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Late on in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Professor Bortz says the following to the protagonist, Oedipa, as they discuss a book related to the fictional Jacobean playwright Richard Wharfinger.

"I keep my Wharfinger-iana locked in here so the kids can't get at it. Charles would ask no end of questions I'm too young to cope with."

It is not made explicit in the novel who "Charles" is, but it is implied that it is Bortz's son: he's only mentioned tangentially in the novel once previously and doesn't appear again. It's not clear how old he is.

I'm struggling with the implications of this quote. I'm not sure on why any child or teenager would be interested enough in a cupboard full of academic books to want to break in and read them enough to ask questions in the first place? Furthermore, I'm interested in why Bortz feels he is "too young" to cope with those questions, a reversal of the usual "I'm too old" excuse for dealing with difficult things.

Why is Charles interested in the books, what kinds of questions might he ask, and why does Bortz feel he's "too young" to answer them?

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  • Could it perhaps be a facetious way of saying that Charles is too young to understand the play? Jacobean plays were often not very 'family-friendly'. Feb 13 at 12:39
  • @KateBunting absolutely it could, but it still leaves the questions open as to why Charles would read it and why Bortz feels he himself is too young. The quote does clearly say I'm too young to cope with.
    – Matt Thrower
    Feb 13 at 12:50
  • I haven't read the book, but I thought perhaps he was saying "I'm too young to answer his questions" as a joking way of indicating that Charles was too young to read the play or to understand the implications of any questions he might ask. Feb 13 at 13:18
  • How old is Bortz?
    – verbose
    Feb 14 at 22:22

1 Answer 1

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I'm struggling with the implications of this quote. I'm not sure on why any child or teenager would be interested enough in a cupboard full of academic books to want to break in and read them enough to ask questions in the first place?

Some kids who are avid readers will more or less read anything and everything available, including things written for much older kids and for adults.

For example, I read many books while on summer vacation at the shore when I was 12 years old. I suspect that I first read Marco Polo's book in the library there at that time. One book which I borrowed from the local library and read for the first time that year was The Wizard of Oz. There were many old books decades old left by previous owners of our house, and I read many of them. One which I read that summer when I was 12 was an anthology of American short stories which included "The Great Stone Face" (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) by Edgar Allen Poe.

When I was in elementary school the books I was given as birthday and Christmas presents were usually children's books about talking animals. But I was once given, and read, a copy of Bent's Fort (1954) by David Lavender, a 470-page history of a trading post in the old west.

As I remember, the local library where we moved when I was 11 had a sign over the main section saying that it was restricted to those 16 and older, and younger people had to use the children's room. And I remember that an exception was made for me and I was allowed in the main section long before I was sixteen.

As a child and teenager, if my parents left any books and magazines around in my house I would at least take a look at them to see if they seemed interesting. So if my parents had any scholarly books not locked up I would have at least glanced at them.

For example, I looked at all of the books in the bookshelf in the living room, and I remember reading a specific couple of them, like a history of architecture and a collection of the New Yorker cartoons of Saul Steinberg. I also remember looking at boating magazines in that self.

I also remember reading, in the house where we lived until I was eleven, a general interest magazine with an article. I forget everything about the article except one sentence. The author claimed people's feeling can be complex and as an example wrote that, for example, everyone had contradictory feelings about sex.

I didn't know what sex was but deduced that it was something that almost everyone would learn about sooner or later. Therefore it was something which older people, but not younger children, knew about. Therefore I deduced that the writer really meant that "everyone old enough to read this article" had conflicting feelings about sex.

And I found that very amusing because I was young enough not to know anything about sex but had no problems reading the article, and so the writer greatly overestimated the age of his youngest readers.

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