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  • March 14th, 2011

The Magic Door

By Joel M. Vance

I don’t know how old I was when I first opened the magic door, but I was far closer to toddlerhood than I was to the angst of acne and hormonal dysfunction.  The “door” was the cover of a book and I have been an addicted reader ever since.
My folks belonged to the Book of the Month Club, so there always were books around and I read some when I was 7-9 years old that were far beyond me, but that didn’t stop me from acting like the proverbial kid in the candy store.
I’ve always been an eclectic reader.  At one time recently I had a biography of Wilt Chamberlain, a John Lescroart thriller, the novel Water for Elephants, an old Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe mystery and the stories of Rudyard Kipling, all open at the same time.
Books are an obsession, not a hobby.  I have a t-shirt which reads: “If I have money I buy books.  If there’s any left over I buy food.”  Mostly I buy books to read, but I also collect and kick myself that I didn’t start collecting earlier when real treasures today were merely used books.
I haunt flea markets, antique malls, used book stores and Good Will and Salvation Army stores.   Once I picked up a very good copy of William Faulkner’s A Fable for fifty cents.  Worth probably $200 or more.  Doesn’t happen every day, but when it does it’s a feeling of triumph like winning the national championship at almost anything.
You don’t get that charge from an electronic reader, which is today’s trend.  If, that is, most people read at all (and most don’t, leading, I’m convinced, to a serious dumbing-down of the country—else how to explain the mindless and incoherent babble of the Tea Partiers).  There is no tactile pleasure in an e-reader, even though I have a Nook and enjoy it.  I want to feel pages, admire the book cover and, in cases where I have autographed or inscribed books, know that the author has held that book.   It’s a connection far more meaningful than an electronic link.  Pixels do not replace picas.
E-readers are cheaper and more portable.  But it ain’t a book.  Books are why I became a writer.  I wanted to do what they do.  I wanted to see my words in print—or maybe to know that others were seeing those words.  I have e-books not in print form, but there’s no shelf presence, no sense of immortality.
It didn’t take long to realize that writing fame was remotely possible, but fortune was pretty much out of the question.  Few books ever make back their advance (if there is one).  That has become increasingly more true over the years as book publishing has shrunk to a stable of established authors or to the Celebrity of the Day whose literary credentials rely on how many drugs he or she takes, how many times the alleged writer (most are ghost-written) has been arrested or how outrageously dumb the person can be and fool her slack-jawed acolytes into thinking she amounts to something (and yes, Sarah, I’m talking about you and yours).
Wouldn’t stop me—writing, like reading is a compulsion every bit as compelling as is a heroin addiction.  Gene Kelly sang “Gotta dance ” and I identified.  He danced because he had to, and I write because I have to.  Writing about reading is melding two interlinked obsessions.
I can’t understand why some people mistreat books.  A printed book, theoretically, can last forever, but not if the wrong hands get hold of it.  I once loaned a nice book to a friend.  It was in new condition when I loaned it, and looked as if it had been passed around a Skid Row soup kitchen when it came back.  Apparently he had read it while scarfing down greasy French fries.
There are those who mark their place by dogearing the page.  Yet others crack the spine of the book to make it stay open.  I think that’s why I have back pains today.  Some pitch the dust jacket which, with a collectible, is vital.  Others bump the corners or cock the spine.  Still others shelve books in damp areas, leading to interesting mold cultures on the exposed parts.
Some write in their books (or their rug rats get hold of them with a fist-ful of crayons.  It’s one thing to have Hemingway inscribe a book to Fitzgerald or to have marginal inscriptions from Theodore Dreiser; another to have notes from Joe Schmoe (although I have a cherished marginal note in a cheap Rex Beach novel: “This is a good book.”  My Grandpa wrote that probably 70 years ago.
I can’t claim to be a literary reader.  I’m like Mark Twain who said of HenryJames, the darling of the literati, “Once you’ve put down a James novel it’s awfully hard to pick it up again.”  I’ve read Hemingway, not much of Faulkner (except his Big Woods, good stuff), most of Fitzgerald.  I was lucky enough to meet Annie Proulx and love her ability with a sentence.
Mark Twain, of course, is ageless.  Sometimes a book comes along that fires me up even though nearly everyone else doesn’t know anything about it.  Such a one is Larry Colton’s Counting Coup, a true story of a girls’ basketball team on the Crow Reservation in Wyoming.   Very moving.  Colton’s other book was so boring and self-indulgent I didn’t finish it.
The great humorists, today largely forgotten, were my inspiration and when I met Pat McManus, the fine contemporary humorist, I found that we were influenced by the same group: Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, H. Allen Smith, James Thurber and the greatest of all essayists, E.B. White (today mostly remembered as the writer of Charlotte’s Web).
Pat, a truly fine gentleman, is the same age as me.  We grew up on opposite sides of the country but, demonstrating the universality of books, fell in love with the same writers.  Pat graciously gave a warm and funny presentation on humor writing to the Outdoor  Writers Association of America Goldenrod Writing Workshop in Missoula, MT, last August (see www.owaa.org and click on Goldenrod).
Goldenrod is a chance for those who love writing and books to get together and learn better writing and talk about books.  Maybe we can save the printed word one book at a time……

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  1. Christina Nugent

    May 7th, 2012 at 6:37 pm


    Hi joel. Saw your
    article in audobon mag. Pulled up magic doorr
    Right on. Love thurber. Hello to marty.

    • joelvance

      May 7th, 2012 at 8:28 pm


      Hi, Christina,
      Thanks for the kind words. I once wrote a regular column for Audubon, about a century ago, but this is the first thing I’ve done for them in many a moon. Marty says hey.

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