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Worthwhile things to read when you're sick of binge-watching

Jeff Simon

"It's good to be a geek" says Channel 2 meteorologist Heather Waldman at least once a week on the air. Usually, she dons a pair of glasses as her telltale geek costume. It's the watchword of her faith, apparently.

Bless her. She isn't kidding. Her latest post on Facebook explores her shameless geek pride in a charming new way.

"I'm stuck at home," she writes. "You're stuck at home. Your kids are stuck at home. Do they have homework? Did you look at their math and science problems and say 'nope!' Ask this girl for help. My meteorology degree gives me a great background in earth science as well as core math and sciences so if (your kids) are struggling with a problem, send it my way and maybe I can help. ... But fair warning, I'm not just going to give them the answer."

There is, to be sure, nothing the slightest bit funny about the coronavirus. Most of us are in terror at the prospect of economic and medical devastation. There is, though, no small social irony in some of the ways the pandemic has turned life and society upside down.

In this era, the geeks, nerds, misfits and anti-social introverts among us need not hide anymore. Some of us have spent more than half a century pleasantly engaging in reassuring social distance. ("Avoid the social ramble," advised the great ageless baseball pitcher Satchell Paige. "It ain't restful.") So we know a thing or two about "self-quarantine." And, like the ever-engaging Ms. Waldman, we can be useful these days when we're all what we used to call "shut-ins."

You can, for instance, take the word of man who was a book editor for several decades on some worthwhile things to read when – and if – you find yourself with more time on your hands than you've ever had before – and you're sick of binging TV shows that might better be purged.

Not surprisingly, Woody Allen's memoir "Apropos of Nothing" was published Monday without fanfare by Arcade publishing. There are surprises aplenty, but they're all inside. In the meantime, here are some books I offer as constructive ways to fill long days you never imagined would be idle.

The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films
Edited by Otto Penzler, $28.95
Let me confess that I have felt guilty for several months for not writing about this book before. It's flat-out wonderful. It's one of a series by the tireless mystery editor and publisher Otto Penzler. It came out in November and fell through the cracks. I just didn't get to it.

Well, not any more. To put it mildly, this is not a book to take for granted. If ever there were a large book perfect for this era where people are in need of new ways to kill time, this is it. What Penzler has done this time is something in the tradition of his previous "Big Books" (Of "Rogues and Villains" and "Female Detectives," "Jack the Ripper" and "Sherlock Holmes Stories"). These are the original short stories that turned into crime films that are both classic and distinctly otherwise.

For any movie fan of any passion at all, this is the glorious place where readerly bliss and TCM programming might meet. Many you'd expect to be here are: The terrific Daphne DuMaurier story that turned into Nicolas Roeg's chiller "Don't Look Now" (with a slightly different shivery ending from the movie), Ian Fleming's "From a View to a Kill" (which became the tepid latter-day Bond film) and Robert Bloch's "The Real Bad Friend" (which went through a lot of changes before it turned into Hitchcock's "Psycho"), but dozens of fascinating relative obscurities, too.

Would you believe the original Mackinlay Kantor story that became the classic cult noir film "Gun Crazy?" And Budd Schulberg's "Murder on the Waterfront" that, so famously, became Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" with Marlon Brando? More obscurely, John and Ward Hawkins' " Criminal's Mark," which became the 1954 Andre DeToth/Sterling Hayden film "Crime Wave," which will be shown on TCM's "Noir Alley" at midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday?

This is a huge book and admittedly it isn't a cinch for readers to wrangle in everyday life. It's fine for negotiating at a table over a meal and, with effort, manageable in a chair or a couch. It's a bit of a wrestle to read it in bed, though.

It is, nevertheless, a perfect book for the era we're in.

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s
Edited by Robert Polito, $35
This is the book to get if you can no longer stand the curiosity over where the Tyrone Power/Edmund Goulding movie "Nightmare Alley" – which is currently being remade in locations in Toronto and Buffalo with Bradley Cooper – came from.

As great a piece of source material as it is for Buffalonians, it's far more than that. This is one of the best noir antholgies you'll find anywhere (and, remember, the French "serie noire" was originally a series of books before it was ever applied to film). Other filmed novels in the fat but easily negotiable book are James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," Edward Anderson's "Thieves Like Us," Kenneth Fearing's "The Big Clock" and Cornell Woolrich's "I Married a Dead Man" (whose film version is Truffaut's "The Bride Wore Black").

For those who've not yet done so, this is, in fact, the perfect time to start investigating the finest publishing enterprise in current America, the Library of America, whose elegant, black, easily held books were designed from the specifications of the great critic Edmund Wilson. They're in elegant type, easily readable and comfortable to hold wherever you are, including your bed at night.

You'll find just about anything in the Library of America – the classic American literature of Poe, Cooper, Wharton, Cather, James, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, the obvious 20th century classics of Updike, Roth, Carver, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag and even the music criticism of Virgil Thomson.

Latest in the long and continuing celebratory world of the Library of America are a handful of female writers, several of them hugely under-celebrated: The Complete Novels of Jean Stafford, the "Author's Expanded Edition" of Ursula LeGuin's "Always Coming Home," Joan Didion's major emergence books in the 1960s and 1970s (" Run River," Slouching Toward Bethlehem," "Play It As It Lays," "The White Album" and "The Book of Common Prayer").

The most surprising of all are probably Ann Petry's "The Street and The Narrows" and "The Collected Stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson," both of whom were well-known once upon a time but, until now, were all but lost.

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