-mail or looking at Twitter. Perfunctory. Mindless.

I’m a bad reader in general. This again goes back to the childhood void of proper books at my disposal (and my lack of desire to find said books). I simply wasn’t passionate about reading. Even the lure of a personal pan pizza didn’t get me going, despite my going through a round of Book It! in fifth grade, circa 1987. For the program, I read some entirely lame thin books well below my reading level. It was totally not worth it to be sitting there at the Pizza Hut on St. Francis Drive which is now long gone, redeeming my coupon for a small pizza, just enough for me. I couldn’t even feed my mother. It wasn’t like when Karen Russell grew up as cited in her article in the Science Fiction issue of The New Yorker. Her generation was eligible for an entire pizza in the early 1990’s. We had it hard back in the late 1980’s. And much harder in Santa Fe where there were no books at all.

Had I grown up in Portland, would I now have a full-fledged love of reading? Perhaps a militant obsession? Maybe. I do believe the environment does have a say. And though growing up in Santa Fe where there were no books and reading was against the law, I was nurtured. Just a little. Mrs. Capshaw, my ninth grade Freshman English teacher, secretly put literature in front of me. Shakespeare, Orwell, Fitzgerald. She said I should read Wilder’s prehistoric allegorical play, The Skin of Our Teeth which I did, and loved. She said I should write more after I turned in a short story about drug dealing cats.

In college I read as required, but the “for fun” reading didn’t start until long after college when a writer some of you might know, last name rhymes with Bing, wrote about the only way one gets better at writing is through reading. Well, shit. I guess I have to do more of that.

And so I have. I read now for fun, and yes, because I really enjoy it. I love most the immersion into literature, how it’s kind of painful at first, then once you put yourself all the way in, it starts to hurt so good. Now I have a modest library filled with Vonnegut and Twain and Saunders and Fitzgerald and Diaz and García Márquez and Salinger and Almond and Shepard and Houston and Walters and many others, all of whose pages are dog eared and tabbed and written in. I’m a book worm now, inching my way through, savoring the pages—printed pages—I love.

But I worry about readers like me. Readers that skim over anything digital. Readers that claim to know the news when really all they’ve done is read a couple of headlines on Yahoo. Readers that find headlines or tweets—140 characters or less—to be all you need; and yet sometimes that’s too much. I would think bad readers turn into worse readers, and I would think that readers that prefer to read only printed material for enjoyment may eventually turn away from reading for enjoyment all together. As books migrate to digital formats—and they eventually all will—I can’t help but imagine the act of reading itself, soon to be exclusively eye-to-screen, becoming mind-numbing and bothersome, like most television, e-mail, and all the other crap we have to do in front of a computer screen that involves words.

I won’t end this on doom or gloom or leave you with the notion that this op-ed is only about my fears of the printed book going away, though that is what this is about. Mostly. What the rest of this statement is also about is the writing and how ultimately, it will matter most in the future.  Writers will have to compete with the mouse. Literary magazines tell submitters to send in work for readers that have one finger hovering, ready to right-click. If the writing is good, readers will not shut it down. The same is/was true for printed books. If it was that good, you kept the book open. You kept on reading.

I suppose that’s why I kept on with Treasure Island. Those last few chapters, when Jim Hawkins turned the corner, seized control of the Hispaniola, wagered with Long John Silver, and at last became a man, the story started to feel right, and no, it didn’t really matter that I was reading it on my phone. The story still excited me and I pushed through. I arrived  at the end, one less book on my list to read, one less book on my shelf.

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