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.