I worked in a mercury mine one summer during my college years when it became a tossup whether digging ore or reading a huge book involved more heavy lifting.
The ore was cinnabar (not to be confused with Cinnabon, the pastry). The result was mercury, a metal that is liquid at room temperature or in a careless kid’s hot little hand.
Fortunately, my time underground was limited. I helped an electrician run a wire into the mine. That created a safe way to throw a switch from outside the mine that would ignite a dynamite blast deep inside the mine, loosening the ore and loosening my nerves along with it.
A young person could earn enough in a mine during a summer to get through another college year without going into debt. That was before students were abandoned by Congress and most state legislatures, leaving students today with brutal loan debts.
However, the mine had drawbacks. There was almost nothing to do at night after a day’s work. We were up in the mountains 20 miles from the nearest town without a television or a radio signal.
However, we did have four days off every two weeks, and it was possible to hitch a ride into a small town. There I found a library.
I had been told I should read the huge Russian novel “War and Peace.” It was said to be entertaining but also an endurance test, something like climbing a tall mountain or running a marathon or trying to date Sophia Loren.
I missed the boat on Sophia, but the librarian handed me a huge book with the words “War and Peace” shouting at me from the cover in letters as large as Russia.
That 1,300-page volume seemed endless at first and weighed a couple of pounds, but I needed something to do at night besides play poker and snore.
Like most novels, it got off to a slow start. You need a few pages to get to know a book, but it gradually served its purpose. Soon, the book started to get inside my skin.
Part of the fun of a book is focusing on its heroes and putting yourself in his brain and boots. I quickly identified with Pierre Bezukhav, a tall, handsome and kindly guy who was popular with Russian ladies.
Of course, I was only medium height, and like most skinny college guys, I felt awkward and ordinary with no Sophias in sight. But I had that book, a book of Russian history, enough love story to warm a cold country and plenty of action; a war was going on inside that book.
The book had characters in it by the dozens. But unlike most novels with an overflow of characters, that book gave me a fighting chance of keeping track. It used a clever device that almost all novels should have. That edition of “War and Peace” included a list of characters inside the back cover with brief descriptions of which character was which.
(I know of one electronic book now on the market that lets you touch a name of a character and bring up a brief description of him on the screen.)
And why not? Baseball provides a scorecard complete with pictures and biographies of the players. “War and Peace” kindly did something like that.
Most novelists get so close to the characters while creating them that they stupidly forget those same characters aren’t familiar enough for the rest of us to keep them straight.
We should require novelists to take pity on their readers or face a fine for leaving the customers in the dark.
Why can’t novels be more like baseball?
Contact Bill Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501.