When the lights went out on Oprah Winfrey’s afternoon television show, I expected the publishing industry to fly the flag at half-mast. Bless her heart, Oprah made reading fashionable again, and her influence will be missed. Her index finger pointing to a writer was like the hand of God reaching toward Adam in the Sistine Chapel. If Oprah picked a novel for her televised book group, publishers would automatically print half a million copies and the author thereof was suddenly famous, even if he was snarky about the whole thing and declined to appear on the show.
For me, reading remains a solitary pleasure. Back in the ’90s, when people began emailing to ask me for “discussion questions” for my novels, my initial reaction was, “Jeez, I wrote the whole damn book. You want more?” Now I get it, and I am thrilled that so many book groups and colleges have used my novels to spark conversation and debate.
In fact — and I just this very moment realized it while typing — in Doc, John Henry Holliday is pulling together a private little book club, isn’t he! He’s getting Morgan to talk about Dickens and Dostoevsky, and to consider the questions that good novels can raise. I swear: I had no idea I was doing that while I wrote the book, but it seems obvious to me now.
For Doc, the Random House Readers Circle has provided a number of questions as starting points. Examples:
2. Young Dr. Holliday arrived in Texas just as the Crash of 1873 wrecked the nation’s economy. What parallels did you see to our own times? Do you know young people whose plans have been similarly derailed by the Great Recession?
3. How did your feelings about Kate Harony change as the novel went on? Was her relationship with Doc dysfunctional, or do you think they were “a comfort and a support” to one another? What about Mattie and Wyatt? Bessie and James? Alice and Bob Wright?
5. John Henry Holliday was a skilled and gentle dentist, an accomplished pianist, a loyal friend, and an educated man who was often generous, and habitually courteous. He was also easily offended, quickly angry, a heavy drinker, a spendthrift, and a sarcastic snob. Do you think you would have disliked him in real life?
7. In the South, “a gentleman is judged by the way he treats his inferiors.” Whom did John Henry Holliday consider his inferiors? Do you think that changed when he went West? What’s the difference between courtesy and respect? What role does race play in the novel?
Lately, while thinking about the underlying themes in Doc, some other questions have occurred to me.
It was liquor back then; it’s dope now. Was Doc’s use of bourbon for the pain of tuberculosis like that of a cancer patient using pot today? How much money do local governments make off liquor taxes? Was that a factor in repealing Prohibition in the 1920s? Could legalizing and taxing pot dig us out of the deficit? How much crime is/was associated with prohibited substances? What does the war on drugs cost our country?
Does it do more good than harm to criminalize sexual behaviors? Can you legislate morality? And should you? Does the absence of choice mean the absence of sin or the absence of merit? Is there any religious or spiritual value in virtue that’s enforced by civil law with the threat of jail and fines, or — say — death by stoning, in some countries?
In the “good old days,” when an American woman married, she became legally dead. She said, “I do,” and after that moment, she had no right to her home, her own children or any property she brought to the marriage. In the 1800s, what alternatives did a woman have to prostitution if no man would marry her, or if she were widowed or abandoned?
Was the status of the Chinese in the Old West equivalent to the status of today’s undocumented Latino workers? What about the law that made it illegal to bring Chinese women into the country in 1875 — is that like the current talk of denying citizenship to children born here to undocumented women?
This is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the civil war, so the following are topical, as well:
First, there is the entire issue of Southern slavery vs. Northern exploitation of immigrant labor. John Henry Holliday makes a case that abolitionists were heartless because they’d toss aside any worker too old or sick or injured to put in a full day, and then they’d “hire a starving Irish replacement.” Is that self-serving nonsense, or does he have a point? What changed the status of laborers from disposable commodities in the 1870s and beyond? Why is there a 5-day week? Why are there paid vacations and holidays? Why were there once pensions, and why are they disappearing today?
Pre-civil war politics were as ugly, rancorous, uncompromising and divisive as today’s. In the 1850s, the nation’s economy was based on cotton produced by slave-labor, a fact that is called America’s Original Sin. Today the economy is based on imported oil, an ecological sin that we are paying for now in blood and treasure, while the climate reels and the planet sickens.
Thought experiment: radical Greens manage to win 3-way presidential election on a “no internal combustion engines” platform. Their plan is to prohibit the use of all cars, trucks, lawnmowers, etc. because they are wrecking the climate and we can’t afford any more Middle Eastern wars. Even if you agree that is the case, would you happily kiss off trillions of dollars invested in the current system and get a bike, or would they have to come and pry your car keys out of your cold dead hands? What would the economic consequences be? How far do you live from work? Could you get to your job? How would your grocery store get food?
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