Reading With Fakename: All Creatures Great and Small

It’s hard to believe that next year will mark the 40th anniversary of this book’s publication.  I remember vividly when it first came out, for several reasons. 

First, it was a complete sensation.  Everyone who was anyone read it.  Reason enough for me not to read it, since I was at the time at the height of my Intellectual Snobbery Period (feel free to enclose the word “intellectual” with your own air quotes).

I was, at the time, not a reader of popular fiction at all.  I would not read anything written before about 1940.  It was like, I didn’t want to waste my time on a book that might be just a flash in the pan.  I wanted it to have been “vetted”, to have withstood the test of time, to be declared good literature by people before me.  I felt a greater kinship with them than with people of my own age.  My, how things change. 

The other thing was that I didn’t have time.  I remember thinking around that time that I was losing my ability to read, something that had always defined me.  I was a year away from graduating from college, and everything seemed to sort of narrow to a tiny little dot.  I did not have any other focus beyond the dot.  When I did have the time to read, summers for example, I still couldn’t get beyond the dot.  If I read something, it had to teach me something.  The concept of reading for pleasure never even crossed my mind. 

But it never had.  When I was a teenager, we lived next door to the library, which is a little like a fat kid living next door to the candy store.  I read so much fiction that I was about to run out of books.  I picked books by their titles.  Which is a similar method to the one Fakesister and I used when we attended our one and only horse race.  Let’s put $2 on this horse–it has a great name.

But my method began to get old, so then I decided I would read everything by any writer whose last name began with “A”.  Next week’s plan:  Read everything by any writer whose last name begins with “B”.  This system turned out to be a disaster, since I read a lot of very bad books.  Finally I was driven to the non-fiction section, a territory that previously was Terra Incognita.  I started by reading biographies, and became just as obsessed with them as I had ever been with fiction.  These days, I’d say my ratio of fiction to non-fiction is about 70-3o.  An improvement. 

Now let’s get back to All Creatures Great and Small.  I’m glad I’ve waited until now to read it.  One of the other reasons I wouldn’t read it when it came out is that I was suspicious of it, because the title comes from a hymn, to wit: 

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.  I was not about to be preached to.  “James Herriot” is a pseudonym–oh wait.  That makes it a fake name.  I’m in good company.  If only I could write as well as he did, and be half so evocative of his time and place. 

I’m really glad I got over myself, because this is a truly great book.  I’m now on chapter 25, and it’s horse-castrating season.    Which he hates with a passion, because he’s scared of horses.  It may surprise you to learn that a vet is scared of a particular animal, but it shouldn’t.  I recall a story Fakesister tells about her once-upon-a-time vet, who was scared of Scottish Terriers.  Because he had once been bitten by one.  This is a similar situation:  Herriot has seen plenty of horse disasters and does not care to become a victim. 

So his boss assigns him to remove a tumor from a horse’s belly.  Herriot has imagined that it will be a sweet little colt with big brown eyes, but when he gets there it turns out to be a stallion who is huge and is over six years old.  The stallion is crashing around the walls of his stall, and on sight of Herriot, he lays his ears back and rolls his eyes back into his head.  Gulp, says Herriot.  It turns out he’s spared that day, because there is no one there to help him by holding the horse.  He does get a good look at the tumor, which is really not a big deal.  It appears to be benign and very common, and it’s hanging by a sort of string of tissue.  All Herriot has to do is inject the little “string” with anesthetic and snip off the tumor.  So the procedure itself is not problematic.  The problem is that the horse is in the way. 

He leaves the farm with great relief, but knowing he will still have to do it eventually, he starts to dream about it.  Normally he says he has removed that tumor about 20 times before breakfast.  The horse also begins to loom larger and larger, and more dangerous, in his memory. 

I’m sure that it turns out well (since Herriot lived to tell about it), but I haven’t yet gotten to the end of that story.

As I said, I’m just glad I got over myself.  Reading the book makes me wonder what else I deprived myself of during my Intellectual Superiority Period.  But, you know, that’s fruitless. Back in the ISP days, I also didn’t have much of a sense of humor, if any.  Everything was deadly serious and life or death.  How completely tiresome I was.  But I did get over it.  This book is hilarious, and only now can I really appreciate it.

3 responses to “Reading With Fakename: All Creatures Great and Small

  1. Well, I guess I’m not “anybody” since I never read or even heard of that book. I’ve heard the phrase, but thought it was a “saying.”

    As you know, I don’t read much now. But in junior and senior high I did read a lot. I read the entire Hardy Boys series. The multi-volume Time-Life History of the United States, which substituted for my boring 7th grade history book.

    I also enjoyed books with political implications, like Confessions of Nat Turner. I did read the Gulag Archipelago.

    Maybe when I retire, I’ll do more reading, but it’ll probably be non-fiction.

  2. Clearly I wasn’t anyone either 🙂 I’d say that if you don’t read now, you probably won’t when you retire either. Plus I think you will be too busy! And you know, you don’t have to read 🙂 It’s not like it’s a requirement. You are one of only two people I know who don’t read. In the other case, my friend Brenda, I think it may be a touch of ADHD. She simply cannot focus that long; I’ve seen her try and it isn’t a pretty sight. So naturally, she does not find it fun at all. And I can get that…one of my mottos is, try not to do anything that isn’t fun. On the other hand, I have another friend, who has officially been diagnosed with ADHD, and she reads pretty obsessively. When I say obsessively, I really mean it. Once she starts a book, she has to finish it THAT DAY, even if she gets no sleep. Which doesn’t sound like much fun to me either.

  3. I thought I would tell you the end of that particular story. Eventually Herriot does have to go back to finish the job. At least this time the farmer and two of his farmhands are there to restrain the horse. However it doesn’t help Herriot’s nerves when the stallion drags the two farmhands on their bellies all over the barnyard. But eventually they subdue him and pin him against the wall of the barn. Herriot approaches (while the horse gives him a sideways hostile glare), manages to grasp the tumor and inject it with the anestethic. At just that moment, the horse kicks the living daylights out of him on the inside of the thigh and knocks him to the ground. And he can’t get up. He asks the farmer to call his boss, because he knows he can’t drive home. Nor can he finish the job…again. When he recovers, he goes back for a third time, this time with his boss (whom he calls Siegfried) and his boss’s brother (whom he calls Tristan) and together, they finally get the job done. But a funny thing happens–Herriot says he was never again afraid. I think it was one of those paradoxical moments when his worst fears had been realized and reality turned out to be not as bad as he imagined.

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