A $2 bet on “Red Comet,” the Sylvia Plath biography

by | Jul 31, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment, The Book Club | 3 comments

I’m about 270 pages into “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath,” Heather Clark’s absorbing and thoroughly researched biography, which means I’m about a quarter of the way through. (Did I mention that Clark has done extensive research for this book, which I have on loan from the library?)

In any event, 270 pages gets the reader to Plath’s miserable summer of 1953, when she travels to New York City for an internship at Mademoiselle magazine — where she is (suitably) appalled by the phoniness she senses all around her and then falls into a deep depression, for which an arrogant male psychiatrist prescribes crudely administered electroshock therapy. (This all shows up in “The Bell Jar,” Plath’s novel.)

Anyway, I found myself idly skipping ahead to view the photographs that are scattered throughout “Red Comet” (don’t lie to me and tell me that you never do that with a book) and found a surprise: a $2 bill, legal tender for all debts, public and private, stashed away somewhere around page 650. Was it, in fact, used as a bookmark by a previous reader who forgot to remove it upon return to the library?

The $2 surprise I found inside “Red Comet.” Is a reward? A challenge? A bet?

Or was it a hidden challenge — a bet of sorts — that the next reader wouldn’t be able to get 600 pages into the book? Maybe it’s intended as a reward to a reader for getting that far. (I should emphasize here that, despite the book’s heavy subject matter, it’s a pleasure to read and the feminist lens through which Clark views her material is bracing and convincing, but it’s still not the sort of book you can race through.) Still, my intention is to get to page 600 and beyond and then return the book to the library — undoubtedly past its due date, because the book is 1,118 pages long. (To be fair, the last 200 pages or so are filled with an index and detailed notes, but you get my point.)

So I do feel bad for the person who is next in line at the library to receive “Red Comet.” You’ll have to wait a little longer than expected.

But here’s the deal I’ll make to that next reader: I’ll keep the $2 bill in the book. However, dear reader, I might move it to page 700 or thereabouts, because I want you to earn those two bucks.

On a related topic, the other book on my nightstand these days is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I know what you’re thinking: Surely this isn’t the first time I’ve read this American classic, the book chosen by New York Times readers as the best book of the last 125 years?

But yet it is: I have somehow gotten into my seventh decade without reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Here’s a spoiler: It’s pretty good, although not everybody agrees.

All this raises a question, which I invite readers to answer in the comments section below: What is the fiction or nonfiction work that provokes the most guilt in your book-loving brain because you haven’t read it yet? If I get enough answers, maybe we can get a book club going. I’m thinking annual dues might be two bucks.

3 Comments

  1. John Barlow

    Mike, I really enjoy your weekly news summary and comments.

    My unread classic is George Orwell’s 1984. I read Animal Farm in middle school, and to this day do not know how I avoided the classic. “Big Brother” and Winston Smith are commonplace references among my generation, but that is as much as I have absorbed from popular culture.

    What do you think of the theory that Truman Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird? Dill is supposedly based on him, but people point out that Harper Lee was his constant companion and that she never published anything else during her lifetime. NPR had a long story about it many years ago, some academic had run the text through the same computer program that unmasked the Primary Colors author and concluded that Capote wrote it.

    Reply
    • Mike McInally

      Adding to my shame: I’ve never read any Capote — not even “In Cold Blood,” which you would think would be mandatory for a journalist. Nor have I ever heard the theory that Capote wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Three Polish academics apparently ran the manuscripts for “Mockingbird” and “Go Set a Watchman” through a computer analysis to show that the same person wrote both books — but also concluded that Capote helped with the opening chapters of “Mockingbird,” which certainly seems possible. Considering that Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, worked extensively with her through successive drafts of “Mockingbird,” it does seem likely that the work primarily is Lee’s — although it is true that the character of Dill is based on Capote.

      Reply
  2. Jinny

    You have successfully made me want to read Red Comet, but I know I wouldn’t be able to finish by the due date, so my plan is to put it on my Christmas wish list, and maybe Santa will bring it to me. My guilt causing book is Moby Dick. I skipped through it, and every time it gets referenced the guilt reminds me of my lack of fortitude.

    Reply

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