Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M*A*S*H

Here in Pennsylvania, we seem to put great stock on the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil. On February 2 every year we all tend to gather around to see if this little guy is going to see his shadow. This year he did and he said that Spring is still 6 weeks away.

I’m sorry, Phil. I beg to differ.

In a used book shop we have a much better way of telling how close we are to Spring. What we do is judge the number and size of the boxes of books that people bring to us. There is a direct relationship here, and I think it merits scientific study.

Here’s how it works: the closer we are to the beginning of Spring, the higher the level of cabin fever. The higher the level of cabin fever, the more frustrated folks get with the clutter about the house. The higher the level of folks’ frustration, the greater the desire (particularly on the part of the female versions of folks) to clear the clutter. The greater is this desire, the greater the number of folks (particularly male versions of folks) who lug boxes of books into the shop.

There’s a direct and consistent proportion here. I’ve no doubt that a mathematical formula could be discerned (although it would have to have a multiplier for the “nag” factor).

And based on what I’ve been seeing over the last week or so, I’d say that Spring is just around the corner.

That’s good news, because we’re getting some really good stuff.

This past weekend, for example, I pulled a copy of M*A*S*H out of a box of paperbacks.

An interesting book, with an interesting story.

It was written by Richard Hooker (a pen name, actually; his real name is Richard Hornberger) and was based on his experiences as a doctor with a M*A*S*H unit during the Korean Conflict. He was with the 8055th.

When he wrote the book, he had a hard time getting it published. Truth be told, a nearly impossible time; it was rejected by just about everybody. So he got some help with the original manuscript and, reworked, finally managed to get William Morrow & Co. to send it forth. And there the story would have ended, for it was somewhat less than a best-seller.

But a Hollywood producer named Ingo Preminger (brother of Otto Preminger) read it and saw its potential. He bought the film rights and hired Ring Lardner, Jr. to write a script. Robert Altman was brought in to direct such notables as Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. And in 1970, 20th Century Fox brought it to theatres. (It had some stiff competition, up against Patton at the same time.)

The movie was a hit and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture (it only won one, for Best Screenplay). It was such a success that two things happened: (1) the book suddenly became a best seller and (2) the studio decided that maybe it could do something with the sets and props it already had, so they sold CBS on the idea of a TV show.

By this time, Hooker had pretty much lost control of his original story and his characters. He hated the show. Coming on the air as it did in 1972, it was a thinly-veiled attack on the Vietnam War. That wasn’t Hooker’s intention at all.

The show dropped a number of the original characters, developed others out of proportion to their importance in the book (Major Frank Burns, for example, barely makes it through page 49) and created others out of the thin Korean air (there is no Corporal Max Clinger in the book). And the Captain Hawkeye Pierce of the book wouldn’t recognize the man of the same name of the TV series.

So Hooker retuned to his typewriter and produced an entire series of fairly silly and utterly forgettable sequels, starting with M*A*S*H Goes To Maine, and continuing with M*A*S*H Goes To Las Vegas among others.

The TV show, some 251 episodes, ran from 1972 through the 1983 season…or 11 years, roughly 3 times the length of the Korean Conflict itself. The final episode was watched by more than 105-million people, the largest audience in history. Commercials cost more than did Super Bowl ads that year. And it spawned even more spin-off shows.

So, I confess, I grabbed the paperback and brought it home with me Sunday night. I had read it shortly after the movie appeared (yes, I am that old), while I was still in high school. And I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, the silly sequels while I was in college.

I finished the re-reading earlier this evening, and will tell you it was like visiting an old friend. I’ll bring it back into the shop and put it on a shelf tomorrow (one of the good things about reading a used book is that when you’re done, it is still a used book and the value hasn’t been diminished).

And the really good news is, with Spring just around the corner, more new-old books will undoubtedly be arriving every day now.

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