It was during my first college freshman year that I learned the reality behind Oscar Wilde’s words when he observed that books are neither “moral nor immoral,” only “well written or poorly written.” I had yet to actually encounter that quote, but it has since become one of my favored ones. I say my “first college freshman year” because, while I enjoyed reading since childhood, I was not very disciplined, so it took me three tries to finally earn a degree. But in 1970, I enrolled in the University of Missouri intending to major in journalism and work for the New York Times. However, a lack of discipline along with an abundance of beer (and certain combustibles) interrupted that particular life path.
At the time, Eric Seagal’s Love Story had been released. It seemed like everyone I met sang its praises. There had never been such a great romance written. Ever. It would tear your heart out. It would move you to tears. It was the “must-read” of the year. So, I read it.
And read it.
And read it.
Mein gott, what a chore. It took me three weeks to plow through those ponderous and heavy-handed pages of cheap melodrama. Later, when I heard that Al Gore posited the theory that its main character was based on him, I had to question anyone who would want to be tied in with that soap opera on paper.
It didn’t help that my father, an opera buff, had taken me to performances since I was 13. If anyone knows the great Italian operas of the 19th century (especially La Boheme) and has read Love Story, you know why I say the only thing about the book that shocked me was that the Puccini family hadn’t sued for plagiarism.
There was, however, one good joke that came from its publication. Question: Why isn’t Love Story in the Library of Congress? Answer: They haven’t got a shelf for books written in crayon on brown paper bags.
As you can guess, I ain’t a fan.
However, at one point during that three-week marathon, I decided to take a break. I picked up another relatively new paperback making the rounds during those turbulent times: Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
Soul on Ice is essentially a memoir consisting primarily of journal entries, letters, and short essays. In it, Cleaver explains his life choices to the reader as a convicted criminal, political radical, and eventually one of the founders of the Black Panthers.
As a white kid from a middle-class suburban family, the book scared the crap out of me.
It also captured me.
Seeing what Cleaver’s life had been like and gaining insight into his thought processes became a revelation. It only took me about four hours to get through its 200+ pages. Any additional time was spent rereading certain passages that proved particularly illuminating.
By the way, the segments containing the letters between Cleaver and his attorney on the nature of truth and his analysis of inter-racial relationships were especially magnetic.
The main point here is that, where Cleaver’s work was well written yet spontaneous, studied yet comprehensible, Love Story was the literary equivalent of trying to do the backstroke in a pool of Styrofoam packing material. It was stilted, formulaically derivative, and worse, boring as hell. It was an exercise in copy and paste with updated alterations before we had that option easily available. Perhaps the greatest lesson that reading Love Story taught me was to not waste my time on books that do not reward the reader’s efforts.
Oh, and there was no way on earth I intended to waste another two hours of my life watching that movie.
Up next: My Russian encounter