Summer’s junk food for thought

Charles Gordon September 1 1986

Summer’s junk food for thought

Charles Gordon September 1 1986

Summer’s junk food for thought


Charles Gordon

The summer has revealed a need to persuade Canadians to stop improving themselves. Canadians are relentless self-improvers and can’t stop doing it even when they are supposed to be on vacation. They sit on the dock and read books allegedly written by Canadian politicians. They read books with the word “excellence” on the cover.

In extreme cases, they have newspapers delivered to the dock and read them, from front to back, editorial pages and all. After their allotted three weeks or four, they come back with a tanned head, but with the same old thoughts in it.

The difficulty stems from their inability to take a break from self-improving. The way to read a newspaper in the summer is to go right to the sports page, without guilt, and then to the weather. Find out if the Expos won, if it will rain tomorrow, and then throw the rest of the newspaper away.

This has to do with the avoidance of profound thoughts. About as profound as you want to get is to wonder whether the people who put pink flamingos on their docks to make fun of bad taste know they paid more for their flamingos than the people who bought them years ago because they liked them.

Another permissible thought is whether you left your book and your sunglasses in the same place.

As for book titles, the trick is to avoid words like “excellence” and go for words like “murder.” It is also permissible to consult a reference book to find out the Latin name of the thing that just bit you.

Summer is the time to find out what new mayhem Travis McGee and Spenser have been up to, what new bit of “tradecraft” le Carré’s latest agent is using. Summer is the time to grab the biggest novels—American and Canadian, in paperback, so as not to get the latest coconut-smelling tanning secret smeared all over expensive pages.

While thousands resist, refusing to throw away the financial section, others have learned the art of junk reading with clear conscience. The secret is to mine the vein of useful information in the stuff you want to read anyway.

It’s there, make no mistake. For example, Spenser, Robert B. Parker’s Boston detective, usually cooks something, in great detail, while he ponders

the case. Rather than deride him as a wimp, the seeker of knowledge on the dock could take a lesson. In his latest book (latest meaning, always, latest in paperback), Spenser doesn’t cook anything, but his love, Susan Silverman, manages some corn bread, described step-by-step in Chapter 40 while Spenser and his friend Hawk decide how to kill somebody.

(Interestingly, Spenser kills an alarming number of people in this book, leading the reader to wonder whether there is an inverse relationship between killing and cooking. On a dock, this could pass as a profound thought.)

Earlier in the book, Spenser reveals that “buffalo stew tastes very much like beef stew,” and later Hawk shows that baby oil is just the thing for cleaning the salt water corrosion off a .357, whatever a .357 is.

Helen Maclnnes, in Ride a Pale

The way to read a newspaper in the summer is to go right to the sports page, without guilt, and then to the weather pages

Horse, gives a good definition of disinformation, for those of us who always confuse it with misinformation: “It includes a fact or two to make a story credible, then adds the distortions.”

The valuable information goes on and on, even in Canadian books, in case you were worried about that. In Anthony Hyde’s suspense novel The Red Fox, two of his characters engage in an interesting discussion of provincial adoption statutes. Nor is the nugget of useful information confined to the genre novel. It is from none other than Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, that we learn (if we needed to learn it) that the traditional distress call of “Mayday” comes from the French “m'aidez.”

The big American serious summer paperback, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, is not just a useless bunch of literature either. Right there on page 128 we are told the symptoms of the disease eclampsia, as well as some recommendations for treating it (“bed rest, diet, reduction of fluid intake .... ”).

John le Carré, in A Perfect Spy, tells

you how to enter a room you are not supposed to be in: “Tread heavily, she tells herself, remembering her training. If you have to make a noise, make a bold one.” It is from le Carré also that we learn that “it’s standard intelligence practice to continue transmitting whether or not the party is listening at the other end.”

Le Carré’s countryman, Jeffrey Archer, lets us know that government members of Parliament wait by the phone for 48 hours after a general election. “If the phone hasn’t rung by then, they remain on the back benches.”

Closer to home, the alert dock reader can glean, from the great Elmore Leonard, a lesson on the economics of Atlantic City: “A giant hotel billboard out on the highway said their slots paid out over 68 million dollars last month. Yeah? And how much of it did the suckers put back in? They didn’t say.”

Yeah. Which brings us to the leading source of dock knowledge, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. Criticized lately by feminists for a patronizing, if gallant, approach to women, McGee also stands accused of being a know-itall. The average McGee book is going to tell you exactly what to use for this, precisely what to buy for that and specifically what is wrong with just about any aspect of society you want to name.

In The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee lets you know what brand names of audio equipment he put into his houseboat, what kind of autopilot he has in his two-ton runabout and lots more, including a few words on driving a car: “ The expert driver moves out into the passing lane when he is at least 15 car lengths from the vehicle he is passing. Then he can move back without haste if it is not a good time to pass. Once by, he makes his angle of return to his lane as long and gradual as is consistent with what is ahead of and behind him. The good driver takes his foot off the gas when there is anything ahead he does not understand.”

Later, McGee muses on that, goes out and acts in a crude sort of way, killing people and whatnot, but the driving lesson was useful, wasn’t it? And the guy on the next dock, reading the stock market, will miss it, and Susan Silverman’s corn bread, too. Isn’t summer grand?

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.