Edgar Rice Burroughs is a great example of my assertion that anyone can write a book. If you have no concern for believability or shameless use of deus ex machina and coincidence, your books might be made into a movie, or two, or ten, or twenty.
I wrote this in Peru while recovering from a broken collar bone and a gash in my ankle big enough for me to stash my loose change.
I have a set of the first six Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They’re not collectables, just ordinary paperbacks. They cost $.95 each in 1972, the year they were published, and they were new when my father gave them to me in 1975. There is nothing in my home that I have had longer than those Tarzan books. In the 35 years I’ve had them, they’ve followed me from my boyhood home in Wisconsin to the Pacific Northwest, up and down the coast of California and over the mountains of New Mexico. In January they moved with me to Peru.
Until a few weeks ago I had never read any of them.
I never got around to it. I didn’t read them when I was first given them because I was an 11-year-old boy, and 11-year-old boys who read books in my neighborhood were looked at suspiciously. Up until I graduated from high school I’d take notice of them every few years. Sometimes I’d even open one. But then I’d see all those words and reshelf it.
When I went off to college, several colleges actually, the books stayed home. I was far too busy battling my social anxieties and reading Cheever, Achebe and, regretably, Schattschneider to read books about a yodeling apeman.
Every time I moved—which was often—I had good opportunity to ditch them, but I never did. I always hoped that someday I could proudly tell my father that I had read them all. As I grew older and acquired more stuff, excluding a decent bookshelf, I had less and less room for my Tarzans. The books spent years at a time in boxes.
In 2005 my wife, our two sons and I moved again. We still didn’t have a decent bookshelf, but we had gained an extra bedroom with a closet-full of awkward wire shelving. My six Tarzans now had a home between Don Quixote and Akbar and Jeff’s Guide to Life. I saw the books at least once every couple of weeks. At some point I even renewed my hope that I would finally read them. Still, the books stayed, gathering dust, on the awkward wire shelf for another year.
And then we had another child, an adorable little girl for whom my wife could buy a closet-full of clothes, shoes and handbags. The books weren’t immediately pushed out, but as my daughter’s wardrobe and collection of accessories continued to grow, something had to give. Back into the boxes and out to the garage went Akbar, Jeff and Tarzan.
While preparing for a six-month sabbatical in Peru, I found the books in the garage. I knew that if I took them with me to Peru, I would read them. I was uncharacteristically certain I would. And with my therapist unwilling to move to South America for six months, I needed Edgar Rice Burroughs to fill in for her at least two hours a week.
The iconic, enduring character Burroughs created will outlast generation after generation of procrastinating young readers. Tarzan is a magnificent specimen, physically and mentally. His combination of awesome animal brawn and dizzyingly superior human intellect makes him the most feared killer in all of Africa. He vanquishes ferocious lions with his teeth. With his bare hands he snaps the neck of any bull ape that dares challenge his dominance. His vision, hearing and sense of smell rival those of any beast in the jungle. He taught himself to read and write English long before he had ever heard it spoken. He wrestles with the concept of God and contemplates his own existence. He’s Hercules, Einstein and Sartre cast as one tall, strappingly handsome package wrapped in a loincloth.
The stories have everything an American boy would want to read: savage violence described in graphic detail, despicable villains, lustful, exotic women and stew made from squirrels and freshly killed monkeys. Even better, the climax of the first book takes place in, of all far-flung locales, northern Wisconsin. Yes, Tarzan swung through the Great North Woods to rescue Jane from a raging fire just miles from my boyhood home.
Still, if I had started to read the books when I was 10, 20 or even 30 years old, it’s likely I would have given up a few pages into the second installment. At any age it’s just too difficult to disregard Burroughs’ reliance on ridiculous coincidences and his constant references to black Africans as “tireless gossipers” and being from a “lower order.” But after carrying the books around for more than three and a half decades, I owed it to myself to read all of them. Thankfully, my set had only the first six volumes. Burroughs’ Tarzan went on to battle dinosaurs, midgets and communists for a total of 25 books. The Great White Ape’s descent from innocuous absurdity to exasperating preposterousness is, on a number of levels, quite sad.
When I told my father I had finally finished the Tarzan books he gave me 35 years ago, he called me a slow reader. What I really am is a slow starter. But now that I’ve finished Tarzan, I can get started on that Sopwith Camel model he gave me for my twelfth birthday.