Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sleeping On the Wing

It seems to me that many who say that they read instead  run their eyes across the page while attending to a private revery. They will reach the end, but with vague impressions. They will not have weighed the author's evidence if the book is a work of history. They will not have have measured the story against what they know of life or history if the book is a novel.

Now and then, an author is tempted to play tricks on such readers. In A Double-Barreled Detective Story, Mark Twain began a chapter with the following paragraph:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
In the notes of the volume in which I first read this story, Twain printed excerpts from some puzzled readers, one of whom remarked that his esophagus was wingless, and as far as he knew never slept. Twain concluded that he would have got away with the paragraph, lilacs, laburnums, larch, pomegranate and all, but for overreaching and including the esophagus.

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