Simple pleasures

March 22, 1995|By Russell Baker

IF YOU ARE fed up with the Puritan tyranny over modern America, boy, have I got a book for you!

"Endangered Pleasures" is the title. It is by Barbara Holland, and its underlying philosophical question is, "If the carefully lived life is so good for you, how come the people living it spend so much time thinking about death?"

Ms. Holland shamelessly advocates all the pleasures that have fallen into low repute since modern Puritanism cast its pall over the country. These include martinis, breakfast, wood fires, real coffee, loafing, lunching with lovers -- as opposed to big shots -- and doing your own gardening, among others.

"Joy has been leaking out of our lives," she writes. "We have let the New Puritans take over, spreading a layer of foreboding across the land until even ignorant small children rarely laugh anymore. Pain has become nobler than pleasure; work, however foolish or futile, nobler than play; and denying ourselves even the most harmless delights marks the suitably somber outlook on life."

As befits a writer whose cause is to save life's pleasures from the fate of the elm and the dodo, Ms. Holland makes her case with a light touch and a refusal to speak solemnly of anyone, even those grimmest of gloom-spreaders, the smoke police.

"Besides the human comradeship, the cigarettes themselves were company," she writes. "They're no longer a legitimate pleasure, but they were a pleasure once. We may have been stupid to smoke, but we didn't smoke from sheer stupidity; we smoked because we liked it."

Appropriately for an author promoting pleasure in joyless times, Ms. Holland makes her case in a mere 175 pages. Books that say their say without droning on at encyclopedia length are also one of our endangered pleasures.

I read her book during a recent vacation which provided a rare opportunity to read for the pure pleasure of reading. It's odd but true about the newspaper business that while it encourages a lot of reading, most of this reading is either not worth doing or not much fun.

In the not-worth-doing category are the bales of junk every journalist has to read to keep in touch with the same junky world his readers are in touch with.

The not-much-fun category may include some pretty good books. However, these are usually read, like the junk, to keep you in touch with the world or to please a friend or publisher. This makes them seem burdensome, as required reading was burdensome in high school. Can anything spoil a good book more certainly than making it "required reading"?

Anyhow -- given the rare luxury of time to read a few things for pure pleasure, what did I haul home from the library but a collection of short novels by Ivan Turgenev and some stories by Gustave Flaubert.

Yes, here I drop flossy names. It's not to impress you though, but -- quite the opposite -- to confess to a shabbily furnished mind, a mind that years ago slyly finagled a diploma from literature professors without having rubbed up against the better class of writer. Until this vacation late in life, I had read nothing by Turgenev and only "Madame Bovary" by Flaubert.

Well, since it was a vacation, Flaubert and Turgenev were not "required reading." Their books could be opened, scanned, then taken or left. I opened them and was bewitched.

Flaubert's story "A Simple Heart," familiar to all literary humanity, I take it, though new to me, moved me to tears. Turgenev's "Smoke" and "Fathers and Sons," familiar even to high-school society, but not to me, were more than gripping stories. They were lessons in the art of the novel.

The effectiveness of their square, upright 19th-century structure made you realize how badly today's novels suffer from their authors' crazed hunger for movie sales, which makes their books read like screenplays.

Back from vacation, I search the shops for other work by Flaubert and Turgenev and find almost nothing. It's just as well. The junk has piled up: truckloads of magazine ravings about Newt Gingrich and the next elections, a dozen books of "required reading," the usual novels dying to be movies.

So reading becomes another endangered pleasure.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.