Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Summer Reading Tip

It's pretty simple. Before you start reading a book, go online to find out how a dollar in the year of the book's publication compares in value with a dollar today. Write that figure -- $1 = $1.67; $1= $12.24 -- inside the front cover, and you will be spared at least one of the many possible textual uncertainties you will be facing.

I have begun this practice because part of my summer reading is intellectual labor -- I am determined to read a little Adorno this working holiday -- and part of it is brain-deadening fun, which in my case means I will reread some of the old detective novels I first enjoyed decades ago: the Raymond Chandlers, the Ross McDonalds, the Rex Stouts, the Dashiell Hammetts.

In fact, I started early this summer, knocking off Hammett's "Red Harvest" as an antidote to grading final exams, my having recently read somewhere that "Red Harvest" is actually a very good novel. (It isn't.)

I've added Tony Hillerman and Robert Parker to my summer mix over the years, but it's still a very small universe. I read a few new trash books; I reread a few that I've read before.

Why I find it comforting to retreat into this genre -- and it's a double retreat verging on surrender when one is returning to novels read once twice three times before -- is a topic for another time.

But there's no hurry. Why I reread in a genre that does not repay reexamination can't be a nice reason or a healthy reason. That said, I have come up with a trick to make it marginally less an exercise in escape into the past, where things are simple and people are stupid. Money always matters in detective fiction, often as a motive for murder, just as often as part of the code that explains the detective's Code.

In Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" Lauren Bacall (I mean Vivian Regan; back-formation occurs above and beyond linguistics) accuses Marlowe of being in it for the money. He says:

All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much, if you have any trouble, I hope you'll think of me, I'll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up.

And I'm thinking (in AP style): He said 25 bucks a day? Just how much is that?

Using my favorite inflation calculator, I determine that if the novel were being written today, Marlowe would be charging $328 a day. Does this color my experience of the narrative?

Well, I understand from internal evidence spread across six novels that Marlowe certainly did not have a client five days out of seven and that he didn't have paid vacations or health insurance. I doubt he had an accountant to advise him to deduct for weapons, torn clothing and chipped teeth.

All that stipulated and the implications of it understood, if I were working as an Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco in 1939 and my compensation were precisely the same in relative dollars then as it is now, I would be making a very little more per day than Marlowe.

I would say to the Dean:

I am so money greedy that for twenty-six bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey and tweed patches on my elbows, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it, and I hold office hours twice a week, sometimes three times a week.

The inflation-adjusted value of things is just something I like knowing. It works for Jane Austen, too, by the way. When the gentry start talking about 400 pounds a year, try this inflation calculator , which -- so they claim and I'm having too much fun to say not -- can more or less tell us how the cost of living in Britain back to the year 1264 compares to the cost of living today.

And thus one may compute that Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year equals $831,671 a year today.

In the words of Mr Bennett: "May you have my daughter's hand in marriage? Fo' shizzle, sir! Fo' shizzle!"


Anonymous said...

That sap you mentioned up there? It's slappin' a palm, pal.

B. Wieder said...

Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen are high on my trash faves list, and now that you mention him, I should re-read some of the Hammett stuff, but my overwhelmingly mainstay head retreat is into anything Nero Wolfe, of which I believe I have everything (novels & trilogies) that has been published except for "If Death Ever Slept," and which I use as a time capsule into a past in which I am far more comfortable given that I don't need to know anything new to live there. Especially on vacations.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Ah, a Rex Stout man. I have most of the books, and I do return to them each summer. They are, as you say, a great escape. Crime is complicated and lucrative to solve. Women are dames. Archie is good with guns, fists, conversation, ladies, good food, comfort food, truck stop food. Nero Wolfe is the genius who is only good at being a genius; therefore, Archie is indispensible. Wolfe is that distant powerful daddy who loves you and you love him, but nobody goes there. It's very 30s, 40s, 50s. Brokeback Brownstone overtones? Nah.

anabela santiago said...

Liked your blog! I'll be visiting "you" regularly. I once lived in the United States and how I miss those times...