About fifteen months after I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I attended a going-away party for a former colleague at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who had taken a job as the town manager in Amherst, Massachusetts. Another former colleague asked me a pointed question: “Can you still read?” I answered her immediately, noting that I was writing a weekly blog about Alzheimer’s. But her frank question made me think. It was the first such question that I had fielded. I turned around the question to ask myself, How long will I be able to read?
A simple answer is elusive. In the basic sense, a Stop sign is a very important sign. So is a crosswalk. During the eighteen months I worked in the Waterbury, Connecticut, area, I reported on a gruesome neck injury. Because the authorities had failed to replace a Stop sign in a timely fashion, a man broke his neck. But more broadly, of course, I am talking about the challenges of decoding what we call reading and writing. I am drawing on two accomplished writers who don’t have much have in common: Ron Chernow, an acclaimed biographer of George Washington and other founding fathers, and Don DeLillo, best known for novels that seem to portend the near future. DeLillo’s sprawling masterpiece Underworld was published in 1997, four years ahead of 9/11. The original dust jacket seemed to portend 9/11. The twin towers still stood. An old church stood in the foreground.
Of the two writers, Chernow is much more accessible. He is first a historian, but also a gifted storyteller. As I was reading this tome, I realized how little I knew about George Washington. As a young officer in the French and Indian War, he almost succumbed to dysentery. And two decades later, the scene in Valley Forge is downright horrible. Many of the soldiers didn’t have boots, and spores of blood littered the ice and snow. There are other gruesome scenes in this section. Lafayette, the French officer who led France to intervene on behalf of the colonies, ended up in a ghastly dungeon in Revolutionary France. Incredibly, he survived to meet George Washington after the war was over. At certain times I found myself skimming some portions. And that is not Chernow’s fault.
Pre-Alzheimer’s, I only skimmed if I found the writer boring.
DeLillo’s The Names is only about 340 pages, but it is the opposite of a fast read. I decided to peek at the original review in The New York Times, which appeared in 1982. The reviewer described the book as a “brilliant, ultimately rather elusive meditation on America’s place in the world.”
First, it is a work of fiction, but not a mainstream fiction. Some of DeLillo’s novels are dark comedies, and White Noise is probably his most popular book, on account of its dark comedy. But The Names was the book that made him a prominent writer in 1982.
Here is an example from the book, depicting a chaotic scene in Tehran at a time when Islamic radicals were clashing with secular protesters: “As hundreds of thousands of people marched toward the Shayyad monument, some of them wearing funeral shrouds, striking themselves, with steel bars and knife affixed, David was hosting a Chain Day party at his house in North Tehran, an area sealed off by troopers and tank barricades. The partygoers could hear the chanting mobs here but whether they were chanting ‘Death to the Shah’ or ‘God is great,’ and whether it mattered. ... The drivers were in free form.” And then kicker: They did not reduce speed when driving in reverse.
In another scene, the main character muses about his disappointment that his funeral will not be televised. Someone else, casually, asked, “do you film the murder?’”
“The other person says, casually, “Eat your eggs.”
“You haven’t thought that far ahead?”
“There won’t be a murder. No one gets hurt. At the end, they raise their arms, holding up the weapons.” One character is an experimental Western film director.
In the same conversation, the Manson cult is brought into the conversation. This makes sense, because the key plot point in the book is a cult murder. “They’re adding material to their public dream,” one of the characters remarks. “They want to vault into eternity.”