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A Bad Day For People Who Love To Read: Robert B. Parker and Erich Segal

January 21, 2010, 2:10 am

Since reading mystery books got me through graduate school with my mind intact (OK, mystery books and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album), imagine my shock this morning when I opened the Paper of Record and learned that Robert B. Parker died at his desk yesterday. Parker, who wrote five pages a day, every day, was the creator and alter-ego of my beloved Spenser, Boston’s literary private dick and modern Knight of the Round Table. I will never forget reading my first Spenser, at the urging of my first real, grown-up, live-in girlfriend, while I was studying for my comprehensives. I then read the next fifteen, and haven’t missed buying them in hardback since. Next time you are in a rough spot with an administrator, try this kind of retort on for size (quoted in the obituary):

“Look, Dr. Forbes,” Spenser says to the long-winded college president who is hiring him. “I went to college once. I don’t wear my hat indoors. And if a clue comes along and bites me on the ankle, I grab it. I am not, however, an Oxford don. I am a private detective. Is there something you’d like me to detect, or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year’s commencement?”

Don’t forget your deadpan expression. Because of Spenser I took to drinking Rolling Rocks “in the long neck returnable bottles,” began to take extra pride in my cooking skills, and imagined that a small gun that fit just under the armpit wouldn’t be such a terrible idea on the first day of class. One I went to a book signing in New York and found, to my shock, that at 5’8″, I was about half a foot taller than the otherwise Spenser-ian Robert Parker, which shook me up a little bit, but it didn’t disrupt my belief that as long as Spenser stalked the earth all would be well.

If this were not enough loss for one day, the POR also reported the death of Love Story author Erich Segal, the classics professor who wrote that one, blockbuster, touch-a-nerve book that allowed him to live the rest of his life in peace and prosperity. Yeah, this was the guy who coined the phrase “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry,” most famously ripped off as “Tenure means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” This book came out when I was in the seventh grade and became an instant hit in the world and in the seventh grade, in part because a small crowd of our classmates began to date that year and Love Story (as well as a a certain passage from the wedding scene at the beginning of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather) allowed most of us to read about what a few of us were doing. My mother prohibited me from reading Love Story on principle because she thought it was such romantic junk, which forced me to borrow a copy from someone else and read it under my desk during math class. Naturally, of course, I identified with Oliver, and for the rest of the semester, as other people learned algebra, I drifted away, imagining myself walking the streets of Cambridge, blind with tears, as my beautiful wife, who spoke all my feelings so I did not have to, died prettily of leukemia in a hospital bed.

The good thing about books? You can always read them again. But while I doubt that I could make it through Love Story or any of its sequels at this age, Spenser stayed with me for decades and (after the two books that are still in the pipeline) now he’ll be gone. Oh sure, the novels had become predictable. But that is, in part, why I loved them. So many things in life changed, but Spenser stayed the same.

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