Monday 15 July 2019

Recently, I was trying to calculate how many books I’ve read in my lifetime. I started reading whole volumes by the time I was about ten years old and, from the start, I was voracious. I consumed books like they were food. I have no idea how consistent I was during the first ten years or so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I averaged at least a book a week. Later, I might read a book a night, several nights in a row. Say I averaged one book a week for 70 years: that’s over 3,500 books. Pretty impressive, but I’m sure I went through more than that. Say one-and-a-half books a week – and I think that’s still conservative – that’s close to 5,500. That’s a lot of words.

   Many books I read only once, but some favorites I’ve returned to two, three, maybe four times. I think there are only two that I have re-read more than half a dozen times. I just finished one of them – “No Highway,” by Nevil Shute. The other is “John McNab,” by John Buchan. 

   Why return to these two books? Neither is on any list of the best books ever written. You may have heard of the authors for some of their more famous efforts, for example, “On the Beach” for Nevil Shute and “The 39 Steps” for John Buchan. But, unless you saw the old Jimmy Stewart movie, “No Highway in the Sky” (which actually follows the book pretty closely), neither of my favorites are likely to be familiar to you. And they are old: “John McNab” was published in 1925, and “No Highway” in 1948 – they won’t show up in paperback at your local supermarket.

   So, I ask again: what brings me back to these books? My answer: pure escapism, done with good writing, and a fun, well-developed story. “John McNab” focuses on three well-known, well-respected and successful Englishmen, all of whom are suffering from ennui – sheer boredom with their lives. Their doctor gives them all the same advice: get out of your comfort zone, do something exciting, but also something that has consequences should you not pull it off. For instance, go steal a horse! Their “horse stealing” becomes three difficult episodes of taking fish and game illegally, announced ahead of time to the Scottish land owners involved by a mysterious “John McNab.” How they succeed – and don’t succeed – keeps the story fast-paced and surprising to the end.

   In “No Highway,” Mr. Honey, working on the effects of stress on airplane metals, hypothesizes that the tails will fall off a certain popular passenger plane after a certain number of hours. To him, it’s just a hypothesis, and his tests still have many hours to run before he will be proven right or wrong. When his bosses learn that one plane may already have crashed as a result, they send Mr. Honey to Canada to check out the wreckage. Honey is reluctant to leave his experiment, because his mind can’t take in the human element. Finding himself on one of the suspect planes, with mileage nearing his predicted failure point, changes his perspective on the “experiment.”

  As I said, pure escapism. 

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