“Do you have any books by Hemingway?” I asked the older woman who was smoking and reading in the basement English-language section of a bookshop on Neuengasse in Bern, Switzerland.
“Of course,” she said with a slight Swiss-German accent, rising and escorting me to a bookcase labeled fiction. “Any particular title you’re looking for?”
”The Sun Also Rises,” I said.
“Ah,” she said, “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”
I didn’t know what the lady was talking about, that this was the first line of The Sun Also Rises. Thus began my education at the age of 23.
Before then, my reading was confined mainly to newspapers and magazines. As a student, before dropping out of college in my teens, I had been less than inspired by assigned reading, the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and George Eliot. Why American students of my generation were assigned Silas Marner remains a mystery and an act of intolerable cruelty.
But for me, in 1969, a novice journalist without a job – how I wound up in Switzerland is another story for another time – I was determined to gorge on all the great writing available for a few francs in that basement bookstore in Bern.
I chewed through books every waking hour, starting with the classics of 20th century lit – Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh.
I tasted Thomas Wolfe and spit it out before finishing. I read some of Oscar Wilde’s poetry and plays, and stories by Ring Lardner Jr. and Damon Runyon.
On a road trip to Amsterdam, deadheading a car for Hertz, I briefly checked out the hookers in the windows in Rossebuurt and the Rembrandts in The Hague, before returning to my little hotel room to read Norman’s Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.
I caught up with other contemporary writers: Capote’s In Cold Blood and Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
I read Kerouac’s On the Road ,Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Hells Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson.
Far from home, but still feeling a hangover from the previous year – the MLK and RFK assassinations, the Democratic debacle in Chicago, Nixon’s victory in November, the war without end – I went back in time with Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1968 and David Halberstam’s and Jack Newfield’s books on Bobby Kennedy.
On an overnight train to Paris, I stayed awake with a thick paperback by three British journalists called An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968.
In Bern, my day would begin with a walk across the river to the medieval old town, to the newspaper kiosk near the city’s famous clock tower, where’d I pick up the International Herald Tribune, take it to a café and read from front page to back. If there was a column by Russell Baker or Art Buchwald, I saved it for dessert.
Then it was off to the basement bookstore to comb the shelves for another classic, or the latest piece of literary journalism from the States.
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