Michener Didn't Write For Mere Book Potatos
by Bill Hall, Lewiston, Idaho Tribune, Wednesday, October 22, 1997
James Michener was a novelist who wrote for people who feel guilty about
reading novels. And I do.
If I read an ordinary novel, I feel like I'm just wasting my time, just
having fun when decent behavior demands that I spend the time improving
myself by reading something factual. With Michener, you could do both
-- have fun and learn something.
That explains why, though I have long doted on Michener, a lot of my
friends never have. Frankly, a lot of my friends read nothing but
novels. And they do it solely for pleasure, which is morally lax.
When I read a novel, I always feel I shouldn't be doing that. It
strikes me as pretty much the same thing as having sex for pleasure
rather than strictly for procreation. And we all know how wrong that
For that reason, I have read far more nonfiction than fiction. A person
has only so much time for reading in his life, especially given all the
football games on television. So I always feel guilty when I am reading
a book that is of no great import, a book that is just a story, just
In fact, it is bizarre that novel reading is so highly regarded. It's
totally frivolous, intellectually lazy, something no mentally energetic
person would do.
Even more amazing, it is often compared with television watching in a
way that puts down television watchers. If one person is reading and
the other person is watching television, book snobs just automatically
assume that the reader is noble and the television watcher is a boob.
But what if the person watching television is watching a program of
history or science or an opera and the reader is reading a romance novel
or a murder mystery? Which one is the mental slob and which one is the
Actually, there's a lot of that same kind of smugness throughout the
entertainment world. Opera is an example. Opera is just a play set to
music, often a simple-minded play. But if I listen to and enjoy Willie
Nelson (and I do), I'm a bum in some circles. But if I listen to and
enjoy Luciano Pavarotti (and I do), I am a high-class guy in those same
And yet it's kind of a toss-up which of the two is the greater
musician. Pavarotti was born with a better set of pipes and has put a
lot of sweat into making the most of what he has. On the other hand,
Willie Nelson has written many timeless melodies and lyrics and put a
lot of sweat into becoming a superb guitar player. I wouldn't want to
choose between the two musicians and I don't have to so I'm going to
continue enjoying them both.
Nonetheless, the way these things go, if you are reading a novel written
by Willy Nelson and I am watching Pavarotti on television, you are the
classy one and I'm the dumb couch potato. But novels are also read on
the couch, you potatoes.
Nonfiction books are a different matter altogether. If I am reading a
biography of Warren Harding or the history of pickle packing in America,
I come to the end of the book knowing stuff that most people don't
know. I have added to my vast store of useless knowledge and improved
my mind. And we all know in this society that the only thing more noble
than improving your mind is having sex strictly for reasons of
procreation and without having any fun whatsoever.
Michener's books are kind of like sex for procreation while accidentally
enjoying it if you're not careful. His books usually amount to a short
course on some important body of knowledge, but wrapped palatably inside
the plot and characterization of a novel.
For instance, his novel "The Source" is the most enjoyable short course
on comparative religion you will ever encounter.
But most regular novel readers I know -- book potatoes -- don't agree.
They read to escape the cares of their drab lives, using reading as a
narcotic and not to learn anything practical, even if what they learn is
sugar-coated in a good yarn.
Michener not only wrote for conscientious people like me but was a
conscientious person himself. The obituary said that at the time of his
death he was studying and writing about the ailments that killed him,
learning about dying and not just dying for pleasure of its benevolent
This is football season so I may not find time to read what he wrote,
but I look forward to the mini-series on television.