On occasion someone will ask me, “Don’t you ever read a book just to be entertained?” My answer is always “yes and no,” and it is quickened by my memory of Horace.
Horace was part of my high school upbringing as we made it to Roman poets after fighting through Caesar’s Gallic Wars and getting our minds around Cicero’s speeches. The poetry was our reward, I suppose. And yet as I mention Horace, I am not even sure I remember his poems as much as his injunction that poetry should instruct and delight. That stuck with me. The “instruction” part, I suppose, gave me an excuse for always having my nose in a book.
Horace’s lesson was reinforced by a satirical poem written by an 18th century Danish/Norwegian poet, Johan Herman Wessel. He mentions Horace’s dictum as he writes about his daughter, who although she was not married found her girdle too tight. So off she goes to Horace to report that she has followed his command as she has had a wonderful time and been of use as well: She has conceived a child which gave her great pleasure and which, at the same time, would benefit Rome.
The novel I am thinking about in this connection of reading for entertainment is “Hornet Flight” by Ken Follett. It is set in 1941. The war is not going well for the British. The Russians are fighting on their own front, and the Germans appear to have caught on to the flight patterns of the Royal Air Force. They are shooting down as many as 50 percent of British bombers.
Meanwhile, an 18-year-old Danish boy, Harald Olufsen, takes a shortcut to his home on the Danish island of Sande — a made-up name for the island of Fano, just north of where I grew up — and discovers a German sight he cannot identify. It is heavily guarded, so he knows it is of importance and must be reported to higher authorities. He returns to take pictures and eventually concludes that the forest hides a German radar station.
Leaving home to contact a Jewish friend in Copenhagen, Tik, he meets his sister, Karen. Karen can fly a plane, and together they explore a derelict Hornet Moth biplane stored in a defunct church belonging to the estate of Karen’s father. Together the two set out to repair the Hornet Moth for a flight across the North Sea.
If it is all a little far-fetched, and if police Detective Peter Fleming, Harold’s nemesis and Nazi sympathizer, seems overly zealous in his pursuit, we nonetheless read to the end of the novel when the youngsters, dripping wet from a near drowning, deliver the information to London and therewith put an end to the unchallenged success of German attacks.
It is easy to see how “Hornet Flight” may delight its readers, who can fly through the pages at uninterrupted speed. But is it of use? Is it instructive? I think it may be if at this particular time in our lives — almost a full year into the onslaught of the coronavirus — we have suffered the losses of friends and family and are participating in the general depression I observe in people around me. If a book like “Hornet Flight” gives us leave to escape for even a short time, it just might be useful.
• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.