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As They Lay Crying — a guide to making smart people feel dumb

While some Americans these days are exercising, binge-watching TV, homeschooling, day-drinking and day-drinking while homeschooling, I’m committing my time to the art of appearing smarter.

Not actually getting smarter — I gave up on that decades ago — but tricking you into thinking I’m quite the insightful fellow.

How, you ask?

Reading, of course. Or re-reading. And none of that James Patterson or Stephen King junk, either … no, my trick is regaining insight into the books they tortured you with in high school and college.

“Gee, Prioleau,” you’re thinking, “how does knowing about books make you seem smarter?”

Well, think of it: You’re at a soirée conversing with a brilliant tax attorney, rocket scientist or brain surgeon … how are they going to impress you with their 194 IQ?

They can’t, because you share no common ground. Did you take Brain Surgery 101 in college? Or Aeronautic Applied Thrust Physics? Or Tax Advantages of Off-Shore Holding Companies?

Of course not … so y’all talk about movies, the weather, where you’re from — the usual nice-person chit chat.

But me? Oh, how quickly can I bring a conversation around to literature and reel you in! I know what you had to read and hated and loved. Canterbury Tales? You hated it. Of Mice and Men? You loved it. It was short. To Kill a Mockingbird? You loved it. It had a good story. The Sun Also Rises? You read it, but can’t quite remember it … something about running with the bulls in Spain.

Gotcha. I just ease on in with something like this: “That’s a tough issue to resolve,” I say. “You want Option A to happen, but you also know Reality B is bound to screw things up. It’s what you want, that can never be … like Jake said to Brett in The Sun Also Rises — ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

“You read The Sun Also Rises? I read that in high school!”

Gee. You don’t say …

Anyway, we’re all quarantined and I’m bored, so I’ve decided not to keep this sneaky tactic solely to myself. Mercury readers are the lifeblood of my creativity and, in honor of you, I’m going to fill you in on some of my secrets.

The Great Gatsby: This is a book about the concept “you always want what you can’t have.” There’s the kazillionaire Gatsby and the object of his affection, Daisy. They live across the bay from each other and Daisy has a green light on her dock — which Gatsby stares at longingly. Fitzgerald-type descriptive stuff happens and Gatsby manages to get dead, blah, blah — but it’s a good book because you can always make a cool cocktail party reference to “a fantasy as elusive as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”

Oh … now you’ve got to explain the reference to your friend? Boom! Who’s the genius now?

A Farewell to Arms: Here we have a classic love story, where an American expat serving in World War One Italy falls in love with an English nurse. They get all lovey-dovey and things are great and eventually they flee the war to neutral Switzerland. They decide to start a family and on the final page the mother and child die in childbirth, which is not great. The protagonist walks away in the rain.

You can use this literary nugget in a Zoom meeting with your friends on Day 42 of quarantine, by chiming in, “I haven’t been this depressed since I finished A Farewell to Arms.”

What’s that? You people don’t remember how it ended? Wow — it’s too much to go into. We’ll have to discuss it some other time (because it’s too deep for you simpletons to understand during a Zoom call).

The Lord of the Flies: This is the story of a group of English teens who survive a shipwreck and find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Without societal norms and laws to guide them, they become horrible little sociopathic monsters. If you are quarantined and have children, it is actually a non-fiction book about what happens inside your home if you so much as walk to the mailbox.

When all this Covid stuff is over and a friend says something hackneyed about how chaotic their house was, you can say, “I’m telling you — it was just about ‘Lord of the Flies’ at our house.” (Who’s the Alpha brain now, eh?)

Catcher in the Rye: The story of Holden Caufield has, for decades, been a favorite among high schoolers and college students alike. It’s fun, interesting, written in a unique reader-friendly voice and — of course — short. Most people who read Catcher in the Rye feel good about themselves, having read a “classic” and enjoyed it.

You cannot allow this. When you bring Catcher in the Rye into a conversation, it’s critical to dig down into it and bring up it’s themes — innocence, mortality, isolation, wisdom, lies, sexuality, religion — while concurrently pointing out the deceptively large cast of characters Salinger uses to express his various discoveries about the human condition. It is, after all, clearly a treatise on how close to madness we all live and our shared fate should we allow all of life’s ghosts to torment us simultaneously.

Oh, you never realized that? No, no — I’m not that smart … I just like to dig much deeper below the surface than most readers. I want to know what the author is feeling in his gut. I guess I just feel things more deeply than others … that’s why I didn’t become a tax lawyer, actually. I need passion in my life.

Here’s the rub …

The reason I commit so much time to re-reading classic works is to inwardly digest the great themes of mankind’s struggles. They’re fairly static: “man vs. man,” “man vs. nature,” “man vs. himself.” Within these three overarching themes are all the struggles faced by our humanity: evil, self-destruction, violence, character, honor, destiny — you name it. Once you understand these core themes, your brilliance can shine any time!

Your friend: Oh, my little Poppie loves Green Eggs and Ham!

You: Isn’t that kind of mature for a two-year old?

Your friend: What are you talking about?

You: There’s some heavy stuff in there — I mean, you’ve got innocence resisting evil, but the evil pounds away at the chinks in the armor of purity. Evil says, “Would you like this? No? How about this? No? How about this?” Like a hammer the evil wears itself dull on the rock of virtue, until finally — finally! — It finds a crevasse where righteousness is slashed open and blood pours down the vein of chaste commitment.”

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be locked in our homes, but when we’re released rest assured I’ll be blasting around from function to function, subtly crippling egos with comments like, “Nah — I didn’t see that Netflix series. Was it good? You know, I’ve always thought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would make a good series. Oh, by the way, did I introduce myself?”

“Uh, no. You didn’t.”

“Hmm. Call me Ishmael.”

[Image courtesy flickr, user rauter25,CC BY-SA 2.0]

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