What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

Field-Tested by Jeffrey Zeldman

in Mohawk Mountain, Connecticut

We never vacation. Even our honeymoon came late, the lady already two months pregnant. Thus I cannot advise on the best literary accompaniment to a languorous lakeside afternoon. No poolside thrillers have I to share. No mini-Thoreau have I packed in the pocket of no shorts on no hikes.

Avoid Dan Brown. For the rest, you're on your own.

Now if vacation qua vacation is not the nature of your query, if you simply seek reading material befitting the season, well, why didn't you say so? The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is what I recommend, although I never finished it.

Indeed, I stopped midway through, at the point of the main character's apparent death — sealed in an abbé's shroud, tossed out a high castle window to the sea far below. Smashed, drowned, gone.

Or so it seemed to me, that awful sleep-away camp summer. It was one tragedy too many for young mind, a counselor having been pushed to his accidental death before my eyes earlier that same week.

The other boys in the cabin seemed to enjoy the two weeks of mosquitos, fistfights, archery, hiking, and swimming. Me, art fag or New York bohemian in training, I had no business at summer camp, no interest in hearing ghost stories 'round the fire (the previous year at the same camp, a counselor got stabbed after leaping out at a cluster of kids at the climax of a campfire terror tale). The smell of Off made me retch. I took no pleasure from the almost Japanese humiliation ritual of being sent to swim with the Minnows when, by my age, I should have swum with the Dolphins or the Sharks. (Note: these were merely the names of the swimming groups. We didn't actually swim with minnows, dolphins, or sharks. You know that.)

But back to that counselor and the dreadful accident.

One night in the awful, boy-smelling cabin, as we were drifting to sleep, the counselor (this was obviously before his death), having been asked to advise us on some point of cleanliness or morality, simply said, “The main thing is that we are all Christians.”

Actually, I wasn't, and neither was the kid in the bunk below me. Alan was that kid's name. I waited for Alan to say he wasn't a Christian. Nothing out of Alan. So, after a few seconds during which I aged five years, nothing out of me either. Afraid to be different. Afraid to speak. Shame and silence and the unpleasant bunk rustling of the boys.

A few afternoons later I extricated myself from the group — it wasn't hard, nobody cared and nobody was watching — and strolled into the woods to catch up with my book. If you've been paying attention, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, is the book in question. I didn't want to read it in the woods. I wanted to read it in my room. Or in the bathtub, where you could escape the summer heat (air conditioning not having entered my family's life, except for my parents' bedroom, primarily for romantic reasons I believe). But anyway, the woods of Mohawk Mountain were my reading room that day.

Then I thought, why not slip back to the cabin and read there?

Emerging from the woods, I saw Tommy (a boy who merits his own story) and my counselor arguing at the top of the steps that led to our cabin. Nobody else was around. The counselor pushed Tommy. Tommy pushed back. The counselor fell backwards, striking his head against a flagstone.

Tommy and I walked over to where the counselor was lying, his face turned toward the sun, his expression inexplicable.

Soon afterwards, I got to go home and I never had to go back to camp.

Anyway. The Count of Monte Cristo. Damned good tale.

Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first web designers. He publishes A List Apart magazine, has written two books (notably, Designing With Web Standards), co-founded and co-directs a design conference, and founded and runs Happy Cog, an agency of web design and user experience specialists. He can also be found at his website.

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