As if news about the economy weren't bad enough. As if the stories of the paradigm shifts in book publishing weren't bad enough. As if the possible demise of my favorite books publication weren't bad enough, John Updike died yesterday.
Let me tell you a little of what John Updike means to me. My mother took me to my first-ever author reading at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA in -- I think -- 1995. Updike was soft-spoken, strangely charming, and had obvious skin problems (he suffered from psoriasis his whole life). That night, he read a short story about a swimming pool that filled with dead dragonflies with neglect. But it was actually a story about a waning marriage, the metaphor being apt but not obvious.
My mother had been taking me to lectures for years -- including an infamous attendance at a talk on France's Chartres cathedral in which the lecturer illuminated EVERY SINGLE STAINED GLASS window while I fell asleep on my mother's lap (I was 12). I'd been to some real winners since then -- shark lady Eugenie Clark, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey -- but Updike, man, he had me at "The Orphaned Swimming Pool." I sat in the audience enrapt. As I looked out over the crowd, I saw my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Sclichter, one of the most miserable men I have ever known, a man so lazy as to use the same lesson plans from 1978, a man so contemptable that he believes no good literature was written after Bech is Back, a man who came this close (fingers pinched) to turning me off books, an impossible curmudgeon who was convinced that no interpretation of Winesberg, Ohio was acceptable but his own. Our eyes met. In class later that week he looked at me, smiled, and said: "wasn't Updike GREAT."
Yeah. He was.