I’m sitting adjacent to an immense stack of books I’ve gotten cheap from the History Book Club and Scientific American Book Club. I take each along to work as I read them. I am literally — now there’s a pun — the only one carrying a book. Over the past year, out of the hundreds and hundreds of fellow employees I’ve seen, I saw less than ten with a book in their hand. Ten. People don’t really read books anymore. They read things online — webzines, news sites, blogs, TMZ. Facebook. A little of this, a little of that. A million opening paragraphs, a little less beyond. A rare piece it is that finds readers in the last paragraph. Must be a big story, something juicy, or maybe one helluva writer. But books, no. Too much time, too much depth, too many words. We live in a different time. Hence those ten employees with a book in their hand. Ten out of a thousand. One per cent.
But there was one I remember. A gorgeous thing, a stunning little Mediterranean number. Raven hair, olive complexion, black eyes. All that wrapped in chiffon, a billowing white chiffon dress that spilled over the arm rests of the chair she sat in, a big stuffed chair in the lobby of the floor I worked on. She was one of the loveliest women I had ever seen, and she was deep into a hardback volume of Thucydides. Seriously. It was not a spectre, not an epileptic’s vision. It was a genuine pretty lady reading one of my favorite books ever. Oh to be twenty or thirty years younger at that moment. Oh to be young and brave enough to sit along side her and have the nerve to bring up Pericles or Cleon or the Revolt of Mytilene. The Plague of Athens and the Siege of Syracuse. The meaning of it all.
But no. You reading the History of the Peloponnesian War? I asked, lamely. She looked up, surprised. Such big black eyes, a tinge of worry. Yes, she said, I am. That’s one of my favorite books, I said. Oh, she said. She didn’t believe me. Thought I was trying to pick her up. Never trust a man old enough to be your father who’s read Thucydides, her mother had warned, they’re the worst kind. I wasn’t trying to pick her up, not at all. I was just surprised — astonished, really — to find a beautiful young girl lost in ancient history. I’d first read that book at about her age myself. The Penguin edition, paperback. I still have it. I immersed myself into it in the autumn of 1977. I was twenty. I remember coming to a scene late in the book where the Athenians, fresh on the beach, set out patrols to reconnoiter, see what was out there. It was all so modern, the way they thought. I realized, suddenly, that they were so much like us. These men weren’t myths, legends, or simple. They weren’t ridiculous Italian muscle men or philosophers with perfect Oxford accents. They were Greeks doing things the way we would do them now as described by a contemporary historian who was one of them. The technology didn’t matter. Though twenty-five centuries old, they came to life, those Athenians on that beach. Later they were all killed, or drowned, or died of pestilence. The survivors were sold into slavery. I felt sorry for them, for each of them. I lived on the Santa Barbara coastal plain then, a perfect Mediterranean climate on a perfectly Mediterranean lay of land. The sea shone the same blue under the same sun, and vineyards stitched along up the hills between groves of carefully tended fruit trees. It took very little imagination to picture the Athenians and Spartans around me, distant columns coming, fleets of triremes sailing off. I’d sit outside on the balcony and read of ancient campaigns in the same sort of light that fell on men back then. It was magical.
I wanted to tell this girl that. Tell her how that book changed my life, let me see people then as people now, or the other way around. I wanted to, but she was far too beautiful and far too young, that lady in the chiffon dress reading Thucydides. I had an elevator to catch. Enjoy the book, I said, and kept walking. I will, she said, looking relieved I wasn’t stopping. She settled back into the chair, crossed her beautiful legs, and slipped back into her book. The elevator doors shut before me, and she was gone.