Monday, March 27, 2006

Updike and Reading Memories

A few weeks ago, Valerie and I saw John Updike read two of his early short stories. I had fully intended to write a detailed account of his reading, but I didn’t do it that night, didn’t take any notes, and have slept too much since then (read procrastinated as usual).

Here are a few memories of the reading. Updike is an old man, tall, angular, and rather stiff. However, his voice is not angular or stiff. I felt like I could listen to him read to me every night. After he read his two short stories, he was interviewed onstage by an English professor from Rice University. During the interview, Updike seldom made eye contact with the professor. He only made eye contact with the audience or something just above our heads. The professor’s interview was a waste of time for the most part.

The questions that he asked were the kind of questions that a literature scholar might ask, not the kind of questions that reading fans might ask. Even when he did ask good questions, the professor tried to put answers in Updike's mouth. I can remember only one of them right now (maybe Valerie will read this and remind of one or two more). He asked what authors Updike read. Before Updike could name even one, the professor offered John Barth and at least two other authors, but I can't recall the others. I do remember thinking that Updike tried to be cooperative, but the authors' names didn't seem to be the ones that Updike might have listed. I do remember another question now.

The first question was something like who Updike thought of as contemporaries. Before he could even name one author, the professor offered Saul Bellow and another as being in an earlier generation, then the professor asked about Phillip Roth. Updike said that Roth would be his contemporary but didn't seem to be about to elaborate on their relationship, professional or personal. The professor spent the next few minutes trying to get Updike to talk about Roth's work--completely irrelevant and a bit rude if you ask me. Then he tried to get Updike to talk about Joyce Carol Oates. It was obvious from Updike's replies that he isn't a huge fan of Oates' work. He said something like she was persistent. The interview was only interesting and so much livelier when the professor picked up the stack of audience questions. Although the questions were typical, they gave Updike the opportunity to offer some genuine answers. After the reading, Updike signed books, and he was friendly in doing so.

Before seeing Updike, combing my bookshelf to find the two books (the limit) that I would have him sign, I found my copy of The Witches of Eastwick. It is just an old, pulp fiction copy, so I chose not to take it. I did, however, spend some time considering the purchase of a new copy to get him to sign. I think it's the first novel of his that I ever read. I remember that my mother read it first and told me how good it was. (I'm sure the movie was coming out around that time.) I read it before I saw the movie, and I liked it as much as my mother did. Since then, I have been a fan of Updike's work.

When my mother passed away four years ago, I lost a book club. Since the Updike reading, I have been thinking about her and our shared reading experiences. When I took graduate literature classes, she would be as interested as I was in the novels for my courses. Often, she would read them before I did. If she didn't read them first, she read them when I finished the book or the course. When I visited her or she visited me, she always wanted to know what I was reading. Many times, I have purchased a book and loaned it to her to read before I found the time to read it. After I had finished the book, we would discuss it at length the next time we were together. I miss sharing books with my mother. I miss our book sharing almost as much as I miss her presence.

I will stop now before I become maudlin. I think I will go to bed and read for a while. Good night all.

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