The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


Every New Year, I resolved to read more.  I recall that when the year 2000 was dawning, I became particularly determined. I started a reading list; not a list of books to read, but a list of books I have read. I bought a lined journal, and being a methodical person, I proceeded through the alphabet. I first read Austin, Pride and Prejudice, and then Buck, Come My Beloved, Cooper, The Pioneers, Dreiser, An American Tragedy….you get the idea.  When I finished one, I would return to the quiet stacks in the public library  where I had picked up Dreiser and move down the shelf to the writers’ whose names began with E. Oh,  Elliot —what a lovely surprise….I’d forgotten all about her!  ….. and I went home with Adam Bede.  So, being this avid reader, I have been reading about Kindles and talking it over with my husband. Do I want one or not? Maybe…maybe not.

In 2009,  I began working on the Modern Library List which I stumbled upon while browsing the internet. The Modern Library actually has two lists; one was created by the board, and the second by readers. When I first printed them out, I (methodically) I checked each book I had already read, realizing that, as an English Lit major in college, I had already read about a third of the books listed. Each one I had checked, however,  was one of those books I have never forgotten. ….Forster’s Howards End, Wharton’s Age of Innocence,  Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Fowles’ The Magus….to name a few. I took this as a good omen.

So visited the library to pick up a copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – a work which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 and is, impressively, on BOTH the board’s and the reader’s list. I had no idea how large or small it would be – would it be another a Magus or  A Turn of The Screw ? – as I made my way to the even-quieter-now stacks and walked slowly past my old familiar friends who reside around the PS 3545 neighborhood. There it was – a little yellowed paperback nestled between Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. The edition my library offered is from The Pocket Library, which published it in 1959 and originally sold for 35 cents. I had to handle it very carefully, as the first two pages are already separated from the binding…but I understood this as I was, at the time, also in my fifties and need to be handled rather carefully.  I loved how this fragile little yellowed paperback felt  in my hands.

I also loved reading it; three pages into I realized I had to slow down. Mr. Wilder writes sentences like this:  She was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. Sentences like this must be lingered over and then the idea presented needs to be considered and assessed. This remarkable writer also sporadically injects ideas like this: The Marquesa would even have been astonished to learn that her letters were very good, for such authors live always in the noble weather of their own minds and those productions which seem remarkable to us are little better than a day’s routine to them. I stop, reread, and grin for I imagine that Thornton just winked at me, his reader,  and had a little laugh at  himself.

My love of reading is a combination of things. To be perfectly honest, the going and getting the book at a library has a great appeal to me.  Due to my preference for the older writers, the books I seek are usually right on the stacks waiting for me.  And I am quite certain that I would not find anything as  intellectually challenging as Mr. Wilder’s story about the five people who met their maker on the Bridge at San Luis Rey on a current bestseller list. The  little book itself with its yellowed pages,  deteriorating binding,  and pocket size, gives it character – similar to stepping into  a house with  half a century behind it  versus one that has only just been built.

So I think – clearly –  I am not a candidate for a Kindle. Not yet , anyways. But I must go now –to return The Bridge at San Luis Rey and pick up a copy of Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.

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