How James Thurber Killed My Soul (and made it new again)

There are books that are – by their very natures – interruptions.

Sometimes, we read a book that is so goddamn good, that it stops us in our tracks, destroys the things we thought were true – about our work, about our reading, about books in general and about the world. Often, this is a good thing. As I’ve written about on this blog before, I had a bookus interruptus moment nine years ago when, while nursing my second child, I read Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich. Then I read it again. Then I read it yet again, feeling the words of the novel write themselves on my bones. Then, for the first time in – hell, I don’t know. A lot of years. I started writing again.

And now, I’ve read a book that has made me stop. Maybe forever.

This time, James Thuber – oh, James! What have you done to me? – – reached from the grave and put The Thirteen Clocks into my hands. I think he did it on purpose. I think he wanted to bring me down a notch or two.

Check this out:

“The task is hard,” said Zorn, “and can’t be done.”

“I can do a score of things that can’t be done,” the Golux said. “I can find the thing I cannot see and see the thing I cannot find. The first is time, the second is the spot before my eyes. I can feel a thing I cannot touch and touch a thing I cannot feel. The first is sad and sorry, the second is your heart. What would you do without me? Say ‘nothing’.”

“Nothing,” said the Prince.”

“Good. Then you’re helpless and I’ll help you.”

This book is a marvel. The prose is spare and voluptuous at the same time. It is sure-footed and quick-witted and full of tricks. There are old ladies who weep jewels and jewels that become tears. There is a man who murdered time and a man whose secret name begins with X and a man who makes things up and a girl with warm, warm hands. And kings with feet in traps. And indescribable hats. And a spy you cannot see (and therefore cannot trust). It is a delicious language treat – a delight for the ear and tongue and eye. It does not hesitate. It does not falter. It snatches your heart right out of your body and runs away with it. And you chase it. You chase it as you expire. You chase it as your breath fails you. You chase it saying, “Oh! It is beautiful!” And “Oh! It is wise!” and “Oh! That I should live this day to hear this story, and that I may live another day to hear it again.”

And so I may stop writing forever.

Oh, James! Why do you play with my soul in this way!

If you want to ruin your life the way this book has ruined mine, feel free to watch this little video. It’s Neal Gaiman reading the opening passages. Just, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


The 13 Clocks from Juan Delcan on Vimeo.

5 thoughts on “How James Thurber Killed My Soul (and made it new again)

  1. I love Thurber’s children’s books. I like THE WHITE DEER best, but it’s like picking a favorite cat. They’re all great and I wouldn’t part with any of them.

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