Unlike, say, the poor bachelors of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, who had to pass the winter months in their snowbound Technicolor mountainscape with nothing to do but moonily swing axes and exercise their classical dance training on Jane Powell and one another, during our most recent blizzard in New York -- one of the worst on record, apparently -- had I wanted to, I could have done laundry, gotten a manicure, eaten Chinese, Mexican, Japanese or (God help me) Irish food, worked out, dropped off my dry cleaning, had something swaddled in packing peanuts and bubble wrap and sent anywhere in the world, put a child in day care, seen a band called Trust Company at the concert hall on the next corner, applied for welfare, had my back waxed at a day spa, bought drugs both prescription and illicit, attended a wine tasting, parked a car long-term, purchased an examination table (with stirrups!) and attended services, either Episcopalian or Rosicrucian, all within a two-block radius of my apartment in Manhattan.
Mobility, even under two feet of snow, isn't really an issue here. So cabin fever in New York City is, more often than not, an elective state of being, requiring no small amount of conviction and effort to maintain in this town. Like purity of heart. Still, lockdown is lockdown, whether by shackle or by having taken the orders of one's own free will. Both require the occasional palliation that only a book provides. Herewith, three approaches to passing the time: A Dream of Escape; The Charm of Contrast; and The Serenity of Capitulation.
Born in January, 1900, and lost at sea off Hong Kong by the age of 39, Richard Halliburton was an impossibly romantic figure, as close to a real-life Indiana Jones as ever there was: explorer, adventurer, aviator and historian. Now something of an underground cult figure, Halliburton was normative, canonical reading for children born in the 1930s. The Flying Carpet (The Long Rider's Guild Press)is the 1932 account of his trip around the world in a two-passenger biplane, piloted by the equally dashing Moye Stephens. Halliburton was a man of his time, and some of his anthropological insights can be a tad florid and idealized, when they're not downright offensive. An episode, for example, where he and Stephens purchase two children, "Little Eva" and "Monkey," from a Tuareg chieftain (Halliburton himself, a Princetonian from Tennessee, was "brought up believing in the sanctity of the institution" of slavery) fails to charm, but he more than makes up for it at other moments.
There they are, grounded by a sandstorm in the Sahara en route to Timbuktu, playing phonograph records out into the African night; Halliburton in jazz-age high spirits as he and his dipsomaniac chum, "Whoopee," strip down and swim the Grand Canal in Venice; in Bagdad [sic]he takes the young crown prince up in the Flying Carpet for his birthday; slipping the muezzin some baksheesh in Constantinople, he ascends the minaret of Santa Sophia at dawn, amazed at the softening of that region's storied fundamentalism, and says "Oh Islam, Islam, how has your fanaticism faded!" And there he sits with Stephens, smiling, beautiful, their hands clasped at their knees, crisp and turned out in white linen trousers. Between them, British-born Ranee Sylvia of Sarawak kneels with an arm about each of their shoulders. Why wouldn't the royalty of Borneo give welcome? Halliburton saw a world that was vast and unknown and still somehow marvellously lacking in menace, just waiting for him to explore. He might as well have been an airplane himself given how emblematic he was of the velocity, benign bluster and sheer globe-embracing appetite of the American century.
By contrast, Kobo Abe's masterpiece The Woman in the Dunes (Vintage) would fall squarely into the "it could be worse" camp of making peace with one's confinement. Made into the classic 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigehara, it is the terrifying tale of an entomologist who finds himself trapped in a house at the bottom of a hole 65 feet deep, with no way out. There he must spend his days as a prisoner, shovelling the sand which shifts constantly, threatening to bury him alive. It is a brilliant and relentless work, inducing a throat-clutching claustrophobia in its exploration of those seemingly unendurable circumstances we end up not just living through, but complicitly courting. I first read it as a student in one anxious night, pausing every chapter or so to go to the open window, loosen my collar and take huge gulping breaths, bringing myself back to reality, up out of the pit.
Time spent in the company of the thousand-plus entries of Reading Lyrics (Pantheon),edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, is a loving nod to our shut-in forebears, who made their own fun on long winter nights. (Actually it's naive to think they were doing anything so indolent. More likely they were out desperately foraging for fuel so they wouldn't all freeze to death, or clearing ice out of the way for the doctor's horse to get through so he could perform some ghoulish butchery using rusty implements. Oh, such pre-industrial amusement!)
The songs in the book range from early Jerome Kern and George M. Cohan through Tin Pan Alley, Lorenz Hart, Noel Coward, Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, up to Stephen Sondheim. Reading the words to Frank Loesser's Adelaide's Lament from Guys and Dolls makes clear what an astonishment it really is: a pitch-perfect deconstruction of the mind-body connection, and simultaneously one of the great art songs and comic novelty numbers ever written. And very fun to sing on one's own, to boot. Cole Porter's In the Still of the Night, by contrast, is an insidious, deceptive trap requiring octaves and octaves of range. You'll be bested before you even get to the first bridge. Also, almost every song you've ever known and loved begins with a verse you've simply never heard. (Case in point, Mona Lisa: "In a villa in a little old Italian town/ Lives a girl whose beauty shames the rose . . .") It makes for a nice, old-fashioned Louisa May Alcott evening, that is if Louisa May Alcott ever sang "They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil".
To be sure, these are strange days, rife with reasons to stay indoors beyond mere weather. I ventured outdoors just the other day, along with a few others, to protest a war that seems as misguided as it is inevitable. Half a million of us were dismissed as a "focus group" not worthy of consideration. The morning newspaper this week carried a public-service advertisement telling us what to pack in our emergency evacuation kits. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a single book on the list of items. Given the alternatives, I'll stay put for the moment. David Rakoff is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, GQ and Outside, and is the author of the book Fraud . He is a Canadian living in New York.
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