Trillin, Calvin, The Nation
UNCIVIL LIBERTIES. My friend Howard Corkum took David Stockman's book to the cottage the Corkums have at the beach, and immediately started talking about how guilty he felt about not reading it.
"I feel terrible about this," Howard said, when I went out to visit them a few days after they opened up the cottage for the summer. "Here I've spent $22.95 for a book I haven't even opened. I can't imagine why I bought it in the first place. I mean, it's not as if I've been a big fan of David Stockman. He looks like he was George Will's roommate in college and they had the only absolutely tidy room in the dormitory."
"Take it easy, Howard," I said. "You just got here. How do you know you won't read it before the end of the summer?"
"That's how I know," Howard said, pointing to a small mountain of thick volumes on the other side of the parlor. I couldn't see all the titles from where I was sitting, but I did make out Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, by Jimmy Carter, and The White House Years, by Henry Kissinger. "I haven't opened any of them," Howard said. "I feel just awful about this whole thing."
None of this surprised me. Every winter, Howard, feverish with good intentions, buys some pound-and-a-half political memoir that he describes as "important," and puts it aside to read when he gets to the beach cottage in the summer. He never seems to remember that what he actually does at the beach all summer is putter around in an old shed turning found objects like driftwood and lobster buoys into small pieces of furniture that, in the words of the mutual friend we call Marty Mean Tongue, "make you understand that certain found objects were meant to remain lost."
Sitting there in the Corkums' parlor, wobbling slightly on a chair Howard has fashioned from railroad ties, I regretted not having thought to phone Howard's wife, Edna, last winter and suggest that she clip any mention of the Stockman book from Howard's newspaper, the way that a criminal court bailiff might clip references to a notorious murder case before allowing the afternoon paper into the jury room.
Once he's bought a book, it's too late. "But do you actually think you're going to read A Time to Heal, by Gerald Ford?" I asked one spring, in the slim hope that I could persuade him to include it in a couple of boxes of books I was about to take down to the local Veterans Administration Hospital.
"Not now, of course," he said. "It's the sort of book you save for the summer."
I've never known what else to do except to encourage him in his carpentry, if that's what it is, on the theory that if he believes it's a worthwhile activity he might feel less guilty about not completing what he seems to treat as the homework the publishing industry has assigned all citizens. …